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The Culture of Food: Delhi’s Gastronomical Sensibility

The city of Delhi as we knew it in 1947, has fundamentally changed. Pre-1947, Delhi was the city of Shahjahanabad mainly and after the partition, the areas of Delhi were expanded, and with it came along a demographic change in the city, as the Urdu speaking population was decreased as most of them moved to Pakistan and the Punjabi speaking population now dominated Delhi. If one reads William Dalrymple’s book ‘The City of Djinns’, one will encounter an incident where an original Delhi resident now residing in Pakistan talks about the culture of Delhi and how the Punjabis ruined the culture of Tehzeeb-e-Dilli and how the Punjabis replaced Ghalib and Zauq with Kalidas and Ramayana, totally dismissing and forgetting the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb that was blooming in Delhi. But our matter of discussion is not linguistics or religion, rather it is food and culinary habits. Although after partition one major change that Delhi saw was related to linguistics but a remarkable change that took place was in the culinary habits of the people, and the new range of foods that became available in the markets.

If one asks any old original Dilli Walla, they will tell that in the good old days there was no culture of eating out and no resident of Delhi went out to eat. There used to be hawkers who went from street to street, and they rang a bell or yelled in the streets, and people who wanted to buy food from them purchased it and consumed it in their homes. If one wanted to eat anything from eating joints, they would go to the shop with a vessel and get the food packed, and then consume it at their homes. The shopkeepers who used to stay outside their homes, would also purchase food from the hawkers and consume it in their shops. It was a rare job to spot a Dilli Walla eating outside. A very old story has been going around in circles for years now. The story dates back to around the early 20th century, where a group of young boys bunked school and were having chai at a stall near the Jama Masjid in Urdu Bazaar. They were soon caught by an elderly man who asked them why are they having tea outside and what happened to the tea at their home. When the boys had to answer, the man told them to quickly return back home or else he would inform their father about them having tea outside. Such was the scenario about eating out in Delhi. The very famous Ghante Wala Halwai, which shut its operations 2 centuries later had also started as a hawker, and he used to ring a bell that had become his trademark.

But, one question arises that how do these age-old generations passed eating joints still survive when there was no culture of eating out in Delhi and people used to consume all kinds of food at their homes. This is when one should realize that Delhi is not just a capital and it is more than a center of power. Delhi has been an important center of trade, commerce, arts, and craft. It is also the home to many Sufi shrines and temples. Delhi is a city that was once called Bais Khwajao Ki Chaukhat (The threshold of 22 Sufis), and even Mecca-e-Sahni. Thus, many merchants, craftsmen, artisans, and traders flocked to Delhi in large numbers from all over the world. Traveler-Physician Francois Bernier (1620-1688) who spent many years in Shahjahanabad and also wrote the account ‘Travels in the Moghul Empire’ has left detailed accounts about the markets, merchants, and merchandise of the city. Thus the travelers, traders, artisans were the main patrons of these eating joints. So, as far as consuming food was concerned there were two worlds in Delhi, those who lived in the city and ate at home, occasionally picking up some ready-made stuff from the markets and enjoying it in the confines of their home, or inside their shops or workplaces and then there were the travelers, merchants, traders, pilgrims and others who came to Delhi for a short duration and then returned. The second set was those who patronized the large number of eating joints that one could find all over the city, in every market. This of course is only about those who could afford two square meals a day, there was another large floating population that lived in the city but had no homes, the beggars, the homeless, and the destitute. They relied on the goodwill of both the resident and the visitor to feed them and clothe them, but these are people who are never mentioned when we make broad sweeping generalizations about a city or about a culture, they are never talked about because no matter how numerous they might be, they do not contribute to the production of wealth and so they remain unaccounted for.

As the partition took place in 1947, the scenario in Delhi completely changed as eating joints were popularized and people started going out. There were two main reasons for this: CHOICE and COMPULSION. As thousands of people poured into Delhi from what is present-day Pakistan, a lot of the people that came were homeless, and they had no place to go, and the street became their home. This is when these people started living from Kashmiri gate to Nicholson road, and at Ajmeri Gate and Delhi Gate. Although the government had to provide housing to those who owned property in Pakistan, but people had to show evidence in chits of paper, which obviously not everyone had, and hence only a few got property, and even those who had the papers were nit allocated houses as spaces were already crammed up. Thus, people who lived, loved, and ate on the streets, set up street food joints that soon became popularized, and out of compulsion the streets became the place of food commerce. Those who lived on the streets, ate on the streets, and cooked on the streets. This was a major focal point in the shifting of the food culture of Delhi. The people who chose to eat out were different. Many people came from families where cooking and consuming meat in households was not permitted, but the people who loved having meat used to stroll around the markets looking for food joints where they could get the recipes which they had left back in Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Sheikhupura. This is how the culinary sensibility of the city changed over time.


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