City Food – Phirni, Around Town
Taste of Kashmir.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Many Kashmiris leave for Delhi during winters to escape the harsh cold in the valley.
Between November and February, the relatively wealthy families hailing from Srinagar, Pahalgam and Anantnag stay in hotels in Matia Mahal, a bazaar that faces Jama Masjid in the Walled City. You will find Kashmiris sitting at street-side stalls discussing marriages, crops, carpets and newspaper headlines over pink-coloured noon chai (salted tea) and lavasa (bread). These sights disappear by March but one Kashmiri delicacy never goes off the streets of Delhi, be it winter, summer or monsoon.
Phirni, a creamy rice flour pudding, has Kashmiri origins. In Chor Bizarre, the Kashmiri-speciality restaurant in Daryaganj’s Broadway Hotel, the yellow-coloured kesar phirni, flavoured with saffron, forms the finale of Wazwan, the traditional Kashmiri banquet.
The sure pointer of a regional delicacy finding acceptance in another city, however, is when it escapes from the confinement of speciality restaurants into the city’s streets.
Delhi’s phirni has an extraordinary address on a street in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, a 14th-century village named after its patron Sufi saint. A soft-drink stall, adjacent to Nasir Iqbal restaurant, stocks hundreds of phirni bowls in the refrigerator alongside butterscotch ice-cream cups.
Pilgrims to the Sufi shrine are not the only customers of this phirni. The stall is opposite a building called Markaz, which is the world headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat, an apolitical Islamic organization that preaches austerity in private life. Since it has a wide following worldwide, the Markaz attracts Muslims from different countries who come to meditate here. In the evening, these men — Europeans, Africans, East Asians — can be seen digging their wooden spoons into the luxuriously sweet phirni.
The dish is made by grinding rice to a coarse paste, which is then added to boiling milk. The cooked potion, flavoured with saffron and cardamom, is poured into earthen pots, garnished with pistachio and (occasionally) flies, and refrigerated before being served.
The phirni at the stall in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti is ordered from a sweet shop near Jama Masjid. Not the traditional yellow, the phirni here is white since it uses no saffron. It is topped with dry fruits. Soft and squishy with a grainy texture, it tastes of all these garnishes and then slightly of the freshly moistened earth because of the clay bowls in which it is refrigerated and served.
Delhiwallas might feel transported to Kashmir while having this dessert.
The Srinagar snow