City Food – Raj Kumar’s Jal Jeera Drink, Sadar Bazar
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Everything changes. Winter too is changing to summer. But “the dukh (grief) inside you doesn’t dim, even though you start smiling again,” observes aloo tikki vendor Raj Kumar. His eldest son, Bobby, died early last year, and today “I’m growing old living with the loss of our eldest child… my wife cries on hearing his name, and then my sadness returns, as if Bobby left us just yesterday.” His wife, Mithilesh, is at their home in Gurgaon’s “Gully No. 7, Rajiv Nagar” in the Greater Delhi Region.
Now, one correction. Raj Kumar is no longer selling aloo tikki. His long-time stall in the town’s Sadar Bazaar shifted to jal jeera drink yesterday. It’s an annual shift and the reason is—well, can’t you feel the uncomfortably warm weather coming up? “I make aloo tikki and momos in winter and jal jeera in summer,” he explains, adding sometimes he replaces jal jeera with shikanji. Part of the cart is still taken over by the momo steaming machine—“for a few more days.”
Last year, the coronavirus pandemic arrived with the approaching summer, not long after Mr Kumar had shifted from aloo tikki to jal jeera, and he was forced to stop working in the consequent lockdowns. Around that time the son passed away, following a long illness, “and our life broke into small pieces.”
The recent switching to jal jeera is Mr Kumar’s second most-visible attempt to find consolation, by adjusting to the familiar cycles of the year. The previous was in last October, when he switched from jal jeera to aloo tikki. Whatever, wherever you are in the Delhi region, you ought to come to him not only to enjoy the drink’s biting freshness, but also to experience how a family is coming together following a profound alteration in their world. The green herby drink is prepared every morning by everyone in Mr Kumar’s home—including wife, daughters Rinky and Kajal, and son Sunny. “We first make pudina chutney and then add water to it, mixing the solution with lemon juice, freshly roasted jeera, kala namak dhele wala (lumpy black salt), green chillies, and aam ki chutney bhoon kar (roasted mango chutney).”
This hot dusty afternoon, one is instinctively feeling thirsty with the blinding white sunshine ramming like iron spikes onto the skin. The welcoming sight of Mr Kumar’s earthen pot, draped with a wet red cloth carefully layered with yellow lemons, instantly cools the weary eyes. On receiving an order for jal jeera from a customer, he picks up a dry plastic glass, throws in a bit of black salt, ladles out the drink into it, which he tops with crushed chunks of ice. Mr Kumar serves the treat, flashing a smile.
Adjusting with seasons