"Khirki", a locality in Delhi, derives its name from the eponymous 16-century mosque that stands nearby. The word "khirki" in English means "window" and indeed the mosque is characterised a number of windows all over its structure. In my opinion it's not just the mosque—the entire village is full of these small "khirkis" that offer peeks into the lives of individuals belonging to different cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities. This neighbourhood has a dynamic cultural identity; the first immigrants to arrive here were peasants who had suffered communal violence during the Partition, but many others have sought refuge here since then.
It was on 2 July 2011 that this locality absorbed me as one of its own. The neighbourhood has narrow lanes merging into each other, with houses stacked one on top of the other to make a building. In these live labourers, building owners, migrants... and, of course, their food.
I met people from Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh—each bringing the unique flavours of their places of origin...
I decided to take a walk in this corner of Delhi and tap into its soul, and to sample the different kinds of food that Khirki has to offer. I met people from Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh—each bringing the unique flavours of their places of origin, while also adding the tastes of their new life to the mix.
My first stop was at a small basement shop excelling in lassi. This was actually one of the first few shops I stumbled upon in 2011. Haji Hajib Ahmed, the shopkeeper, is quite a lively character. He is warm and very welcoming, and believes in spirituality. His philosophy is simple: God will be happy and proud of you if you make people happy.
Haji Ji told me that he moved to this locality from Amroha, Uttar Pradesh (UP) to earn more and better support his family. He started with lassi, a perfect antidote to Delhi's scorching summer. He says that lassi is the only thing that quenches your thirst and fills your stomach. Besides, it's cheap, so people with less money can still easily afford it. His reason to open a food joint was merely because it is "sawab" or a good deed to feed people and see a smile on their face. In winter, his shop will offer samosas and kachoris it is summer that sees customers flocking to Haji Ji's Lassi Shop.
The second store was a humble Afghani tandoor corner, peopled by cooks who have worked in the restaurant kitchens of Pakistan, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, India and a few other places as well. They told me that they didn't think Afghanistan was a safe place to stay for them—their lives were always under threat, and they were scared to step out of their houses. They decided that it was better for them to move somewhere where they could live a peaceful life. Their tandoor is well managed by six people and serves only Afghani donuts and breads, and their version of pickle. When asked why they only serve just one thing, they pointed to the uniqueness of the items and the cost-effectiveness of the business. In total they spent around ₹20,000 to start this shop and have been doing well ever since. (Incidentally, I found five such Afghani food joints in this neighbourhood, serving their authentic flavours.)
The small tea shops, the tucked-away restaurants all beckon you gently. This is definitely a place where food brings people together and blurs the walls of identity.
Opposite this bakery is another food joint, which specialises in Afghani and Tandoori chicken items. The owner, a Khirki local, avers that his items are a perfect match for the breads being sold nearby—Afghani, roomali, bakarkhani.
My walk then led me to another lane where Hafiz Ji has been serving Mughlai food for the last 15 years. He is also a local resident of Khirki. He has three small food joints—one where he serves biryani, another one that is only for different kinds of tandoori rotis and the third one is where he serves nihari, keema, and other lip-smacking, flavourful food. All of his stores, among the oldest in the neighbourhood, run smoothly no matter what season it is.
I tried hard to find an African eatery but was not successful. I did discover, though, that African residents—from Somalia, Ghana, Nigeria and other countries—keep their kitchens active and serve food from home to their compatriots.
On the main street, close to Khoj Studios, one can easily spot a middle-aged man serving samosas, jalebis and breakfast items to the migrant labourers from Bihar and UP. His name is Mohd. Noor Aalam. He has been running his business for the past 18 years. His food is very simple and reminds the UP and Bihar migrants of home.
In front of him is small snack shop run by Sheikh Shabbir, selling chicken and aloo potato pakora and jhalmuri (puffed rice)—very typical of Bihar. There's another thela next to him, run by Mohd Mustakim, who serves special food during Ramzan.
My walk ended with a meal at a cart serving biryani and haleem. The cart owner hails from UP and is living on rent in Khirki. He previously lived in Saudi Arabia, where he used to wash dishes. There he learned through observation how to cook biryani and haleem and that is why he only serves these two things. His dreams are modest—he just wants to sell enough food to make a living and to sleep peacefully at night. This cart is unique because he takes meals to your doorstep.
A walk through Khirki is an experience that's awash in different aromas and flavours. The small tea shops, the tucked-away restaurants all beckon you gently. This is definitely a place where food brings people together and blurs the walls of identity.
This post was originally published on Food and Streets.