Some food joints deserve nothing but scorn, yet they are full to bursting at all times of the day. Others create great food but are never known beyond the immediate neighbourhood. We take a look at some of Delhi’s little-known gems.
I was walking through the rather gritty area of Chitli Qabar, near the Jama Masjid area. I was there in search of the well-known Noori Spices shop, when suddenly I caught sight of a sad and sorry spear of aloe vera hanging from the entrance of a halwai. I could not spot any name on the shop, and I wasn’t even sure if that was indeed aloe vera: surely it was a singularly surprising place to suspend a single strip of the plant? I walked in, and my life changed! The shop assistant told me that the name of the shop was Sheeren Bhavan, and that ‘Sahib’ was not very much into painting his trade name on the store front! It certainly was a revelation to me. More was to follow.
There were over six types of halwa. The signature was the one made with aloe vera. Yes! That was indeed aloe vera that was hanging from the entrance. Known only to those who live in the immediate neighbourhood of Chitli Qabar, Sheeren Bhavan also makes gajar ka halwa, gond ka halwa, Karachi halwa, sohan halwa and habshi halwa. Only two are worth a special mention: habshi halwa and aloe vera halwa, called gheegwar in Urdu. While Sheeren Bhavan is the only halwai in the whole of Delhi who makes aloe vera halwa, it makes one of the best versions of habshi halwa that I have tasted. Dark and mysterious in taste, with the promise of spices lurking in its depths, it takes no short-cuts. Other halwais in the Jama Masjid area make what they call habshi halwa throughout the year, but that is a travesty: the mithai is supposed to generate heat in the body with all the spices. Safed gazar ka halwa is made during a tiny window when that rarely seen vegetable is in season, during the winter months.
You can’t dedicate your life to excellence and commerce in the same breath, apparently, and Allauddin Qureshi and his son Adnan, couldn’t care less that their shop is unknown and unsung in the city. They’d rather spend their day seeing that the aloe vera is processed meticulously so that the few customers they have, go away happy.
Ask around in Jangpura where the sandwich shop is, and all you’ll draw are blank stares. But in the tiny market just behind Jangpura’s post office, there is a daily needs store called Novelty Dairy and Stores. Less of a dairy and more of a store, the back room operates like a small café. Presided over by the second generation, it was first started by the late father of the present owner, Novelty is known for its sandwiches: cheese, chicken salami and ham. The mint and coriander leaf chutney is so tongue-tingling, that it is strictly rationed out by the old retainers that serve you. You sit on extremely uncomfortable bar stools and munch on the sandwiches made with fresh bread, lashings of butter and good fillings that have never dipped in quality since the day Novelty opened its doors.
The one other thing on the menu is the hamburger that would be familiar to all those who grew up in the Delhi of the 1970s. The whole bun is flash-fried to give it crispness on the outside. Split open, a chicken patty, a slice of tomato and one of onion is placed between the two ends. Like the chicken salami, the ham and even the irreproachably fresh bread, there has not been even 1% downgrading in the quality of the chicken patty that does not have as much as a particle of adulteration in it by way of binding.
There is also cold coffee that is passed from a hatch between store and café. The young owner is modest enough to ask his customers if they feel that something in his café needs changing. One day I plucked up courage. “Change the stools,” I urged. Bhaiyya, as he is known, shook his head firmly. “If people get comfortable chairs, they’ll never move,” was his canny reply.
Finally, my best choices for chicken patties and bhelpuri are both in Defence Colony Market. Defence Bakery has some excellent pastries and breads, and they appear to have new products every few weeks, all seemingly carefully quality checked. But their chicken patties are luscious clouds of the lightest, flakiest puff pastry this side of paradise filled with shredded chicken. As with their other products, these too spell value for money, rather than swindling the customer.
Right by Barista is a nameless stall selling bhelpuri. It is one of the best ones around – light years from the money-grabbers of South Extension I. The gentleman’s name is Om but he resolutely refused to put his name on the 1 ft x 1 ft treasure chest of ingredients. I keep urging him to at least paint the Om sign on it as a subtle name-plate but he doesn’t think much of that idea either. However, the operation is just outside Barista in the parking cum walkway that bisects the central park in half. And he stands there from 4 pm every evening.