17 Jun 2009

Old Delhi Spice Market

Even before I arrived in India, I had a longing to see and smell the Spice Market of Old Delhi. A thriving wholesale market at the heart of the North Indian spice trade, merchants come from all over the country to buy the sacks of chillies, turmeric, cloves and lentils for their own shops and restaurants. My Indian foodie guru whisked me from the relative peace and quiet of New Delhi into the choc-a-block heart of Old Delhi via the serene air conditioned metro which spat us out onto Chandi Chowk. Translated it means “Moonlit Square” and is the main street of Old Delhi built by Mughal King Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter as a prestigious thoroughfare from their palace (Red Fort) to their place of worship (Jama Masjid – India’s largest mosque). Lined with grand merchant residences and shops along the way it was grand and peaceful heart of the city.

Fast forward to what is now Old Delhi and the place retains that old world feel. I love the magic, energy, hustle and bustle of the real working market – there’s no show put on for tourists here. Millions go about their business amongst a tangle of electricity cables, chai wallahs, cycle rickshaws, mopeds, porters and of course the odd cow.

As our rickshaw weaved expertly through the assorted traffic, we passed tiny shops proudly stuffed full of Indian crafts – saris, spices, sliver, stainless steel, wedding utilities and fabric galore. Left over from the old days, this old walled city is divided into product related bazaars – Kinari Bazaar (Wedding Market), Nai Sarat (Books and Stationary market), Dariba Kalan (Jewellery Market), Katra Neel (cloth market) and my favourite Khari Baoli Asia’s biggest spice market, perched at the end of Chandi Chowk.

The road which forms the spice market area is lined with narrow shops full of spices, tea, stainless steel cookware, nuts, dried fruits and rice available to buy in smaller quantities. Alongside these ingredients an eclectic mix of things are also for sale - pure almond oil used by Indian ladies as a moisturiser, natural loofa to scrub the city’s grime away, kitsch cloth bags to carry your shopping home, and gigantic terracotta pumice stones to smooth flip flopped feet.

After buying all of these for an insanely small amount of money, we darted into a dark archway and were slapped in the face by the intense aromas of chilli and cloves. This was the true wholesale market where merchants sell only one ingredient in various qualities by the sack load. Walking up some dark, grimy steps, we dodged the young boys lugging heaving sacks downstairs to arrive on a large veranda and a view of Indian spice wholesale in all its glory. Up here, amongst the old Havelis from hundreds of years ago, but now in tatters and wrapped in the workings of the spice centre, you could just see how grand this city and market once was.

All around us, sacks and sacks of spices were being stored, moved and sold. One merchant sold only cloves, and the variety in quality was incredible when inspected side by side. After much encouragement from my Indian Foodie Guru he agreed to sell me a small amount – perfect for my pilauo – a neat 500g!

Further along, chilli merchants sat alongside native dried mushroom sellers as sacks continued to be moved from storage along the narrow balcony to transport carts down stairs. The sight was incredible, some of the ingredients unrecognizable, and the smell got right in your eyes and up your nose.

Once I had drunk it all in, it was time to shop. The quality is second to none at this market and prices so cheap they seem unreal, so I made the most of the trip and my guide asking what every odd ingredient was and how to use it. Lotus seeds – which make a good fried snack like popcorn, sundried spiced lentil balls – used to bulk up pilau, dried mango slices to make amchoor, pickles made to ancient family recipes, and sela rice used for big suppers as it doesn’t stick...

Exhausted by the heat and thrum of the city, we were in need of refreshment so headed to the stainless steel merchant, as shopping in the Indian fashion guarantees a drink and a seat in the shade of the shop. I had a list of essential Indian equipment to buy, so as we rest our weary legs, my purse took a beating instead. Paneer press, double lidded masala tin, milk urn, karahai (similar to a wok), pestle and mortar, tiffin, and nimboo juicer... Before leaving I had to nip out to buy 2 canvas bags (decorated with kitsch Indian advertising) to have some chance of carrying all our goodies back home.

As the day heated up, and pedestrian traffic expanded, loaded with spices, stainless steel and all manner of strange ingredients, we joined the masses heading back to the metro and its air conditioning. Possibly my best day in India yet, I vowed a return to Khari Baoli Spice Market, if only to drink in the sights and smells all over again.


Anonymous said...

Wonderfully written. I feel like I am there.

Kim McGowan said...

Thanks... you should go, its the most incredible place!