City Food – The Cooks of Shereen Bhawan, Chitli Qabar Chowk
Where sweetness lives.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
This looks so much like a dalaan, the kind of courtyard only seen these days in havelis of yesteryears. And that room with three arched entrances is probably a traditional sehdari.
The Delhi Walla is told this was the house of a nawab’s daughter. Today, the dalaan is cluttered with red LPG cylinders, cooking stoves and karahis filled with piping-hot desi ghee. The cupboards inside the sehdari are stacked with steel trays containing dil bahar, ras malai, lachha rabri and other such sweet delicacies.
I’m in the kitchen of Shereen Bhawan. The mithai shop in Old Delhi’s Chitli Qabar Chowk commands a cult following. It is said that if you have not tasted the Shereen Bhawan’s pheeki jalebi—made only during the month of Ramzan– then you haven’t experienced Old Delhi (sorry, Jama Masjid).
In fact, meeting the family that owns Shereen Bhawan is also a part of a traditional Walled City sightseeing. “Once Mark Tully filmed our house and showed it in London,” the family elder, Alauddin, told me. He was referring to the retired BBC correspondent to India.
But even Sir Mark Tully has not managed to enter where I am — Shireen Bhawan’s aforementioned kitchen. It is situated beside the mithai shop and is barred to all except the kaarigars, the cooks. I step inside in the morning.
One man is stirring the milk. Another, seated cross-legged on the floor, is stuffing dil bahar with sweet khoya. The only man not at work is admiring himself in a small mirror nailed on the blue wall.
While the building still resembles a haveli, it has completely adapted to its role of a mithai shop kitchen. It is impossible to imagine it as the former home of a nawab’s daughter. The shop’s owners no longer even remember her name. Neither are they able to recall the year on which the shop was founded, except that it came up before the independence.
The kitchen, with its spare rooms, doubles up at kaarigars’s home at night. They all have come from villages in UP and Bihar, where they have left behind their wives and children.
Vishnu Kumar, who makes malai chop, is from Varantha. Two of his three sons work with him—Gaurav makes sewai, Bharat makes Bengali mithais.
Jayveer Singh, whose sole job is to arrange mithais on trays, is from Kangesi. Rakesh Singhania, who fries pooris in the morning and is responsible for making the famous khajla during Ramzan, is from Man Singh Khera.
The youngest, Muhammed Dilshad, is a ‘helper’. He washes the dishes. He is from Kishanganj.
The mithai shop shuts down by nine at night. Once I entered the kitchen at ten. The courtyard was immersed in absolute darkness. The cooks were sleeping. The place looked empty and abandoned.