Kebabs to cafes: The changing food traditions of Jama Masjid

The changing food traditions of Jama Masjid
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The changing food traditions of Jama Masjid 

Highlights

In the famed bylanes of Old Delhi's Jama Masjid, where the aroma of slow cooked nihari and spit roasted tandoori chicken blend into culinary harmony, it's time to smell the coffee – freshly ground of course – and also straight-from-the-oven garlic bread and pizza.

In the famed bylanes of Old Delhi's Jama Masjid, where the aroma of slow cooked nihari and spit roasted tandoori chicken blend into culinary harmony, it's time to smell the coffee – freshly ground of course – and also straight-from-the-oven garlic bread and pizza. The streets around the 17th century Jama Masjid have long been a visitor magnet for domestic and foreign tourists as well as Delhiiites looking to bite into history.

Now, adding to the many kebab houses and roadside eateries that serve the best of Mughlai food are a bunch of cafes started by young entrepreneurs and budding chefs hoping to add a more worldly flavour to the well loved streets. The search for the contemporary café with a personal touch in the heart of old Delhi ends with the Ebony Café, just a few steps from Jama Masjid's Gate no 3.

With cappuccinos, Americanos, lattes and Neapolitan pizzas on the menu, Ebony Café's Saddam Khan is just one of those taking the road less trodden in the sheermal-kebab-nihari-korma area known the world over. Khan, who returned from England in 2011 after completing his education, said he felt the need for a "hangout place".

Youth in the area would go to Delhi University's North Campus or Kamala Nagar a few kilometres away to just chill over a cup of coffee. Not anymore. "There was no such place here so we wanted to do something different. I wanted to give the people of this area something so they wouldn't have to go so far," Khan told PTI.

Incongruous maybe in the bustle of the bazaar, Ebony Café, which opened in February this year, also serves the very English fish and chips and is indeed reminiscent of a café far away from Jama Masjid with its brick walls and wooden tables. The cafe can seat about 15 people inside in a warm and cozy environment and has tables and chairs outside too for those who want to enjoy a view of the grand old mosque's magnificent dome and minarets and soak up the Delhi winter sun.

Apart from adding something new to the local palate, Khan also wanted to bring in foreign tourists. That plan is on hold with limited numbers of foreigners coming to India due to the pandemic. For now, he said he finds encouragement in visitors who say "it doesn't look like it's in Old Delhi". "People are complimenting us…. When I was in England I was influenced by the small coffee shops there, compared to the kind of cafes we have here. I wanted to give that feel here," the 32-year-old restaurateur said.

Ritesh Singh, a foodie and frequent visitor to the area, was pleasantly surprised to find the cafe a few months back and has returned a couple of times since then. "Whenever I am on my food walks to Jama Masjid I try to find something that I haven't tried. This cafe was one such new place I tried, and even though I am not entirely in favour of the western feel, I can understand the sentiment behind it. And there can never be enough eateries in the world," he said.

Khan's English cafe has on its menu veg and non-veg items ranging from fish filet to chicken n chips and a wide variety of pizzas. The price ranges from Rs 540 for an extra-large 'Peri Peri Time' chicken pizza to Rs 70 for a veg burger. A walk around the periphery of the mosque takes you to the busy Motor Market, an unlikely place to find a quiet little cafe amid the din and bustle of motor mechanics selling their wares.

Mohammad Danish opened The Delhites Cafe with his elder brother right in the middle of the Motor Market, a year after their father passed away due to Covid-19. A student of home science and hotel management in Class 12, the 17-year-old is full of confidence, undeterred that his little eatery is right next door to the famed food lane - Bazar Matia Mahal. "You don't find such food in this area. And people want variety, they usually go to Connaught Place to have garlic bread, burgers, pizzas and shakes," Danish said.

Even though the original thought behind the cafe was to attract tourists, the young businessman is keeping his hopes high as the response has been good so far and his customers are lapping up the offerings of shakes, smoothies, sandwiches and the like. The menu is light on the pocket with chicken peri peri the most expensive dish at Rs 200.

Visitors can be caught off guard in the whirlwind of aroma, taste and the forever-marching crowd in Bazar Matia Mahal, the desi food destination of the Jama Masjid area that is home to to famous places such as Karim's and Al Jawahar. Dotted with eateries selling kebabs, nihari, tandoori chicken and an array of desserts including the hot and sweet shahi tukda, the narrow road starts from Jama Masjid and meets the Gali Choodiwalan at the other end.

A small yet distinct little shop sits not so quietly at the other end. KGF, or King of Good Food, is another such eatery that is standing its ground with an almost continuous stream of customers in one of the most famous food streets in Delhi. On the menu are burgers,pizzas and hot wings.

Saqeena (name changed on request), with two toddlers and some relatives tagging along, said it is refreshing to have something other than tandoori chicken or biryani. "It is definitely a relief as we have to work less at home," she said. The small eatery has a wide range of vegetarian and non-vegetarian options on the menu that are sumptuous yet economical.

While a large KGF non- veg special can cost Rs 390, a KGF veg special will leave one with a full tummy and only Rs 320 less in his pocket. The shop that opened two years ago, before the pandemic started, has been attracting locals since the reopening of the markets. The owner, Mohammad Nadeem Ahmad, said that being different from others in the area has been their USP.

"At times even those who come to have Mughlai food come across our shop and want to try the food. Locals find it as a change in their taste, as we are offering something they have to order from Dominos or Pizza Hut," he said. Ahmad wants to turn KGF into a chain in the future. But for now, it is but another small yet pleasant change in the bustling lanes around Jama Masjid.

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