You would all agree that for people like us, memories that have anything to do with food are often more vivid than any other. That probably explains the length of this post. It wasn’t meant to be this long but the memories just kept getting sharper and more detailed as I went along and I didn’t know what to omit. It is more of an experience than any review or such but hey, this is a food blog. So I was saying, food memories…being a Bengali, I consciously take an edge in these matters and since the experience I am about to narrate has a strong Bengali connection, even more so.
I was in Delhi last year for Durga Puja. And like all ‘probashi bangalis’, we too did not want to be left behind in our quest to wring out every last drop of the Kolkata pujo feel from our ‘awbangali’ milieu.
It was ashtami night, considered one of the busiest times to go pandal hopping. I’ve always wondered, with only three nights of pujo in the entire year, how can any be busier or busiest? People stepping out on saptami would think ‘ah it’s just the first day…others will go tomorrow or day after…there won’t be a crowd…and we’ll get the freshest food…’ On ashtami, people would think ‘oh tomorrow’s the last day… there will be a huge crowd, if we gotta visit, it has to be today…plus by now we’ll know which food stalls are hits…’ And on navami, people would think ‘since we have been busy (read lazy) yesterday and day before, we don’t have much of a choice…but there’ll be such a huge crowd…my god…hey hold hands while walking…there’ll be too much of shoving and pushing…and we’ll get bad food…oh they’ll fry those mughlai parathas in three day old oil…that too burnt…oh god.’ But I tell you what, it’s all in the head. The number of people belonging to categories ‘saptami’, ‘ashtami’ and ‘navami’ is equal. However what they say about the food is kinda right. The cribbing though lasts as long as the aromas of these fried delights don’t hit the nose. Not strangely, more people throng food stalls than the deity. ‘Arey god’s the same in all pandals… but I’ve heard the rolls here are better than last time…we must try.’
Anyway, without further description, I will proceed with our little food incident that happened on the ‘crowd-wise safe’ ashtami night. We left late – just ma, baba, grandma and me. Minto Road and New Delhi Kali Baadi were our only destinations. Dinner would obviously be had at one (or more) of the many stalls at both. When we reached New Delhi Kali Baadi, the first disappointment hit us. The road outside the temple that used to be packed with food stalls with the most ridiculous spellings of ‘birayni’ and ‘roles’ was starkly empty – (over-hyped) security reasons, they said. Surprising how a harmless mob merely busy satiating their souls and stomachs can cause any sort of nuisance save some scattered tissue papers and cheap plastic cups that will shamelessly be reused. But thankfully before it caused me any further pain, a whiff of something caught my nose. Couldn’t care less what it was, as the smell blared ‘FRIED FOOD’ in my ears. That was sufficient to add a spring to my step and the rest of the distance to the pandal was covered in a dream of digging my teeth into chunky mutton rolls and fish fry in a matter of minutes. Might be sacrilege to most, having non-vegetarian products being served within a temple’s premises, but it is a must-have for us during pujo. Pandals without this will be branded a failure. But such cases are not only rare, they are absent, because such pandals do NOT exist. So after less than 3 minutes inside the pandal, performing the perfunctory darshan, we were headed you know where. Second disappointment now – no mutton rolls or fish fries or biryani. Ok, we found one place that survived without the obvious. All we found were some shriveled vegetable chops that they were refrying. Leftovers from what – last year? My olfactory senses had misled me. Or probably my mind grew a nose of its own – dreaming up mutton rolls and the like out of THIS. With my heart sunk beneath my feet, ma tried to cheer me up by reminding me some foul ice cream memory of the previous year at the same pandal. They had taken the dessert a bit too literally and had probably mixed chunks of ice with sweetened flavoured cream of some sort. This place isn’t really that good for food, she said. You’ll be better off at Minto Road. The wounded soldier rose. And off we were.
I am ashamed to admit that when we reached Minto Road, my eyes, nose and ears searched first for the food stalls. The deity came later. You can imagine the relief when I spotted a limp greasy banner with the words I could have given anything to read – MUTTON ROLLS AND BIRYANI – beckoning to me like an oasis to a parched camel. With my heart back in place but laden with guilt, I prayed to the deity and asked for forgiveness for rating food over her. I was soon to find out whether she forgave me.
Elbowing our way through the crowd that I missed noticing in my search for the stalls, we found ourselves stuck less than halfway through. It would have been impossible to reach any of the stalls serving what I wanted in less than an hour. And I did NOT want the soggy papdi chaats that the bored owners were not even trying to sell at their stalls. What added to my agony were the people crossing us with their hands and mouths circled comfortably around those sumptuous rolls of fried dough, spiced meat, lemony onions and hot chutney – the sight and the smell competing with each other to flirt with me and both winning. My disappointment was almost child-like and the people who had brought me up and were there with me understood exactly what I felt. Waiting for our turn was out of question. The only other option was to snatch one of those rolls from whoever’s hands. But however much I wanted to, I could not bring myself to carry out this act of barbarism in the house of the goddess. I figured she had not forgiven me yet.
Not being able to eat anything at a puja pandal was the worst nightmare ever and tonight it had come true. With feet, knees, legs made of lead, I made my way out with comforting words from my family. Oh, and it was almost 11:30, so the option of eating at a restaurant was pretty much out. But since that was our only chance at getting dinner that night so we had to give it a shot. We went to Gol Market in Connaught Place, which was the closest to Minto Road. As we reached the place, we saw Nathu Sweets, the last to shut there, pulling their shutters in front of our eyes. We didn’t even have to stop the car. Ma baba got bouncing off and striking out options. Don’t even remember the names of the roads but there was this particular one we took where a restaurant served good food that baba had heard about. We slowed down, rather, we had to, because of the crazy number of cars that seemed to suddenly spring out from the road, all headed towards the very same restaurant. There still are hungry people to be found in Delhi at that hour. Good to know. Anyway, a small board caught my eye and I read Gujrati / Rajasthani thalis. I told my folks what I read and we exchanged glances. Beggars can’t be choosers but we begged to differ. If we’ve thought of eating meats, hell, that’s what we’ll do. And this place certainly would take generations to convert. In all probability, it never will. Then suddenly, like a brainwave, ma suggested Colonel’s Kebabs in Defence Colony, about 20 minutes from where we were. I’ve never seen my father driving at that speed. Hah! The things your stomach makes you do. But none of us complained… obviously. On the way, we also crossed Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium that had witnessed the closing ceremony of the CWG the previous day. We expected to see some lights still on but guess they probably thought enough had been wasted already. Baba slowed down a bit for me to try and see some structure or something through a crack in the boards lined along the Jawahar Lal Nehru flyover. He almost started explaining and realized who was he kidding and hit the accelerator and within no time we pulled up outside Colonel’s Kebabs.
My sleeping stomach woke up like a dragon at the first whiff of smoking kebabs and spicy curries. It was dark and I wondered if it was the residual fragrance of a long evening of delectable roasting. For those of you who have not been to Colonel’s Kebabs in Def Col, it is not really a restaurant. It’s a take away joint and there is no entry door. It’s along an inside road of the famous Def Col market. So the only proof that it’s still open is if you spot glowing pieces of charcoal in the grill and meats of all sorts roasting on spits and skewers, which was hard to see sitting in the car. I could only see a few people clearing up a bit. Baba dashed out of the car and was out of sight within moments. But after a painful two minutes, during which a parking attendant tore us a ticket (earning money for his dinner…no, he mustn’t have waited that long to have his dinner like us…maybe breakfast), baba came back in sight. As soon as he realized he had caught our attention, he walked towards us beaming, with both his hands in a gesture of victory, with a flimsy yellow piece of paper fluttering in one of them. It was the menu. We were going to get dinner…
Before I could read the dishes listed, baba ma suggested we go for the chicken reshmi tikkas that they had tried earlier and had loved. And roomali rotis and some spicy chicken curry – forgot the name but it sounded superlatively Mughlai. 30 seconds after he came, he left to place the order. Now was the time to read the menu at peace, imagining and savouring each printed word preparing my stomach for what was to come. The food came in decent time and I was entrusted with the job of holding the piping hot foil packets of tikkas, rotis and curry sitting snugly in a paper bag. Hah! You think that was good enough to stop the fragrance from oozing out? Even if it was, the state we were in, we were capable of smelling out food buried 10 feet under the ground. And so we headed back home, the fragrance from those packets overpowering all the Guccis, Bosses and Ambipures that the car was smelling of earlier. Baba challenged his speed on our way back home. Ma felt sorry for me and said why don’t you start eating in the car itself? I challenged my will power and gulping down copious amounts of drool, said no, I’ll wait.
With the not so distant dream sitting at the dinner table with mouthfuls of steaming chunks of juicy chicken reshmi tikkas and small packets of roomali rotis wrapped around spicy pieces of chicken dripping with golden yellow gravy I closed my eyes with a smile. The goddess had forgiven me…