21 Jun From Delhi to Dilli with Sadia Dehlvi
Food and history can transport us to another world altogether. They weave a tale of culture and traditions harking back to another era. There are those who know how it was and when they share these little anecdotes, it is almost like small lamps lit on the passage of time.
So it was when we met author and columnist Sadia Dehlvi. Her family is an intrinsic part of Delhi, the name Dehlvi literally meaning someone from Delhi.
Welcome Sadia Dehlvi, our newest Home Culinaire, whose family tree of living in Delhi goes all the way back to the era of Shah Jehan.
Sadia’s family is the typical Muslim elite family. Now living in the thirteenth century settlement Old Nizammudin East, that is now in the heart of New Delhi. Her family, as was the case with other old Muslim families once lived in Old Delhi. Although Dehlvi herself was born and lived in the Diplomatic Enclave of New Delhi, her connections with the magic of Purani Dilli is still as strong – with the traditions, recipes and food.
Sadia is a host par excellence and the elaborate Mehfils and parties, with Delhi’s traditional food at the center, at her beautiful home always stirs up the Delhi’s swish set.
We met Sadia just before the holy month of Ramadan was to begin and it was natural that our discussion veered towards the fasting and feasting that is so much a part of this month.
“I love to cook and feed friends and families. During Eid, I cook for 50 – 60 people and I really enjoy laying down the Dastarkhwan, dining spread, for the guests. Feeding people is the biggest Ibadat devotion, to Allah and I feel Barkat, abundance in blessings grace my home in these dinners. Also let’s not forget serving good food is about Mehmaan Nawazi , hospitality, that defines our culture”, says Sadia.
Sadia’s love for food started in her teens. Apa Saeeda, her family retainer who brought her up taught her many of the intricacies. When Sadia was studying abroad, she realized that she could rustle up good meals. Once back to India in the 1979, Sadia opened “Al Kauser” – Delhi’s first kebab eatery outside the walls of the Old city. The small kiosk was situated just across her home on Sardar Patel Marg. Back then, there were hardly any good restaurants other than a few five star hotels where people snacked at coffee shops. This Kebab kiosk was a great success and continues to run successfully
Al Kauser is still a legend – a long line of people and cars meanders around the small eatery, specially known for its Kakori Kebabs.
Sadia is a treasure trove of food history pertaining to Delhi and over a meal of Karela Kheema, Daal, Sabzi, Raita and Pulao, we discussed the lost link between the weather and food.
“Dilli’s lifestyle, like for all communities revolved around food. Recipes varied with seasons. There was a difference in the foods cooked in summers, monsoons and winters. Much importance was given to Taseer, the effect of particular foods on the body.
In summers we drank home made Sherbets such as Bael, Phalsa or Charu Magaz, that is watermelon/pumpkin/melon seeds). We still make Gosht with Lauki, Tori or Karela. Different summer vegetables are cooked with mutton. Kache Aam Ki Chutney, raw mango, is made to keep away the heatstroke.
During monsoons, our entire lifestyle revolved around picnics at Mehrauli. My grandma would take the gramophone, cooking utensils, buckets full of mangoes to picnic spots in Mehrauli. We used to make swings on the trees and have fun swinging from them. Food items were carried and cooked on log fires .The monsoon favourite was and still is Hari Mirch ka Keema, Besani roti. And of course all kinds of Pakoras with tea. In winters we had picnics in Okhla. Fresh fish would be caught and cooked there. I remember these picnics when the family elders fished. Swimming competitions were popular in the river at Okhla. Winters were also a time to Nihari every Sunday morning, enjoyed in the sun soaked veranda of our old home”.
Sadia’s knowledge about Delhi and its cuisines is going to very soon take a shape of book, “Memories and Recipes” that she has been working on for last one and half years. The book will cover the history of food in Delhi as it evolved from the Sultanate period, Mughal Period to the contemporary times.
Sadia tells us that Emperor Akbar’s kitchen had numerous cooks from Persia. This began the influence of Persian cuisine in North India. Akbar and the later Mughals had cooks from various Indian regions as well. The fusion of Indian, Turkish and Persian food is what we see today.
There is an interesting story on how chillies became such an important part of Delhi cuisine. A water canal once ran through Chandni Chowk, which was one of the most remarkable market in those times. During the rule of Muhammad Shah Rangeela in the eighteenth century the water of the canal got polluted. The hakims prescribed chillies to help cleanse the stomach from the ailments occurring from polluted water. That is how the Delhi traditions of eating spicy chaat came about in Delhi.
We couldn’t get enough of Sadia’s knowledge on Delhi’s food and its history but guess we will have to wait to get our hands on the book which should be out early next year. The idea behind the book is to document and leave for future generation traditional and everyday recipes of Dilli’s style of cooking.
We ended our conversation as more friends dropped in for lunch, which is an everyday event at Sadia’s home. She welcomes everyone on her table in line with the Sufi way, ‘ I keep an open heart and an open table. May God expand my heart’..
What a lesson in history, food and mysticism this afternoon for me. Almost like somebody took our hands and walked us back to what Delhi used to be – the canals, the gracious homes, the hakims and the genteel hospitality with its Tehzeeb and Mehmaan Nawazi.
City’s and their cultures change, but Sadia is doing all she can to keep some of Delhi’s rich heritage and culture alive.