Nihari was actually a poor man’s food, but it has become so expensive now that even for the old families of Delhi, it’s become a delicacy. It is served at weddings, which is quite shocking for traditionalists.
Author and columnist Sadia Dehlvi, whose family has a centuries-old association with Delhi, gives us a guided tour of the famous Delhi cuisine in her book, Jasmine & Jinns: Memories and Recipes of My Delhi, sharing stories of her growing up years and recipes. In a chat peppered with some nostalgia and some reality checks, she tells Ivinder Gill about food in Delhi yesterday, and today. Edited excerpts: How would you define typical Delhi food, food that you grew up with? The historical influences are there, a British influence, and then the overwhelming Punjabi influence after Partition. That’s when the butter chicken came in, dal makhni, the cholas and the paranthas. But the food that I write about is really the food we used to cook everyday in our homes. So that is still there, that purity and tradition. In the old families of Delhi, if you look at the ingredients, it’s not something that is exotic, it’s very basic day-to-day cuisine, apart from some specialities and special occasions, say, like murg musallam or naan or sevaiyyan, which are made on special occasions. But by and large, our cuisine has been very season-oriented.
There was this system of eating according to what was available. But now everything is available almost round the year, which is not necessarily a good thing. People eat everything all the time. Something like nihari, which was eaten only in winter because of spices that created a lot of body heat, is available all year. Even everyday food, like aloo ghosht, aloo salan, was not really something served to guests. Neither was nihari, which actually was a poor man’s food. But now it has become so expensive that even for the old families of Delhi, it has become a delicacy. So it’s served at weddings, which is quite shocking for traditionalists. Traditionally, weddings had a very limited menu. The food was very tasty, and very simple. Now, things have changed drastically.
Could you trace the various influences on what might have been regional Delhi cuisine even before the Mughals?
I would say that when you talk about Delhi cuisine, there were three essential cuisines. There was the Jain and Baniya cuisine, and there was the Muslim cuisine, and there were the Kayasthas, who were very influenced by the Mughals. So I would say that when you talk of traditional Dilli ka khana, it could really be many vegetarian things like aloo puri, sev or dahi bade, chaat, matar ke samose, and you would also say biryani, korma, kebabs and the stews. Traditionally, biryani, nihari, these things were never cooked at home. They were always ordered from the cooks in old city, who are still making the best versions of these dishes.
You have written about how old families living in Delhi sort of looked down upon the influx of Punjabis after Partition. In your opinion, did the Punjabi influence change food in Delhi for the better, because they brought with them chicken, the tandoor, etc, which is synonymous with Delhi now?
I won’t say they were looked down upon, I will say that old Dilli-wallas were very apprehensive, because suddenly the whole complexion of Delhi changed, and people didn’t know what was happening. There were thousands of people who had moved in, their language was different, the culture was different, their food was different, their behaviour was different, customs were different. Like Lucknow, Delhi was full of people of leisure, poetry, writing. They had a laidback attitude to life, and suddenly when the boisterous Punjabis came, building their lives, working hard, it was a culture shock. Even to see women working, going out freely, was different.
How will you describe food in Delhi today?
The food in the city doesn’t really represent anything any more, because Delhi has become very international. You can have sushi here or south Indian, the best Italian, the best Chinese. All these things have come up in the last decade. Earlier, there was no concept of fine dining. It was only restricted to five-star hotels. So when we were growing up, there were only five-star hotels and a few hotels in Connaught Place. Even street food wasn’t there until 20 years ago. Earlier, things were available only at select locations, like kebabs were found only in Old Delhi. There was a certain importance of places, but now you get everything, everywhere. Every locality has barbeque and fast food. So, I would say that Delhi has changed. Now, you have so many communities living here, which have all brought their culinary influences. There is a strong Bengali community, the south Indians, the Kashmiris, the Gujaratis, and so on. To give you an example, you used to get aloo puri before Partition, now you get puri chole. But several places in the old city are pretty much the same, offering food that takes you back decades.
What do you think is getting lost exactly—the recipes, the style, or is it what we eat today, less red meat, less oil, because of which traditional recipes can’t be eaten everyday?
But we make the traditional dishes everyday in our homes. A little bit of tweaking is there, but in any case, regular everyday food is not that oily or spicy. It’s essentially cooking vegetables with meat. So it’s a healthy way of balancing vegetables and meat, and it offers a lot of variety. You don’t have to make it with lots of meat. Put in a few pieces of meat and a lot of vegetables, and then you can make lauki ghosht, tori ghosht, bhindi salan, karela keema. So it’s a nice way of balancing things.
What about restaurants, apart from the ones in the old city, which offer or claim to offer Delhi cuisine?
Actually, I feel the best Delhi food is available in people’s homes. You just have to learn how to cook it. Food in restaurants is just not the same. Some dishes may be good somewhere. First of all, they don’t serve regular food, they serve more festive food—biryani, korma, nihari or haleem… Seasonal food is missing. Which restaurant gives you karela keema or chukandar ghosht? Food cooked in homes has such a large variety. Whether it’s lobia keema or khachre ka keema, kahi nahi milega aapko yeh (you won’t get it anywhere else). Try it at a friend’s house or some real Dilli-walla’s house.
What sort of future, 10-20 years down the line, do you see for the Delhi cuisine that you grew up with?
At least it will continue to be cooked in the oldest families. But all things have a shelf life, I know the younger generation is not into it. They are more into fusion. Some of it is going to survive, because it’s our day-to-day cuisine and it’s a large community. But some things will obviously become extinct. People will be trying new things because of the Internet and I know so many people who are now doing Google recipes, improvising and creating confusion. I think lots of recipes are getting lost and even in our community, a lot of things are not cooked any more.
What do you think of fusion food? Several restaurants are popular for that kind of food…
I am a purist, so I like traditional cuisine. It might be any cuisine, Chinese, Italian or south Indian; I want the proper food, the old recipes. Fusion doesn’t attract me at all.