24 Aug 2009

A return to Old Delhi Spice Market

Since my initial tour of Old Delhi’s spice market at the end of Chandi Chowk, I have returned on three occasions now, each time taking one of our visitors to experience the real, working India that I have come to love.

On one trip with my “almost mother in law” Caroline, we began our trip with lunch in Haldirams on Chandini Chowk. Part sweet shop, part snack shop and part restaurant, the chain is really known for its retail line in Indian snacks such as channa nuts, madras mixture, and my favourite South Indian chakoli, many of which are naturally gluten free. In the restaurant, you can sample foods from across India including; north Indian thali (3 vegetable dishes served with 2 breads, rice, pickle, papad and dessert), chaat which are snacks such as Bombay belphuri or aloo tikki; south Indian favourites such as dosa, idli and uttapams; plus they whizz up a mean lassi.

I opted for a thali, as I have eaten many of them in the fashionable UK Indian restaurants like Masala Zone, but hadn’t had one here yet. Thali is actually the name for the steel plate used in homes and restaurants, but like balti (which means bucket in Hindi) the Brits have assumed it for the name of a dish. Each dish was spicier than I was used to but the dal makhani – a dish of black lentils finished with cream and butter was a particularly good specimen... Fuelled for the chaos of Old Delhi, we admired the selection of mithai (Indian sweets) on the way out, agreeing to swing back to Haldirams on the way to the metro not just for the air conditioning, but to pick up a treat for Jack who had been at work all day.

Standing in the buzz of people, traffic, rickshaws and cows, we darted across the road to get an auto to the spice market. At that moment, the chandi chowk shuttle bus pushed its way through the traffic. We jumped onto the bus, squeezing on by hanging out of the door, whilst working our way down the crowded boulevard.

At the end of the line, we unloaded with the rest of the passengers, dodging the buffalo drawn carts into the spice market area. Confident about finding my way around and armed with a list of spices and utensils to buy we browsed the narrow open fronted shops. Stacked with pointy mounds of spices, tea and dried fruits, I stocked up on spices for my Indian kitchen. Cooking Indian food every day, it’s incredible how much spice I have used in just a few months.

Keen to show Caroline the sights and smells of the wholesale spice market, we walked past the blind chai wallah, dodging the porters with sacks of spices balanced on their head, and up the dark dank stairs. Coming out onto the veranda the pungent, chilli air immediately floods the senses as we started coughing and sneezing.

Taking in the colours and evidence of daily living, I took more time to look and photograph the market, consequently attracting attention from the traders and porters. Yelling ‘hallo memsahib’ as we walked around the veranda of the haveli courtyards, we were asked the usual questions – where are you from? What’s your name? Do you speak Hindi? My response to the last one is always “thorra thorra” which means “a little bit”... and then I have to recite all the Hindi words I know, which happen to be spices, fruits and vegetables every time received with laughs at my dodgy accent.

After a wander round, soaking up the atmosphere and taking in all the sights, I asked if I could take a picture of the chai wallah and his stand. He wasn’t keen, however one of the traders was more keen for me to share a cup of tea with him. Now this is not something I would ever normally have done, but since my trip on the malnutrition project with a fearless New Yorker, I am up for experiencing as much as I can here. And who could refuse masala chai – a heavily spiced milky tea - in the heart of Delhi’s spice market.

Making our way out of the market, away from the chilli soaked air, we dipped back into Haldiram’s for refreshments, sweets and the cooling AC knowing that I would be returning many times more, to this vibrant, working market that I love.

Delhi Spice Market
Are you sweet for mithai?

1 comment:

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