Many of the venerable sweet shops of Old Delhi came here after Partition, carrying with them the flavours and heritage of an undivided India.
There is a glow in ex-cricketer Hari Gidwani’s face as he talks about the specialities at Chaina Ram, a Sindhi sweet shop near the Fatehpuri Masjid in Old Delhi, a family concern where he is a partner. They are purveyors of typical Punjabi sweets, the most famous being their Karachi halwa. In the rainy months, they make ghevar. The original shop was established in Lahore’s famed Anarkali Bazaar, and moved to Delhi after Partition. So, as far as Gidwani is concerned, the shop is over a hundred years old. The flavour of the sweets at this iconic shop has remained unchanged, claims Gidwani. One of the most popular sweet shops in Old Delhi, there are laddus, burfis, pinnis and patisas galore at Chaina Ram. And, of course, the Karachi halwa which is to die for.
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The lanes of Old Delhi are replete with such shops. Not all came across the border. The legendary Ghantewala was established in Chandni Chowk in 1790 when its founder, Sukh Lal Jain, moved to the walled city of Delhi from Amber. According to one story, Ghantewala got its name from the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II, who would direct his servants to get sweets from the shop below the bell. The toll of the bell from the school near the sweet shop could be heard all the way to the Red Fort in those days. According to another theory, Jain used to walk around selling his sweets, ringing a bell to draw attention. The shop, which was famed for its sohan halwa, was run by seven generations of the family before it shut down in 2015. I still remember their samosas with a twinge of sadness.
Some Old Delhi specialities are street-style and seasonal. Daulat ki chaat is both. This airy confection, only available on hand-pulled carts in winter, is said to be made with milk which has frothed up by absorbing the early morning dew. This is more myth than reality these days but that has done nothing to its popularity. Other specialities are unique to Old Delhi, like the white carrot halwa at Sheeren Bhawan on Chooriwalan Road near Chitli Qabar.
Anubhav Sapra likes to call himself ‘Chief Foodie’ of Delhi Food Walks, an outfit under whose umbrella he offers delicious food walks in the area. Anubhav’s knowledge of Old Delhi’s culinary treasures is second to none. So while many queue up at Old Famous Jalebi Wala, established 1884, for their spiral fix and venture no further, if you ask Anubhav, he will direct you to Shiv Mishthan Bhandar. This is where you can sample the best jalebi in Old Delhi. The modest menu consists of savoury items like bedmi puri, chhole bhature and samosas and sweets ranging from jalebi to gulab jamun and a variety of halwas including the seasonal gajar ka halwa. Everything is made in pure desi ghee. There’s also Nagori halwa in the mornings, which is eaten with puri-sabzi.
It is Anubhav who lets us in on another sweet secret. Tucked in a quiet lane just behind Shiv Mishthan Bhandar is Hemchand Ladli Prashad, named after its founder. Modestly calling itself a ‘milk seller’, it has just a few products: rabri, milk cake and burfi. Each one of them is brilliant. Nor are they oversweet. Instead of an excessive reliance on sugar to enhance the appeal of the sweets, the focus is on the quality of the main ingredient, milk.
On the other side of Old Delhi, far from the hustle and bustle of Chandni Chowk, is Madan Lal Halwai in Sadar Bazar. It is perhaps Old Delhi’s best sweet shop, staying true to its Lahore roots from where it moved here after Partition. Only desi ghee is used in the sweets and the recipes of the traditional Punjabi sweets have not changed since inception. In fact, so liberal is the use of ghee in the sweets, that after a few bites you’ll almost have ghee oozing out of your ears and nose. The sohan halwa, a sweet that is tricky to make at the best of times, is superlative here. Their breakfast is also popular, reveals proprietor Rupabh Sethi, who plans to take the brand beyond Old Delhi.
It’s a miracle these charming shops are still around, existing almost like time capsules, nourished by the sweetness of nostalgia.