As I enter the narrow lane between Kanwar ji Halwai and JSK Sherwani Center and come into the famous Parathe Wali Gali, my senses are accosted by the vapours rising from slow-simmering, hissing kadhais in which are frying an endless array of stuffed parathas. People pour out of the usual suspects – Pt. Babu Ram Devi Dayal, Pt. Gaya Prasad Shiv Charan Parathe Wale… The odd naan khatai cart sits in the lane with its tava giving off a gentle warmth that is incredibly comforting in Delhi’s cold, foggy evenings. Shops that seem smaller than grown men offer ‘spatial’ lassi and rabdi. Yet I must not succumb to any of these delicacies. I am in search of an all-together different experience.
As Parathe Wali Gali peters out, a few bedraggled vegetable sellers mark its end and I land at the doorstep of the impossibly glitzy and shimmering Kinari Bazaar. I shuffle through the lane, lined with shops selling everything from turbans to buttons, all in violent colours and with enough bling to make rap stars look drab. On my right, I spot a small platform no more than 6 feet long and 4 feet wide with a bilious pink wall behind it. I am in luck, for on the platform sits a man in a ragged white dhoti, a drab, nondescript shirt with a bright red tilak below a sparse head of hair with an endless array of metal pots and pans and cane baskets for company. I have arrived at Padam Chaat Corner.
Padam ji or Pandit ji as he is fondly called by regulars at the shop is a man who could step off his platform and walk straight into a cartoonist’s impression of a chaat wala from Old Delhi. He exudes an air of tremendous superiority as he sizes me up with his small, pale, watery eyes. In front of him, arranged in myriad pots, pans and baskets is a selection of chaat, which he calls Kitty Party. Paani poori, kachodi, raj kachodi, bhalla paapdi, paapdi chaat, and kalmi vada are on offer. I walk up and ask for paani poori. Pandit ji’s eyes flash and with rehearsed ease, a pattal is handed to me while his other hand begins to stir a jar with pale green water in it. The lady next to me, anxiously clutching her pattal and waiting, begins to plead ‘Pandit ji sooji ke dijiyega aur khatta zyaada nahi’. She turns to let her friend know ‘Mera na, gala ek dum tolerate nahi karata!’ Pandit ji lets off a snigger and then lunges at the large basket of pooris. One after another, delicious savoury sweet complex pooris brimming with water, chutneys, soft boiled potatoes and pickled guava find their way into the pattals. The ladies and I impatiently reach forward, out of turn unwilling to let the assault on our taste buds end. After four pieces each, Panditji stops and leans back into the wall behind him. His eyebrow rises and his hands drip water onto the ground below. He is waiting for us, his doting clientele, to praise him. The lady, who has turned a startling shade of pink, asks for dahi. I, however, am still hungry, or rather greedy. I ask Pandit ji, ‘Ek aur plate.’ Now I have earned his interest. He asks ‘Variety ya simple?’ Without missing a beat, I ask for variety – it is, after all, the spice of life.
Panditji is on song now. He serves me four paani pooris, one after the other. The first is a searingly hot paani, encased in an ata poori. As my ears pop, I hear a policeman in the lane behind us profess an intimate relationship with a hapless rickshaw puller’s mother, sister and father in quick succession. The second poori is a delightfully tangy one, with a hit of pickled guava that sends my taste buds into heaven and my brow into a sweaty mess. As I recover from the culinary assault on my senses, a Honda Activa nudges my bottom while it’s rider winks and says ‘Side de na!’ The third poori is a sinfully sweet affair loaded with saunth.
A furious conversation about the neck of a blouse being too deep has broken out between a mother and daughter in the tailoring shop behind me. Caught in the cross fire, the tailor desperately pleads innocence. Padam ji now fixes me with a blank stare. He will now make me an offer I cannot refuse. He gently places a dahi filled poori on my plate. The soothing dahi calms my burning mouth before a gentle hit of citrus leaves it feeling clean. How Pandit ji extracts so many flavours from the same combination of chutneys and water is probably a state secret. As I down the dregs of water in my plate, the maestro gives me a wry smile and enquirers ‘Khush?’. I smile and offer only my salaams. I ask him ‘Pehli plate mein bhi variety khila dete.’ He glares and informs me ‘Har aadmi deal ke liye tayaar nahi hota.’ I wonder if Trump learnt the art of the deal from Panditji. I pay my dues and walk away. If the Padma awards had a category for culinary contributions to Indian culture, Padam ji would be a winner by default.