India’s largest mosque, the beautiful Jama Masjid, is at it’s most charismatic right now during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. For food-lovers the time to go is early evening, just before ‘Iftaar’ when thousands of Muslims wait patiently for the day’s fast to end. Soak up the atmosphere of spiritual devotion and unbearable anticipation – minds focussed on Allah, stomachs on the tiffin boxes in front of them.
Either take a picnic and join in the feasting in the courtyard of the mosque – even if you arrive empty-handed, people will rush over with food to share as soon as they get the sign to dig in – or leave by Gate 1 and take a stroll into Matia Mahal, one of Old Delhi’s most bustling and atmospheric bazaars. On Ramadan evenings, the whole area is totally food-focussed and it’s virtually impossible to eat badly (or lightly!). I plan to have a Kebab, Biryani, Korma, Shahi Tukda-fest myself in the next couple of weeks and report back with pics.
I was on a non food-related errand in Old Delhi the other day – my intrepid Dutch friend Laura was showing me the hand-made wallpaper shop in Chawri Bazaar. But flicking through swatches of flock can make a girl peckish; once we’d identified a few home makeover ideas, we decided to cut through the lanes behind the car parts market to Matia Mahal.
During my last trip there, I noticed that Al-Jawahar restaurant had Stew or ‘Ishtoo’ as it’s usually called, on the menu and made a mental note to check it out for the book I’m researching on the legacy of British food in India. My Anglo-Indian food expert friend Bridget White confirms ‘Ishtoo’ was indeed a dish left behind by the Brits, “Yes, Ishtoo is nothing but the good old Brown Stew,” she said, “Hindi speaking people can’t pronounce any word starting with the letter “s’ they always use “Is” instead. This is because they use the Hindi phonetics while talking English!!!”
‘Ishtoo’ is India’s Chicken Tikka Masala – a dish tweaked to suit the local palate but bearing very little resemblance to anything you might find in the country of origin. It’s found in different guises all over India. Bridget’s Anglo-Indian version is the closest to the original – she even recommends dumplings to go with it. In Kerala it’s called ‘Ishtu’ and is laced with coconut. At Al-Jawahar it comes with chunks of tender meat and a copious sauce – here I think Indians have definitely improved on the original – even as a kid, I always thought the sauce was the best bit – preferably with a mountain of mash on the side. Here the sauce has a definite tang – Laura thought anardana (dried pomegranate) seeds; I think maybe a dash of vinegar. Although scarcely recognisable as the dish I grew up with in the north of England, Laura and I mopped up every last drop.
Like nearby Karim’s, Al-Jawahar is a restaurant with a history although locals with a long memory will tell you neither is what it used to be. They’re both still pretty damn good although overall I prefer Al-Jawahar – it’s clean and airy, the waiters smart and attentive, the vibe more unassuming and serene than its more famous neighbour. Al-Jawahar is my new favourite place to take a break from the bazaars – I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to try out some authentic Old Delhi dishes but wary of diving straight into street food.
Address: Al -Jawahar, Matia Mahal, near Jama Masjid, Old Delhi. Tel: 011 23261341