At the heart of old Delhi lies the Red Fort (Lal Quila), built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century as the seat of power from which he ruled India.
Directly in front of the fort is Chandni Chowk, originally designed to be a grand marketplace surrounded by the mansions of his nobles. When the emperor rode through the square in a royal procession, his path would be covered with silken carpets on which rose petals were scattered. The pool in the centre of the square reflected the silver glint of moonlight, chandni in Hindi, which is said to have given the area its name.
Today when you walk through the congested streets of Chandni Chowk, dodging traffic while inhaling the aromas of countless food stalls, it is hard to remember that the Mughals designed the boulevards to be wide enough to parade their elephants through! But the crowds are there for a reason, for this is still where the best jewellery, the best fabrics and the best food in Delhi are to be found, in shops that have been owned by the same family for generations.
Chandni Chowk is home to a most eclectic collection of vendors. Here you will find sumptuous jewellery stores in front of which vegetable sellers display their wares and opulent shops selling the finest fabrics and clothing next to an old woman spreading out sacks of freshly ground spices on the pavement!
There is so much to experience and savour in Chandni Chowk that eating your fill in just one restaurant would be a grievous mistake. The market is legendary for its samosas, kachoris (deep fried puffy stuffed bread), chaat (small plates of spicy street food), parathas (pan fried stuffed flat bread) and mithai (Indian style sweets) and it is great fun to sample the specialty of each stall as you meander through the little lanes that surround the main square.
Some of the best discoveries are made through serendipity. When our car got stuck in traffic, the driver suggested that it would be faster to get out and walk. We descended right in front of a line of customers waiting in front of a tiny stall selling samosas and jalebis (an Indian sweet). Seeing the impressive array of fresh, hot food, and the many framed accolades from travel magazines and websites, we also joined the end of the line and were soon sampling everything on the menu!
The samosas were lifted straight out of the kadhai (wok), the pastry flaky and crisp, the stuffing of plump, spicy green peas moist and flavourful. The jalebis that followed were still warm and syrupy - just perfect to douse the chilies of the samosas!
Working our way down narrow alleys we saw a haze of smoke rising and scented the unmistakable smell of parathas being fried. It was the famous Parathewali Gali - a street that dates back to the 18th century and consists exclusively of stalls that make parathas of every description. We were soon seated at one of the communal tables with a huge plate of parathas, chutneys and vegetable curries in front of us. Lucky for us, we had left room for just such an eventuality! The meal certainly lived up to its reputation, the parathas being some of the finest we have ever had.
If eating all the deep fried samosas, jalebis and parathas leaves you thirsty, you can indulge in a special treat of lassi. Made with sweetened yogurt and served in an earthenware cup, which adds it's own unique aroma to the lassi, this is a rich, satisfying end to a food journey spanning centuries of history and tradition.
Taking a line from the famous samosas of Chandni Chowk, I too have veered away from the standard, ubiquitous potato stuffing, using Alu Gobhi (cauliflower and potatoes) instead. The delicate, earthy flavour of the cauliflower comes through in every bite, enhanced by the spices. The stuffing can also be eaten as a side dish with naan if desired.
If you love Alu Gobhi, that old favourite from Indian restaurant menus, you will love this unusual take on samosas. They will satisfy your craving for Alu Gobhi and samosas at the same time! Surprisingly easy to make using store bought puff pastry, they have the added bonus of being baked and not fried. So you can have more than one without feeling guilty.
Alu Gobhi Samosas
For the stuffing:
1 small cauliflower
1 medium potato, peeled and diced small
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 inch piece of ginger, minced or finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced or finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
Salt to taste
1 tsp each: ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala
1/2 tsp each: cayenne pepper, turmeric
1 tbsp each: dried fenugreek leaves, lemon juice
2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
Cut cauliflower into small florets (about 2 cups). Bring large pot of water to boil, add potato and cauliflower. Boil until tender, drain and cool. Mash potato and cauliflower lightly with a fork.
Heat oil in skillet over medium high heat and add cumin seeds. After a few seconds, add the ginger, garlic and onions. Sauté for about 5 minutes, until the onions are lightly browned. Add all the spices and the salt. Stir for a minute, then add the cauliflower and potatoes. Mix well with the spices in the pan, mashing lightly with back of stirring spoon. Cook 5 min. Mix in the lemon juice and fresh coriander. Set this mixture aside to cool.
For the pastry shell:
1 package frozen puff pastry sheets
1 egg, beaten
Thaw the puff pastry until it is easy to unroll. Preheat the oven to 400F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
Working with one sheet at a time, cut into 3 strips and cut each strip into 3 or 4 squares. Put a heaping tablespoon of the cauliflower-potato mixture in the center of a square. Fold the flap over the filling to form a triangular pouch and seal the edges by pressing on them with a fork or with your fingers. Proceed similarly with the remaining puff pastry and place all the samosas in a single layer on baking sheet. Brush samosas lightly with the beaten egg. Bake for about 15-18 minutes, until the pastry is cooked through the tops are golden. Serve with chutney.
Serves four – six