Delhi is full of thousands of parallel societies sharing a space that may as well span multiple, incompatible, dimensions. And if something like Karim's represents a point of confluence between Mughal Old Delhi and the greater India, well, I for one will pass.
But if you are lucky enough to find a local gem, to peek into another dimension of the city what do you do with this new found discovery? Say for example you find Hakim Biryani, a busy caterer to the Old Delhi wallas. Hakim is everything traditional Delhi is and everything the New Delhi is not. Family gatherings with one simple dish and large events sourced from the local specialist, each to his own dish. A truck would be helpless in these streets, a car could hardly fit through. So if you want to eat Hakim Biryani you must put aside your plans to eat out, cancel the caterer, give the cook a night off, and convince ten friends to join you for no other reason than to savour good food and good company.
We have a friend who just happens to love hosting and has a great apartment for the purpose. So one week in June we lined up a few good eaters and set out to arrange a biryani evening.
Orders for Hakim Biryani are paid in cash and upfront so we took an auto to Chawri Bazar through a few main streets into an alley. I noticed cages of chickens lined up for slaughter and wondered if they might be our dinner that week. Although Hakim's serves a full range of poultry and meat, we had already decided that chicken would be the safest bet, being the only dish we planned to serve. We knew we were there from the smell, deep spice and ghee, and by the pots. Hakim Biryani straddles two sides of the street, one side for prepping the food and managing business and the other for cooking. On the cooking side were four dechkis sitting over wooden fires (dechkis are biryani cookers – textured metal pots built wide at the bottom and funneled at the top). All around the rest of the shop were additional large pots and dechkis in various stages of preparation or cooling. Large pans of raw chicken were also being rinsed onto the floor of the shop. Seeing this was the one moment I thought, “Is this really a good idea?” But what the hell right? It's all cooked anyhow.
The manager sat down with us on a bench at the front of the shop and opened his spiral notebook. Many customers purchase their own rice and meat and hand it all over to Hakim Biryani for the heavy lifting. As a novice you can also ask someone from the shop to walk you through the process and with his help purchase ingredients from shops nearby. But of course you can also simply say, “Give me the best!” and decide right there on the overall price. We opted for the laziest route. While the money was handed over (1100 rupees for 5kg of the best quality rice and 3 kg of chicken) I absent mindedly watched bicycles and pedestrians fight their way down the street. I was jarred to consciousness by the manager's final question,
“What time will you pick it up?”
Wait, so not only did we have to haul our asses all the way out here in the middle of a hot day, we had to do it a second time and somehow carry 12 kgs+ when we left. I inquired about delivery to which he shook his head thoughtfully and asked where we needed it,
Without even starting a negotiation on price, the option of delivery was shot down. So ok, we knew we would somehow manage to get back here and pick the thing up. But that presented another problem. If the food wasn't going to be delivered we would need to bring our own pot, after all the dechkis are difficult to carry and would obviously have to be returned. Walking out through waves of heat we fought over the options: Buy a plastic bucket, buy a metal bucket, bring a bunch of pots and hope they hold it all. Would we be able to find an auto in the Old City carry such a load?
Thankfully it all worked out. I unearthed an empty metal grain bin with handles, which when we returned was the perfect size. The dechki was just coming off the fire when we arrived, perfect timing on their part, and was poured directly into the grain bin, assuaging any of my fears for salmonella. And of course since this is Delhi if you have to get from one place to another you will do it, somehow and eventually. We were lucky to get off without any catastrophe or spilled rice to cry over, back just in time to make a couple large bowels of raita and aubergine.
And it was worth it! Yes there is the chip on the shoulder we got to enjoy, impressing our friends with our savvy street smarts. I suspect a few people showed up just to see if we could actually deliver fresh Biryani. But it was also some of the best biryani many at the party had ever tried. The chicken was tender and moist, the smell from the spices filled the apartment and lingered as we ate. I don't know if it was the food, or the drinks, or the occasion, but the dinner turned into post dinner turned into early morning with many of us just sitting around sleeping or chatting and listening to the darkness outside. Maybe we are fools, maybe our 1100 rps went to the worst rice and meat and our senses were just heightened to the spices by the excitement of the discovery. But if that is the case, and I'm pretty positive it's not, if that is the case I'll be the first on line to get fooled again.