In 2006, I made friends with a group of foodies who sought out Delhi’s “lesser-known” eating joints and revelled in exploring the gullies and kuchas of the old city, hoping to chance upon the culinary delights that were known to be hidden there.
Winter was the best time for these excursions. The nip in the air added its charm to the aromas of the stews, curries and roasts. Life seemed good while slurping chaats or chomping on pakodas with the friendly sun for company. And, the jalebis seemed to be best had while rubbing one’s palms for warmth. But the best part of these trips was when the city revealed its food secrets. Like, when some of my foodie friends discovered Daulat ki chaat and emailed a tantalising invitation to the rest of the group to partake an “ineffable delicacy”.
One morning, we got down at the Delhi metro’s Chawri Bazar station and trooped out towards Jama Masjid. About three quarters of the way to the Masjid, one of the group leaders stopped and waved excitedly at the sight of a man with a wicker basket on his head. It had a creamy substance, that seemed nothing like a chaat. Many of us who were expecting a zesty, chutney laden savoury seemed in for a disappointment. Or, so I thought. How terribly wrong I was.
The vendor placed the basket on a three-legged stand, carved out wedges of the snowy confection, sprinkled bura (unrefined sugar) on it and flashed a toothy grin as he handed us his fare in donas. The word “sublime” only comes close to describe the effect on the senses. The light foam melted away in an instant from our tongues, leaving behind an aftertaste of saffron, almonds, sugar and cream. The phrase, “hint of”, is often used in recipe books, but rarely does a dish do justice to this usage. Daulat ki chaat is one such dish. None of the ingredients seem to have more than a hint of presence. Yet, they combine to create an exquisite mélange of flavours and textures.
The dessert is a winter speciality. Daulat ki chaat requires the winter dew, goes the legend. The chaat makers are known to guard their recipe. But in Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons In Old Delhi (2014), Pamela Timms managed to work her way past their reticence. “Milk and cream have to be whisked by hand before dawn (preferably under the light of a full moon) into a delicate froth, then left out on grass to set by the ‘tears of shabnam’ (morning dew) — but not too many, nor too few. At daybreak, the surface of the froth is touched with saffron and silver leaf and served with nuts and bura. Daulat ki chaat is only made in the coolest months because at the first ray of sunshine, it starts to collapse,” she writes.
Many food writers liken the Daulat ki chaat to Lucknow’s nimish. In The Lucknow Cookbook (2017), Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli write, “The basic preparation of nimish is when milk is poured into large flat pans and left in the open before dawn. When the early morning dew falls on the milk, it creates a froth which is as light as air. This is continuously collected and mixed with cream and other condiments. It’s a laborious and painstaking process”. Sur and Kohli, however, assert that the nimish of Lucknow is “very different” from Delhi’s Daulat ki chaat. But it does seem that the kinship between the two delicacies goes beyond their apparent blend of simplicity and sophistry.
As Timms writes, Daulat ki chaat, “is more molecular gastronomy than raunchy street food”. Perhaps that’s why today it’s part of the menu at haute outfits like Indian Accent. And even in the old parts of Delhi, a Daulat ki chaat vendor is a far more noticeable feature of the winter street-food scene. A dona is priced at Rs 30-40 — we paid Rs 10 more than a decade ago for the khomchawallah’s labour of love.
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