Bleary eyed, sitting in the tiny New Delhi International terminal, I am replaying my three weeks here in my mind, trying to distract myself from falling asleep before boarding my London bound flight. Just like my last trip to India, my absolute favourite experience had to be touring Old Delhi Spice Market. This living, breathing, working market is no show for tourists, and this time I saw how it changes over the seasons, seeing a whole raft of things I have never encountered before.
If you have the chance to visit New Delhi, I really would advise you to contrast it with the Old city, and below is a short self guided tour of Old Delhi Spice Market... but I warn you this is not an experience for the feint hearted. When we lived in India, we didn’t feel brave enough to venture out there alone, so we were guided round the city of Shah Jahan with tour guide Shilpi, who inducted us to the intricacies and convoluted world of Indian life, including weddings, religions, architecture and customs. It totally wet my appetite for this bustling and manic place and found a guide in my cookery teacher Amita. I returned numerous times with visitors from home, and love to spend a few hours amongst the throng of people, smells and of course food.
Whilst I would of course recommend using a knowledgeable guide to show you the area, this sometimes doesn’t work out, and rather than miss out on this integral part of Delhi, you could always follow this guide if you are feeling brave... Use it alongside a detailed map of the area.
Khari Baoli, which is the local name for the spice market, pronounced ‘curry bowly’ can be found at the western end of Chandni Chowk, the main high street of Old Delhi, from which many of the different markets can be found. It is the opposite end to the regal Red Fort (Lal Qila) and the relevant landmark is the Fatehpuri Masjid (Mosque), itself a lovely quiet place to observe daily Muslim life.
Facing the mosques entrance, turn right and follow the corner round to the left walking past rows of narrow shops displaying their point piles of fruits, nuts and seeds. As you round the corner there are a couple of good kitchen equipment merchants. Here you can buy the ubiquitous stainless steel tools of Indian cookery, including the 7 compartment masala dabba (spice box), karhi (Indian woks) and tiffin boxes (stacked lunch boxes).
Carry on this side of the street and the traders will now be selling spices. Cumin, aniseed, Indian cinnamon, cardamom and anything else you could desire. The way these merchant, and actually most shops in India, is you have to ask for what you want. Don’t be shy if on seeing the goods, you don’t want to buy, just politely (in a very English way) move on...more difficult than it sounds I know. The quality of spices from these wholesalers, who mostly trade in kilograms, is beautiful, and they retail their goods for unbelievable prices. For example, I bought 500g Indian cinnamon sticks for 50 Rupees – not even a £1! So this is the place to stock up as many owners speak excellent English and they happily package into sealed bags.
When you get to a break in the shops on your left, and there should be an archway painted bright blue that between the hours of 10am and 12noon is jammed with people jostling for space as they carry sacks of spices on their heads to waiting buffalo drawn carts or trolleys. This is the entrance to the Gadodia Market – India’s largest wholesale spice market built back in the 1920’s by a local merchant. This large square courtyard lined with tiny alcoves each one housing a spice merchant and his pungent spices has air thick with spice, so you may need to cover your nose to prevent you from sneezing, coughing and crying all the way round.
Be brave and take a look around, it’s a beautiful place, if a little tatty. The market is also up on the first floor, but it is only accessible via very dark precarious steps with men balancing sacks as they walk down the stairs. I am just warning you... but in my view it’s worth the trek. When you are ready to leave the market, head out the way you came in and carry on down the road in the same direction past the pickles sellers, all based on secret family recipes. Keep your eye out for cute canvas bags plastered with Indian advertising, natural loofas, gigantic pumice stones, almond oil, mithai (sweets) and even old fashioned toothbrushes – the things that look like lengths of coarse ribbon, all for sale on the pavement.
There’s plenty to see in the area, and for a more comprehensive guide I would recommend 10 easy walks Old Delhi, Gaynor Barton and Laurraine Malone (available from Amazon).
A few notes
Khari Baoli and the spice shops are closed on Sunday. The best time to visit this area is at the beginning of the week, around 10am – 12noon before it gets too chaotic.
I get there on the metro getting off at Chandni Chowk stop, walk past the front of the bright orange temple, through the narrow lane past the fabric bazaar and out onto Chandni Chowk. I then either get up to Khari Baoli on a cycle rickshaw for about 20rupess or the little green CNG bus for 5 Rupees. Both are great fun, and the bus gets jam packed with locals and they ALL stare. It is more peaceful and scenic on a rickshaw. On the return ask for the metro and someone will let you know where to get off.
I would suggest to ask for permission from people, especially the merchants before taking photos, just out of courtesy as you are in their place of work. Saying that, you may also be asked to take everyone’s photo... It can go either way.
If you are feeling really brave and hungry, I would recommend the aloo tikki corner shop at the end of the fabric bazaar lane. The little potato parcels are fried in ghee fresh to order and I have sampled them a couple of times (with a hygiene crazy Gastroenterologists wife) and have been fine after consuming. Avoid the chutney and yoghurt if you are worried.
For a fast paced air conditioned drink, snack or meal, Halidrams near the Sikh Gurdwara is a good reliable stop, and you can stock up on Indian Mithai on your way out.