City Food – Muhammed Hafiz’s Biryani, Chitli Qabar Chowk
A culinary landmark.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
This gentle soft-spoken man is like the Jama Masjid. He’s always seen here, like he’s part of the landscape. Day after day after day, Muhammed Hafiz stands behind his giant deg of biryani, with two benches plonked up beside him.
This street eatery in Old Delhi’s Chitli Qabar Chowk looks as rooted to the place as the adjacent Sufi shrine of Hazrat Chitli, which gives its name to the traffic intersection. A spectator feels that the stall must have been here from all those centuries ago when Emperor Shahjahan set up his new capital of Shahjahanabad. And that the biryani must be an authentic Walled City version.
But these are mere perceptions.
Despite its seeming timelessness, Purani Dilli is actually an extremely dynamic place, constantly responding to evolving time. Not only in terms of the modern architecture mushrooming along its cramped lanes, but also with the nature of food stalls that have lately popped up in its historic kuchas and katras. A hole-in-the-wall pizza parlour recently opened in Matia Mahal. Coffee Americano and Caramel Macchiato are available at Bismillah Manzil in Bazar Chitli Qabar. In addition, the Walled City is steadily being replenished by new migrants. Every other Old Delhi dweller you meet on any galli turns out to be a first-generation arrival from a distant land.
Indeed, the aforementioned biryani seller is from Araria in Bihar. Living with his family in the nearby locality of Madarsa Hussein Baksh, the father of three settled in the city about 12 years ago. “I was not the one to start the stall,” he clarifies. In his late 30s, he explains that he took over the establishment from an earlier migrant in the city, called Ashfaq, who had founded it in 1984. “I began my life in Dilli by working for him.” In fact, he learned to cook the biryani from his employer. “Ashfaq later got old and went back to his village in Kishanganj, Bihar,” where he lives in retirement.
This evening, the chowk is packed with people and rickshaws. The biryani seller silently surveys the chaos, perhaps anticipating a diner to appear from any random corner. At long last, a passerby sits down on the bench. Mr Hafiz opens the lid of the deg with unhurried but firm gestures, buries his bowl deep into the steaming biryani, and heaps up the rice dish on a small plate (Rs 70 for half kg), with a side-serving of raita.
To experience this sight is enough recommendation to visit Mr Hafiz’s stall. And the biryani is just too tasty.
When new becomes native