City Food – Fen, Old Delhi
Snack for all.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
At night, people in Old Delhi are said to feast on dishes like koftas and biryanis—at least in the fanciful imagination of those of us who tend to romanticise about life in the historic quarter. In the morning, the traditionally-inclined might prefer the hefty combination of paya and nihari, but many opt for poori, subzi and halwa. Some, like a charming hotelier couple who live near Jama Masjid, go for porridge and butter toast—they even cover their tea-pot with a made-in-England tea cozy.
But between the morning prayers and the breakfast hour, many Walled City dwellers overcome their drowsiness with sweet milky chai, which they usually complement with fen, the hero of our story.
Flaky and crisp, fen is one of Delhi’s most democratic bakery products. A classic teatime companion, it is priced at 5 rupees for two—though it used to cost just 1 rupee some five years ago.
In the wee hours, fens can be seen stacked up in the tea stalls across the Walled City’s streets and alleys, forming a backdrop to the 7am scenes of children going to school and the homeless still asleep on pavements. There’ll also be rickshaw-pullers and labourers quietly soaking their fen in tea, preparing themselves to survive the day ahead.
As small as a baby’s palm, fen has a crumbly texture. The classic way to consume it is to first dip it into your tea; the outer skin gets soppy-wet but it playfully hides a crackling crispness within. Follow that quick bite with a sip of the piping hot chai, and all the flaky stuff in the mouth is washed down immediately giving utmost satisfaction to the palate. The moment is pure bliss.
A democratic bite