Delhi’s dying delicatessen

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A tea-time travesty!

This is a story about food but it is also about a way of life in Delhi, which is fast vanishing. I blame our Partition. Now, please listen to me. I’m in Old Delhi.

It is cramped and dark, except for the orange glow from a hole in the wall. Two men in lungis squat in front of the wood-fired oven. Blackened iron trays are stacked against one of the cell’s sooty walls. Ten minutes later, one man inserts a long iron spatula into the oven and brings out a tray of paape. This golden-brown bread and the Dickensian world in which it is made has vanished. Well, almost.

Opened in 1942, Sikander Bakery is in Kucha Faulad Khan, a congested mohalla in the Walled City named after a Mughal-era kotwal. It is one of the few traditional bakeries of Old Delhi which have survived the onslaught of factory breads and industrial biscuits.

Friends, if you ever get a visa for Delhi, you might spot them in Walled City neighbourhoods such as Matia Mahal, Ballimaran, Pahari Bhojla and Farash Khana. A few exist in central Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti and some are in south Delhi, in the Muslim localities of Okhla.

At four each, Kucha Faulad Khan and Matia Mahal bazaar, which is opposite Jama Masjid, have the largest cluster of bakeries in one neighbourhood. Sikander Bakery is the oldest. Every day its single wood-fired bhatti (oven), eight workers and 400 baking patris (trays) produce a sackful – or 90kg – of baked goods. Cramped and airless, the bakery’s walls are stained black with decades of soot and the floor is dusted with refined flour.

The workers in these bakeries are called karigars, or craftsmen. However, they are essentially treated as unskilled labourers. At Sikander’s, three karigars in the room adjacent to the bhatti work exclusively to prepare dough for the two most fast-moving products – rusks and paape, while the rest work on the other side of the bhatti, kneading dough for the other products. The karigars’ world is invisible from the street that, unlike this 69-year-old landmark, has transformed completely.

“Before 1947, this lane had only half a dozen stores,” says 75-year-old Mohammad Ahmad, a neighbourhood elder who has been starting his mornings with Sikander’s paape and fen since the pre-independence days. Today, the lane teems with tea houses, butcheries, clinics, groceries, biryani kitchens, bead stores and cellphone kiosks. The old Sikander patron, known as Chacha Ahmad, spends his afternoon sitting across the bakery, reading Urdu newspapers. “This mohalla belonged to the rich. But most were (Muslim) League supporters who went to Pakistan after Partition. The educated Muslims who worked as bureaucrats, teachers and police officers too migrated there after the bureaucracy was divided between the two nations.”

Pointing to the bakery, Chacha Ahmad says, “It attracted more crowd during the time of Haji Sikander, the bakery’s founder.”

Jalaluddin, Sikander’s 64-year-old son and current owner, knows the customers by their first names. He has an extra rusk for those who have a parrot at home – parrots like rusks. “Most old bakeries have shut down. Some new ones have opened but there are no longer as many as there were in the past,” he says. Jalaluddin’s father, who died in 1967 aged 70, came from a UP village.“ There was nothing there,” Jalaluddin says.

The story of Sikander’s exodus from poverty is replicated by the successive generations of labourers in his bakery. Manzoor, the oldest employee, came from Bihar 35 years ago. “In my village, half the year there was drought, half the year there was flood,” he says. Shripal, a senior karigar, came 30 years ago from UP “to escape from hunger”. At 18, Ashiq is the youngest worker. He came from Bihar two years ago. “There’s nothing back home,” he says. Like the unchanging profile of its employees, the quality of Sikander Bakery’s products too hasn’t changed. “Good then, good now,” says Chacha Ahmad, dipping a paape in his chai.

Sikander’s paape dough is made of refined flour mixed with water, yeast, sugar and aniseed; each piece is sprinkled with poppy seeds. After about 10 minutes in the oven, as the paapes grow light brown, the position of the trays is changed for uniform heating. Ten minutes later, the trays are taken out. If eaten straight out of the oven, golpaape is warm, sweet, soft, chewy and a little greasy. If eaten later, it is hard and crisp. Serve with tea.

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

3 COMMENTS

  1. Mayank everyone was opposing the partition of The India but it was MA Jinnah, who is all mindled for Power, which he could not get in India thats why he created Pakistan. His plan too was unsuccessfull and two third of muslims decided to remain in India whereas most of Hindus were forced to move to India from Pakistan. Around 10 lakh people were died in the mobilisation of people between pakistan and India. It was just because of the lust of power of MA Jinnah.

  2. My maternal side of family belonged to one of the mohallas named 'Farash Khana'. It was a fascinating read

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