The streets of Old Delhi come alive with an assortment of fritters during the Ramzan evenings. Rahul Verma particularly looks for keema ki goli, a speciality of the season
The sounds of two loud crackers in the air signal the end of the day's fast. And suddenly the market area starts to hum, as if it has been woken up with a magic wand.
This is the time to visit Old Delhi, especially the Jama Masjid area. During Ramzan — when devout Muslims fast through the day — the neighbourhood wakes up to a frenzy of sound and colour in the evenings when the fast is broken. Fairy lights line the sides of the markets in the area. Matia Mahal, the most prominent of the markets there, dazzles with lights. The shops put out their wares. And people step out of their homes.
The change is spectacular. One moment, the market looks like it's dozing, with just a few people pottering around and looking at the goods that have been put up. The next moment, there is such hustle and bustle that it seems as if you have suddenly landed in the midst of a movie set. People rush out of their houses to buy all that they'll need before they start their fast the next morning. Vendors light up their stalls. And children stand open-mouthed in front of the stalls selling the most delicious of snacks.
The most popular snack, undoubtedly, is the pakora. After a full day's fasting — without a drop of water — you yearn for something that is light like a snack, but heavy enough to keep you going for a while. The pakora, covered with a thick lining of spiced batter, is just the thing. Not surprisingly, most people break their fast with a small bowl of chopped fruits — and then move on to the pakora stalls.
The pakoras — or fritters — are of all kinds. You get your vegetable pakoras — with a stuffing of potatoes, onions, vegetables and so on. Then there are chicken pakoras, with a small and succulent piece of chicken wrapped in batter and then fried in hot oil. Some of the most popular pakoras that you get in the neighbourhood are difficult to find in other parts of the city. The mutton samosa or keema goli, for instance, are delectable pakoras that you get mostly in the Walled City, and especially during the period of Ramzan.
Everybody has his or her own favourite pakora wallah in the area. My young friend Faizan Farooqui tells me that he goes all the way from Ballimaran, where he lives, to Bazar Chitli Qabar for his pakoras at Durga Sweets. So I naturally land up there, and find the place teeming with people and the delicious aroma of fried pakoras in the air.
The vendors have been making and selling pakoras for generations, so they follow a system that could teach a lesson or two to modern plants with an assembly-line production. Most of the pakoras have been lightly fried once and kept aside. You ask for a kilo of, say, assorted pakoras, and a gentleman at the counter puts them on a platter and sends them towards the man standing by a huge kadhai filled with hot oil. There is a line of platters — all with different kinds of pakoras — in front of him. He takes the lot from the first platter, dunks them in the hot oil for a few seconds, and then takes them out with a slotted spoon and puts them back on the platter, which goes back to the man you'd first approached. He puts them in a packet and gives them to you.
The assorted pakoras include fritters of potatoes, chopped onions, green chillies and spinach and are for Rs.100 a kilo. Paneer pakora is for Rs.240 a kilo. I take my packet of assorted pakoras from Durga Sweets and make my way to Haji Sa'ab's shop, 30 yards down from Jawahar's restaurant close to Jama Masjid. He is known for his fried chicken, but I love his keema golis — little balls made out of minced meat. But I am too late; the locals have beaten me to it. By the time I reach Haji Sa'ab's, his counters are all empty. So I walk ahead a bit and reach Kallan Sweets, at the mouth of Matia Mahal. Kallan is known for its sweets, but during Ramzan it makes the most delicious keema samosas, sold for Rs.15 a piece. The samosas are shaped like a gujiya, and filled with a stuffing of spiced mince. I try out one, and then move on.
I had just walked a few steps when I noticed a man selling keemey ke goli right in front of Jama Masjid. The vendor — called Zameer Ahmed — sits there only in the month of Ramzan, during the time when people lift their fast. The tiny keema golis — again hot and spicy — are for Rs.120 a kilo.
I ate some keema golis, and then walked down the long road in front of Jama Masjid savouring the sights and the sounds of the place. On one side, there were heaps of pheni — vermicelli mounds — and khajla — flour pancakes — that people were buying to take home with them. This would be their early morning fare before they begin their fasts. On another side, vendors were selling all kinds of snacks — from mixed fruit chaat to tiny dahi vadas. Other stalls had heaps of dates — a filling and nutritious fruit to break a fast with.
Men in skull caps rushed to and fro, to get back home before iftaar. Women did their last-minute shopping, and children ran around, laughing and playing. In some of the stalls, a group of workers sat together, eating from the same plate, before they got back to work in their food stalls. Elsewhere, the tradition of fakiri — feeding the poor — was being followed.
I always get a nice feeling when I am in the Jama Masjid area during Ramzan. It is, for many, the season of give and take.