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It’s tough to define the paratha. ‘Stuffed’, unleavened bread? But there’s the breakfast-staple ‘plain’ paratha. ‘Fried’, unleavened bread? The tandoori paratha hath not a trace of fat in it. Fried, unleavened bread could also be the poori. And if both fried and stuffed, it could be the kachori.
Oh, you meant fried, unleavened bread ‘made on a griddle’? But that’s just your homely tawa paratha. You seriously need to step out to extend your horizon of the paratha-sphere.
Till recently, I would have placed my mother-in-law’s parathas at the very top. Employing a special deep griddle that can hold a few spoonfuls of oil at the base, she has been conjuring the crispest, crackling, golden-brown parathas for decades. The line dividing her parathas from kachoris is thin indeed.
But more than the frying, it is their copious stuffing that marks out ma-in-law’s parathas.
It’s only fair then that, after four years of beginning my days with such treats, I consider myself a paratha connoisseur. And having moved base to Delhi, it was just a matter of time before I set out to try the parathas of its fabled Parathewali Gali.
Actor Akshay Kumar claims he grew up in the Gali, and when his Chandni Chowk to China releases next January, the lane might have a cameo in it. But till then, it must remain – as it has in living memory – famous for parathas alone.
Inside any of its old shops you will find framed photographs of stalwarts like Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri enjoying a meal. Some of the shops, like those started by Kanhaiya Lal Durga Prasad Dikshit and Pandit Gaya Prasad, are veritable institutions. Gaya Prasad’s, for instance, opened in 1872 –- Mahatma Gandhi was three years old at the time!
The Gali’s heyday was in the 1960s, when more than a dozen old paratha shops summed up Old Delhi’s night life this side of Jama Masjid. Owned and run by UP Brahmins, they were a veggie foil for the Masjid area’s non-vegetarian excess.
Today, though only five of the old shops remain, their popularity is undiminished. At mealtimes, on weekends especially, you would need to wait a while for a turn at the table. I waited almost 20 minutes outside Kanhaiya Lal Durga Prasad Dikshit’s, but it was time well spent in studying their operations.
The Gali’s paratha artists clearly don’t cut corners in anything. Even if the filling is of dry fruits, they pile them on with a free hand. The dough gets more than a little oil after being rolled into a pancake, and the paratha itself is deep fried in a shallow kadhai (trough) rather than on a griddle. The last bit is perhaps made necessary by the sheer rush of customers. Were they to crisp their parathas gradually on a deep griddle, as we do at home, they wouldn’t be able to serve more than 10 orders in an hour. In the boiling kadhai, the parathas are turned vigorously like records on a turntable, and are fried before you’ve stopped gawping at the bubbling oil.
As for fillings, every shop has at least 20 different varieties on offer. These range from the basic (aloo paratha) to the curious (nimbu paratha) to the outlandish (khurchan paratha—khurchan is milk reduced to a flaky consistency by boiling). Prices, however, remain reasonable even if you opt for a cashew nut filling. Thirty rupees is about the most expensive that a paratha gets here.
Unlike a typical sit-down restaurant, the mood in the Gali’s shops is quite ‘live’. As soon as I mention my choice of filling, loud voices ring out: “ek gobhi (one cauliflower paratha)”, then a louder counter check, “ek gobhi?” and a confirmation, “gobhi.”
A loud clap that would do credit to Mumbai’s eunuchs marks the slapping down of dough on to the chakla (rolling board). My order is being processed.
A minute later, the sound of stainless steel meeting wood heralds the arrival of my gobhi paratha. It is golden brown all right. And when I tap it with a spoon, it crackles too. I break open the paratha, expecting a shower of grated cauliflower but it does not happen. Yet, the skin is nicely lined with gobhi flakes like the inside of a felt jacket.
At this point, I dismiss the critic in me and dig into the paratha with eyes shut tight. Mmm. “Ek gajar (carrot) paratha,” I motion to the boy who’s hung on in anticipation.
Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi is now connected by the Delhi Metro. The station lies on the Central Secretariat-Vishwavidyalaya line, which also passes through Connaught Place and the inter-state bus terminus at Kashmere Gate. Parathewali Gali is just a five-minute walk away from the Metro station’s exit.