Sitting in a crowded Delhi Metro train, next to a guy playing motocross madness on his tablet, I debated with myself on whether it was a rational decision to go all the way to Old Delhi just for food. I still had to pass exactly 26 more metro stations to reach Chawri Bazaar, a journey that was going to take at least an hour and a half. Stations came and went, as I sat there, listening to my ipod, looking out the window, thinking about all the wonderful things I was going to order.
“Should I have chicken or mutton?” I asked myself. I went back and forth on it for a while until I decided I will have a bit of both.
Outside the Chawri Bazaar station, it was pure madness. Rickshaws, autos, two wheelers and cars of all shapes and sizes, were dodging each other, pumping on their horns like crazy while the pedestrians tried to cross the roads, without ending up on the wrong side of a moving vehicle. There were shops all around, selling everything from locks to wedding cards, from bed sheets to used school books. I saw a few beggars sitting on the side of the road, tugging on the trousers of every passer-by. Big, ugly advertisement hoardings were affixed on every building. One of them had a picture of a guy relaxing on a lounge chair, flashing a creepy smile. How can anyone relax in a place like this?
I stood on the foot-path, next to a dog that was sniffing my boots, trying to acclimatise, and make sense of all this. It had been raining every now and then since morning, but looking up at the dark clouds, I felt the worst was yet to hit us.
I met my cousin, on the other side of the road, who knew the place like the back of his hand. We made our way through the crowded, narrow, uneven sidewalk, which was damp partly because of the morning rain and partly because of the holes in the asbestos ceiling from which rain water was still dripping, creating small puddles. The chai and kachori walahs, cobblers and beggars made the sidewalk look narrower than it actually was.
At the end of the road, we got our first view of the Jama Masjid, obscured only by the dirty electric wires that were a part and parcel of Old Delhi. As we took a right, I took out my camera, only to be told by my cousin that we will get a much better view of the Masjid, a little later.
Having read the first 100 pages of William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns, I kept reminding myself that, as hard as it is to picture it now, there was a time when Old Delhi used to be pretty. The Muslims living in the area used to speak the classy Urdu and not the “sadak chaap” Urdu they speak now. The streets and alleys used to be clean and even the vegetable vendors could recite poems of Ghalib. I realised all that was a long time back, when I stepped on a disgusting brown thing lying on the street. It had flies all over it, so unless someone left their chocolate ice cream on the road, I was pretty sure I stepped on shit.
We passed the Jama Masjid, which was a sight for sore eyes. It was crowded, yes, but that in no way reduced its grandeur. I stopped to take a good look, only to realise seconds later that I was obstructing the busy people that were using the sidewalk.
We walked a few feet into a small alley, and entered a small complex with a big board up front.
“Karim’s Hotels Pvt. Ltd. Since 1913.”
There were two rooms, full of tables, most of them occupied, on the right. On the left was one solitary door, with the words “Jawahar Restaurant” written on it. Karim’s was the famous one, so we went right.
The menu had at least 10 items each of Chicken and Mutton, and I am just talking about main course stuff. They also had kababs, rolls, and so much more. On the walls, were framed newspaper and magazine cuttings telling us how great this place is. All around us, we saw happy people. They had food on their tables and smile on their faces. The rooms were filling up quickly and we were asked to share our table with two other people, just so that they could accommodate larger parties.
We ordered the mutton biryani and keema curry.
In 1913, Mr. Karim, actually Haji Karimuddin, thought of serving royal food to the common man. Noble idea, yes. But sometimes common men, like ourselves, cannot understand the royal cuisine. Like why would anyone put beans in a keema curry?
They nailed the mutton biryani however. The meat was tender and the rice was of the right kind and spiced to perfection. I would have ordered more, but we decided to try something else. We ordered roti and the Chicken Jahangiri. A little spicy and oily, but Chicken Jahangiri lived up to the royal name. We were almost stuffed.
We ordered the kheer next, which turned out to be the highlight of the evening. Not too sweet or heavy, it has got to be the best kheer I have tasted this year. (That is saying something, because I have an oversized sweet tooth and it is August 2013). After paying the bill, which was just under $10 (Rs. 551), I prepared myself for the madness outside and the long way back home.
So, was travelling all the way to Old Delhi from the outskirts, worth it?
With a bellyful of delightful royal food, and the sights and sounds of the old city all around me, the answer was a resounding yes!