City Food – Pappu Bhai’s Snack Cart, Paharganj
A Main Bazar survivor.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Khanna cinema? Gone. Grand Sindhi Restaurant? Gone. Raja Bookstall? Gone. Appetite German Bakery? Gone. Imperial cinema? Gone, long ago.
The list goes on.
The Main Bazar in the backpackers’ district of Paharganj is a cemetery of much-missed landmarks. The worst phases of the pandemic accelerated these losses. A few places are continuing to survive. Such as the Jackson’s bookstore, already chronicled on this page. And apologies have to be made for delaying the celebration of another longtime landmark, much older than Jackson’s — and actually much older than many other Paharganj institutions.
The establishment is modest, and parked outside the deserted Khanna Cinema building. This snack cart specialises in tikkis, aloo chaat and sandwich potato, and owner Pappu bhai is sweeter than his homemade sweet chutney. His smile is like a flash of soft winter light that peps up the gloomiest passerby’s mood.
“I’ve been manning the thela here for 45 years,” says Pappu bhai (real name: Pradeep Kumar). The stall is far older, and was founded by his late father Shivram Das, a Hathras native from UP.
It is afternoon and Pappu bhai arrived a few minutes ago to set up the stall; this is his regular time to open for business. All sorts of bags and packets are lying on the cart. The day’s first half is always exhausted in the preliminary cooking at home nearby, where he is assisted by wife Rajeshwari. Pappu bhai opens a packet filled with green pudina chutney. He pours it into a bottle. A bowl of besan batter is set on the side. Soon, one of his two sons arrives to hand him the stall’s remaining stuff.
The tikki here is truly tasty — tikkis of other carts too can be tasty. Pappu bhai’s tikkis are special because their taste has lived through many eras of Paharganj. The cart was already entrenched here in the 1970s and 1980s, when Main Bazar started to draw hippies. The latter half of 1980s and the early 1990s were the age of Russians, especially small traders who would land in Delhi briefly while on their way to bulk purchase woollens from Ludhiana in Punjab. The 1990s climaxed with the first trickle of Israeli backpackers into the Main Bazar, who soon started coming in such a great multitude that some eateries began to serve the so-called “Israeli thali”. Many of these foreigners would stop by at Pappu bhai’s cart, because his delicacies posed less risk of Delhi belly than others, thanks to their deep-fried character. The tikki cart also lived through the trying times of the coronavirus pandemic, when Paharganj was emptied of its ubiquitous backpackers. Today, as the area’s hotels and restaurants try to survive, Pappu bhai’s cart continues to serve. Daily from 3pm to 10pm.
A Paharganj lighthouse