Tucked in the heart of Delhi in the narrow, twisting and turning lanes and by-lanes of the old city is another such dark, decrepit lane (Does it even qualify to be called a lane? There are no more than 5-6 shops set on either side of an unbelievably crowded, narrow passageway!), virtually indiscernible from the others except for the fact that it entirely consists of shops selling “paratha/paranthas” (Indian bread stuffed with different varieties of fillings). Aptly named as the "Gali Parathe/Paranthe wali" or “Street of the Paratha sellers” ("gali" is the Hindi equivalent of "street"), it is one of the most famous culinary destinations in the city, glorified by glowing mentions, appearances and portrayals in numerous TV serials, Bollywood movies and newspaper travel columns. Located near the famed Gurudwara Sisganj Sahib, the lane is accessed from a turning dotted by shops selling jalebis (savory fritter prepared by soaking deep-fried wheat flour batter into sugar syrup), sarees and other traditional female attires. The first impression that one experiences is that of a very congested pathway full of pedestrians, cyclists, vendors and day laborers carrying large bundles of what-nots on their heads and cycles. However as one moves in a few meters, small eateries come into view and one notices the street to also be thoroughly crowded with incredibly slowly slithering lines of patrons queuing up outside these eateries and awaiting their turn. These are the renowned Paratha shops whose fame far exceeds their appearance! Even though I am no food critic, having been to the place several times in the past year alone and having tried several of their parathas, I firmly believe that the place is overhyped and regular parathas – the ones stuffed with potatoes, cottage cheese, lentils, radish and cauliflower – are more sumptuous when cooked at homes by Indian wives and mothers. Though all the parathas here are deep-fried and cholesterol-heavy, am yet to try the exotic, super-fattening specialty parathas such as those stuffed with jaggery, khurchan (the dry, burnt sugary cream left over following milk condensation) and cashew-almonds, but will do so whenever next I'm around Chandni Chowk area, which would be soon hopefully. My personal favorite is the lemon paratha, filled with lemon juice and rinds along with some kind of filling that imparts it a sour flavor. My sister likes the one stuffed with papad (fried, chips-like accompaniment to be had with simple home-cooked meals). The shops here serve more than 30 varieties of parathas and literally everyone can find a favorite or two from such a long list. Eaten with chilled lassi (buttermilk) or soft drinks, these parathas remind one of home. Moreover, priced at Rs 35-50, they aren’t very costly either, especially when compared to expensive restaurants like “More Than Parathas”. The place, with its cheap parathas resembling large dumplings and fried in ghee (clarified butter), is often touted as a gourmet heaven by many of my vegetarian friends. Added bonus – all complementary side dishes such as helpings of bland potato-peas curry, sweet banana-tamarind chutney, tangy mint chutney and spicy radish-chili pickle are provided by the shops free of cost and one can ask for unlimited refills. The downside is that one has to order parathas in pairs, so if you have space for only one paratha, you either buy two, or don’t buy at all (or order two for two people in a single plate!).
The considerably old shops, now being run by sixth generation descendants, still employ the same traditional methods of cooking which have been passed down from one generation to next since late 19th-century when they were set up. Originally, this area was known as “Chota Dariba” (“Street of the Silver Jewelers”) and was destroyed by infuriated British administrators following the Mutiny of May 1857. Several years later, when the Paratha shops started doing a flourishing business, the name “Parathe wali Gali” stuck. All the shops here are categorically vegetarian and hire upper-caste Hindu cooks; also prohibited is the use of onions and garlic since these are considered unconsumable by “pure” Hindus because of their aphrodisiacal properties. History dictates that all the parantha shops in the narrow lane are owned by members of the same family who decided to withdraw their shares from the family business because of internal feuds and set up their individual eateries. The street saw unparalleled violence during the Hindu-Sikh riots of 1984 and was incinerated in its entirety – of the one score shops, only six were rebuilt and reopened (the rest left the business and took up other professions elsewhere) to serve mouthwatering parathas, and even of these only three survive now catering to a clientele originating from nearly every corner of the globe and of all age groups, genders, outlooks, religious and sectarian differences, financial and social statuses and belief systems.
At the shop entrance, the cook sits sifting through the plethora of ingredients at his disposal – radish, potatoes, carrots, peas, lemon rinds, bananas, cauliflowers and chilies form colorful mounds; cashews, almonds, khurchan are kept in small square containers, to be picked and stuffed in the flour, which is then shallow-fried in cast iron pans. The process is suggestive of making “poori” (deep-fried Indian bread), except here the dough is much thicker and stuffed with the fillings, and this is the secret behind the unique taste of the parathas here – my Dad often reminiscences that he had similar, but far more delectable, parathas as a child growing up in different districts of Uttar Pradesh. The cooking process has remained the same from the time the shops were opened up in late 1870s. The aroma and sight of the parathas being cooked is enough to make one feel ravenous and eager to find a seat. My first encounter with the flavors of this renowned street was at the humble shop of Pandit Kanhaiya Lal Durga Prasad (established 1875), said to be the oldest surviving shop in the business (others are Pandit Baburam Devidayal and Pandit Dayanand Shivcharan). Fascinatingly, framed black and white photographs hang along the walls displaying eminent personalities – from Bollywood stars to powerful politicians and even Prime Ministers – who have visited these shops for the mouthwatering food in the past. It makes one slide back in the past and reflect upon the incredible history of these shops that have been serving parathas to rich and poor and catering to millions of citizens for nearly 150 years. Every shop has a large signboard indicating the owner’s name and the year of establishment; another board details the names and prices of parathas available in Hindi as well as English (the clientele includes hordes of foreigners who flock to Chandni Chowk and nearby Red Fort, the pinnacle of Mughal architecture, refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort complex). The only difference between 19th-century and the present that this place, otherwise stuck in that medieval time frame, has witnessed is that now people prefer soft drinks and mineral water over lassi (buttermilk) traditionally served in “kulhar” (earthenware containers). Disappointingly, the waiters are not courteous and one often has to shout at them several times to pay heed and list the order. Of course, the number of customers bee lining outside the shops make them believe they can behave as their wont. More often than not, one has to wait at least 20 minute in the queue for the turn to get inside and savor the parathas – although, for me the wait has almost always been worthless since I don’t find the parathas here irresistible nor am I a very big fan of vegetarian fare.
|The Paratha business|
A lot of people I know consider Parathe wali Gali unhygienic, congested and unpleasant, preferring instead to gobble at McDonalds, Giani’s or other numerous restaurants that dot Chandni Chowk. But even though I myself don’t enjoy having parathas here, there really isn’t any point of coming to Old Delhi if one isn’t going to gorge on the sumptuous street food that these historic lanes are famed for. McD's or KFC's can be eaten at later too, right? After parathas, one can run off for a serving of Dahi Bhalla (gram-flour doughnuts, deep fried and served with lots of sweet curd and chutneys), Papri Chaat (crisp fried dough wafers, again served with sweet curd and chutneys), Halwa (sweet, extremely oily confectioneries) of several types and Jalebi (savory fritter prepared by soaking deep-fried wheat flour batter into sugar syrup). And if like me, you can have lunch after lunch, there is always Karim’s and the numerous smaller eateries lining the Matia Mahal/Gali Kebabiyan area that serve traditional non-vegetarian dishes like Biryani and Nihari. My mouth is already watering and stomach groaning with hunger, am off to have some more street food! Guess there’s another article coming soon!
|(Update March, 2014) Finally tried the sweet khurchan paratha on a Delhi Instagramers Guild photowalk to Chandni Chowk. Disappointed yet again.|
Nearest Metro Station: Chandni Chowk
Nearest Bus stop: Red Fort
How to reach: As you exit the metro station, walk straight till you reach a temple. A small street besides the temple exits to the main Chandni Chowk Street (just follow the crowd, they would enter a very narrow lane). Gali Parathe wali is located just across the main street. Walk from Red Fort if coming by bus/auto.
Open: Everyday, 9 am–11 pm
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Cost: Rs 200 for two (Parathas at Rs 35-50 each (can only be ordered in even numbers per plate), Lassi at Rs 25/glass).
Other monuments/landmarks located in the neighborhood -