Delhi’s own tea party


Any time is chai and halwa time

Is this the winter of discontent in Pakistan? Suddenly President Asif Ali Zardari has mysteriously flown abroad. The rumors are of a coup.

In Delhi drawing rooms, one of the many rumors circulating about Zardari is that some venerable mullah convinced him that he could scare away the assassination bids and prolong his life by sacrificing a goat every day. So, the heavily secured President’s House in Islamabad is the site where a big fat goat is martyred each day so that Benazir Bhutto’s widower could live from one day to another.

Friends, none of my friends in RAW could confirm this rumour but do ask around your ISI contacts.

Meanwhile, this week winter has finally started showing its true colours in Delhi. The temperature has dipped; the all-day fog is making me feel depressed. To lift my mood, I find solace in Delhi’s street chai.

However, as the city acquires the trappings of a modern metropolis, the carts dedicated exclusively to serving tea are becoming fewer.

Every morning, be it winter or summer, an old sari-clad woman – a migrant from Bihar – would pull in her chai cart at the entrance of Hauz Khas Village, my neighbourhood in south Delhi. As the tea boiled on her kerosene stove, morning walkers from the adjacent Rose Garden and Deer Park arrived to sit on cement blocks placed beside the cart. They ordered the chai while reading the newspapers and discussing how India is going to the dogs.

Apart from the stove and kettle, the tea cart had plastic jars of fen and rusks, the classic chai accompaniments. Yet the chai was perfect on its own. With a hint of crushed ginger, it was neither too strong, nor too milky or too sugary. Sometimes a leaf from the neem tree above fell into the kettle.

Unfortunately, that tea woman has vanished. Perhaps she has returned to her village in Bihar.

The more boisterous chai experience can be lived at Ballimaran in Shahjahanabad. The Firdaus Mithai Shop, near Mughal-era poet Mirza Ghalib’s haveli, has been brewing sweet, milky chai for 60 years. When a customer wishes to be generous to his friend, he asks the waiter for the chai to be topped with malai (cream).

A curious feature of chai-drinking in Shahjahanabad is that it is drunk from a glass tumbler kept inside a china cup. The cup’s handle protects the bare hands from the chai’s burning heat.

In the colonial-era Connaught Place, the park above the Palika Bazaar parking lot is where the city’s lonely people look for companionship and love. There, chai vendors are the only welcoming interference. Moving with thermos flasks and plastic cups, these bhayyas from UP are perhaps the only friends to the park’s lonely regulars.

There is no doubt if Delhi were a country, roadside chai would be its national drink. And if Shahjahanbad were to be an independent republic, its national dessert would be… wait, don’t mind the slur. The name of this dessert is politically incorrect. Habshi is the Urdu equivalent of Negro. I’m talking of habshi halwa.

“The halwa is as kaala (black) as a habshi,” says Firoz Ahmed, a portly man sitting behind the glass counter at Haneef Doodhwalla, a mithai shop. Ahmed’s father, Haji Mohammed Haneef, founded it in 1948 in a dark alley in Ballimaran. It’s a Shahjahanabad neighborhood lined with stores selling made-in-China shades and Agra-made shoes. As I said earlier, the area is noted for being the final address of Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib.

While it also sells buffalo milk and yogurt, Haneef Doodhwalla is best known for its habshi halwa, a sticky sweetmeat made in the less hot season, from October to March.

Boiling milk for 8 hours in giant cauldrons until it is reduced to a black mess, the halwa is prepared over firewood. It has desi ghee (clarified butter), maida (refined flour), samnak (sprouted wheat), sugar, kewra (rose essence), zafran (saffron) and crushed dried fruit like almonds, cashew and pistachio.

Said to heat up the body, habshi halwa is recommended for men wanting to increase their stamina in love-making.

Most Shahjahanabad men I talked to say Haneef Doodhwalla makes the town’s best habshi halwa.

According to Ahmed, his father’s childhood was spent as a kitchen boy in the house of Mohammed Deen Chatrriwalle, a wealthy Punjabi Muslim family that migrated to Shahjahanabad from Multan in the 18th century. Their community settled in a gated neighbourhood in Ballimaran, now Punjabi Phatak.

The Chattriwalles showed gratitude to Haneef’s services by helping him set up a paan stall in Haveli Hisamuddin, just inside the entrance of Punjabi Phatak gateway. He later turned the stall into a dairy.

Today, Haneef’s four sons live in what was once the house of the Chattriwalles, who had moved to south Delhi.

The cardboard mithai boxes of Haneef Doodhwalla show an illustration of a ghantaghar (clock tower). The tower in Chandni Chowk was destroyed by fire in the 1940s. Nearby was the halwai shop of a certain Abdul Khaliq, under whom Haneef learned habshi halwa making. After partition, while Khaliq migrated to Karachi in Pakistan, Haneef stayed back. The ghantagar on the box is Haneef’s tribute to his ustad (master).

In 1992, Haneef died; he was buried in the Dilli Gate graveyard. The family business has been expanded by his sons to include guesthouses and retail stores. They have not abandoned their father’s calling. In the winter, 50 kg habshi halwa is sold everyday. Priced at Rs 320 per kilo, the cardamom-flavoured halwa is gooey, rich and – as they say – potent.

According to newspaper reports, all is not well between Pakistan and the US. May be a new beginning can be made. Perhaps Pakistan’s army chief considers sending a mithai box of habshi halwa to President Obama. Of course, no disrespect intended.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.