Slurping ‘Ishtoo’ in Al-Jawahar

Matya Mahal Bazaar

Matia Mahal Bazaar

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.

Al Jawahar Menu

Al Jawahar Menu

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!!!”

Al-Jawahar Ishtoo

Al-Jawahar Ishtoo

‘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

19 thoughts on “Slurping ‘Ishtoo’ in Al-Jawahar

  1. Ishtew in Delhi is a close cousin of the do-piaza elsewhere in towns of North India. The sauce is essentially onion based and, in most cases, would have fried onions (called ‘barista’) added little before cooking is completed (or the whole gravy may itself be fried onions based).

    Kerala stew is a coconut milk based dish rather than coconut itself

  2. @ Sangeeta, thanks …. I love getting your comments – tell me when you have some time to go to Old Delhi and we’ll go together

    @Siddartha – I’m fascinated by how it came to be named ‘Ishtoo’ though There may have been a straight swap – Dopiaza is really popular in UK too!

  3. Thanks Pam for another lovely piece on old Delhi degustation … I concur completely on the etymology of the word Ishtew – it has to be a brown stew adaptation, notwithstanding the Dopiaza flavour! Posting it on FB for your growing fan following in Washington DC amongst my friends …

  4. It would be really interesting to know the etymology of Ishtoo/Ishtu..Good luck with your research, Pamela!

    Considering that even the Kerala Ishtu and Delhi/Awadh Ishtu are as different as as chalk and cheese, I am not sure if it is a case of the Britsh Stew having traveled and evolved (else the two dishes would have had some similarity due to a common origin), most likely just its just the name that came to our shores!

    Many restaurants in Britain have chunks of onions in their dish, and many others use tomato which makes them very different from the Delhi and Lucknow versions. Problem is that Do-piaza or Ishtu (or most moghlai or Avadhi dishes) does not suit ‘made to order’ format of a restaurant (which the dhaba-style punjabi food lends itself to, very well), as it has to be pre-cooked and kept (famous sight of the Karim’s pots placed on emebrs just to keep the food warm).

  5. Pamela,

    Whilst in India, why not give Vegetarianism a shot ? ( Vegetarianism, and not just having the occassional vegetarian dish). You know, Live and Let Live !

    Vegetarianism is good for the body and soul, and India does vegetarian like no place else on earth !

  6. Once again you did it..damn I am so much missing these delicacies…well I will have to cook “ishtoo” today…Yea, my mom sent me “ishtoo Masala”, and its really easy to cook it..though I am no where close to the likes of Al-Jawahar ,Karim’s or my Mom, but not that bad too 😉

    Thanks Pam for stuffing my childhood in your tasty posts.

    Keep munching, keep posting!


  7. Thanks Khurram – I’d love your Mum’s Ishtoo recipe too! btw – we did some filming in Old Delhi yesterday with FR2 (you live in France I think?) to be broadcast on lunchtime news on Monday. I was hopeless but should be some lovely footage of the Old City!

  8. Love your blog. Dream of Kebabs in New Delhi – while stranded in Kansas City (where the BBQ is good, but can not compare to “shehar” cooking), happened to type in “Eating Kebabs in New Delhi and yours was the second website to crop up.
    Now about Al Jawahar – I have no idea why people go to Al Jawahar when there’s Jawahar just next door. Best Nahiri/Paaya in the world. Beats Al Jawahar any day. I still remember when my father took me there for the first time. I was a lad of 10 and it was already a legend in my mind. My father (himself a mean cook), uncles, grandparents, older cousins had all waxed eloquent about it.
    We were South Delhi Wallahs – born and raised on hearty refugee fare – but my dad used to do business in Jama Masjid and my mom came from a family of true Delhiwallahs. Old Delhi food held was held in mythical esteem in our house – but back in the day Jama Masjid still had the abattoir and it was no place for a kid.
    Also it was a good hour and a half affair to get to.
    Well when the fateful day arrived – it was an early winter’s morning, the city swathed in fog as we set out for the old city. I remember it was a little before 7:00 am when we parked our Maruti car in a secret parking lot (where my father was known and there was no danger of the car stereo or tires being filched and sold in Chor Bazaar!!). We negotiated our way through Mughal alleys, dodging sturdy Muslim porters carrying plastic crates of iced fish, pushing carcasses of freshly slaughtered goat, sheep and buffalo on elongated hand carts, me brushing against soft and greasy tahmats. These streets were familiar to my father, but for me it was a total transportation – I thought I was a part of the 1001 nights.
    The streets were soft to walk on – we squelched away on inches of trampled offal and from time to time I had to be tugged back into a trot by my father as enraptured I tried to figure out whether it was a gall bladder or an eye I had just squished up beneath my feet.
    We arrived to see a dingy little place. The store front had a row of steel pots on one side and a tandoor on the other. The pots were manned by an older Muslim gent while the tandoor was attended to by two younger leaner men.
    I smelt the food and immediately grew another stomach. My father looked at me as I stood drooling foodlust glazing my corneas, and I think I spotted a tear of joyful pride in the corner of his masculine ocular orb.
    My father was greeted by the very cordial gent besides the pot. He was the owner. I was introduced as Munne-Mian. Awestruck I was instructed to Bismillah.
    My father sat me down – enquired if they were still serving breakfast. Once that was ascertained he proceeded to ask for an order of Paaya and another of Naahiri – with a roti each for the both of us. I remember him asking for the roti to be extra crispy.
    At the time I thought that that was unnecessary but have since changed my mind.
    The extra crispy roti is just a bit drier than the normal roti – and thus instead of going limp and hard to handle when dipped in the shorva can retain form while absorbing enough of the delicious sauce so as to cause an absolute emotional orgasm in your mouth, while still adding to the textural nuances that are delighting the inside’s of your oral orifice – ergo a lot better than the normal roti)
    The food appeared before us. The shorva glistened and embracing the tender pieces of meat and trotters in a golden brown congress. The food smelt heavenly.
    I waited for my father to break bread and followed shortly thereafter. The roti broke clean, the bubbles of air trapped in the dough cooked in a flash inside the might tandoor were crisp and smooth on the outside and warm and soft on the inside. I dipped it in the shorva and ate my first morsel. I was overcome.
    My father urged me to liberally sprinkle the julienned ginger and chiffonaded green chillies on the curry. I nodded wordlessly and did as I was told.
    Still awestruck and still dumbfounded I placed the second morsel of food in my mouth and chewed and felt everything reveal itself to me. I sat being everywhere at everytime at once, being assaulted by waves after waves of flavor. The seven cities of Delhi came alive in my mouth. I was at one with my city and with all it had been through. It was mystical.
    We chewed in silence and gratitude as traders from Central Asia talked about how good the food was in what I imagined to be Uzbeki.
    A bond was formed that day.
    I loved my city from then on and I loved my father. That’s how I started eating in Old Delhi. That was sometime in ’89.
    Now twenty years or so later I am Delhi bound again – and you know what the highlight of my month long vacation is – going to eat Paaya – Naahiri at Jawahar with my father.
    So thanks again for writing about food in Old Delhi.

  9. Love your blog. I lived in Delhi many moons ago for a short 4 months but if you like mughlai food this is the place for you. Your blog brought back some fond memories. I remember the Calcutta Sweets place in Barakhamba rd vicinity which served some great chaats and Parthewali gaali, don’t remeber where, somewhere close to Nizamuddin where I used to live

  10. Sorry hit the return key by mistake but since you are interested in British food in India , have you considered Calcutta. The Old Clubs i.e. Tolly, Calcutta and Bengal still maintain traditions and food of the old Raj. Some of the popoular roadside foods are chops (meat /fish filled croquettes but spicy) and cutlets. Batterfried fish is pretty common in road side eateries Calcutta still has the largets anglo Indian population in India (if I am not mistaken) – good luck and love your blog

  11. I read about this blog in HT today and visited this for the first time. It is what I was searching for, being a lover of food and food talks.

    Have you tried biryani at Matka Peer dargah near Pragati Maidan ?

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