A Walk in Khari Baoli Spice Market

All my birthdays and Christmases came at once last Thursday when good friend Nita offered to help me explore  the area around her family’s office in Khari Baoli Spice Market. Now,  I never need much of an excuse to go to Old Delhi but when an insider offers to show you around, it’s time to drop everything and run!

Three of us  set off  mid-morning  for what would turn out to be one of my most memorable days in Old Delhi.  We started at the Naya Bazaar end of Khari Baoli – Nita’s friend and foodie extraordinaire Anil, on holiday from his home in Paris, also came along and brought a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’ to the jaunt.  Anil has the most amazing ability to get people to behave naturally in front of the camera and I spent a lot of time pestering him for tips – hope something has rubbed off!

For once, though, this wasn’t an eating trip, but a time to look, listen and try to scribble down as much as possible as fast as possible –  Nita was wonderful at coaxing out the kind of in-depth information that my ‘tuta puta’ Hindi prohibits, and by the end of the day my head was swimming with the discovery of new foods, recipes, folklore and family history. We also returned home with a whole heap of new (to me)  ingredients to play with.  Wah kya bat hai? as they say in these parts!

At one of the dried fruit and nut stalls at the entrance to Fatehpuri Mosque we staggered away laden with prunes, dried mulberries  from Afganistan and dried plums from Kashmir.  These remind me of a Scottish sweet from my childhood called Soor Plooms – you can’t help screwing up your face  when the intense flavour hits your tongue.  I’ve got my eye on them for a lamb tagine. Nita bought a  big bag of  Makhana (puffed lotus seed)  which she remembered as the ‘Indian popcorn’ of her childhood and recreated for us later at her house by cooking quickly in ghee and sprinkling with salt – I’d be very happy to watch a film with a bowl of that in my lap.

A box of walnuts

At one stall, I  tucked a Reetha nut into my bag – apparently Reetha, along with Shikakai is a traditional hair conditioning treatment  – Nita remembers well the glossy locks of the ladies of her family who swore by it.

We saw little  jaggery cakes topped with nuts,  given to new mothers to build up their strength, then both silver and gold Warque – the edible foil that decorates sweets and desserts – earmarked for my home-made version of street food bread pudding Shahi Tukda.

Jaggery cakes

silver warque

A whole sheet of Warque is beaten from that tiny square in the front of the picture.

I discovered that there are three grades of Khoya (milk solid). The most solid, which is sold in a cake shape is used  for barfi, the other two are used in looser-structured items  like Milk Cake and desserts like Rasgulla.

Three Grades of Khoya

One thing I recommend for  every trip to Old Delhi is to dive into a  random gully, somewhere you’ve never been before. These secret worlds always take my breath away and  the warren of alleys between Khari Baoli  and Church Mission Road is no exception. This is way off the usual  visitor map, the scenes are medieval; lane after lane of traders sitting under portraits of their ancestors, counting their money, muttering sagely about different grades of spice and sending porters scurrying. Scarcely, you imagine, ever seeing the light of day.

Spice Wholesaler

In fact some traders were worried we could bring some of the smaller lanes – no more than about a foot wide – to a complete standstill – there just wasn’t room for photography, information-gathering and porters going about their business.

A gully in Khari Baoli

A Khari Baoli porter

One of the most fascinating shops was an Ayurvedic wholesaler  -I didn’t recognise any of his wares including this one that looks like fossils

A sack of 'fossils'

We saw melons the size of a man’s torso

giant melons

Anil pointed out the accidental art  in the way things are arranged – any faults in composition have been introduced by me!

pavement tea stall

pots and ledgers

There was no shopkeeper here so we still don’t know what was in the jars but  I did rush off and buy some of these  beautiful old-fashioned ledgers from one of the paper shops on the main Khari Baoli road – I intend to keep a very rigorous ‘Hisaab’ from now on!

This sack-load is called Laccha, sun-dried shards of potato which are brought back to life by a brief immersion in sizzling oil then either eaten as a ‘Namkeen’ snack or used on top of dishes like Dhansak


Emerging, blinking into the harsh light of the main bazaar, a small vegetable trader, Amar Devi, from Gujarat, caught our eye.  She was only selling about 6 items but each one was at its peak of seasonal fabulousness,  just begging to be bought.

Some of our swag

Fresh chick peas


We left with armloads of amla, gleaming fat green and red chillies, fresh chick peas, plump lemons  and a pickle recipe from a fellow customer, which will, of course be the subject of another post.

This was our (approximate – you’ll have to grant me some artistic licence with the gullies!) route – it took us about 4 hours to walk a few hundred yards – no stall or shop was left unexplored!

21 thoughts on “A Walk in Khari Baoli Spice Market

  1. Everytime I go to old Delhi I see new foods I can’t wait to try, even if I don’t know what they are…and usually, by the next time I go back, I’ve managed to find out about them on your blog. Keep up the fabulous exploration and new discoveries!

  2. Tenille – Same – every time I go I come back with 25 new things to think about! How’s the baking going?

  3. Hi, I think those chick peas are Chholia (not chick peas), but then I could be wrong. Chholia is usually sold still on vine (like edamame).
    I honestly think that you are the very cat’s whiskers. I am in the frozen Canada but moving back to India this year. Are you ever planning on taking a group on a guided walking tour ?
    If so, love to join it.

  4. Lovely pics – I want fresh chickpeas! What are Amla? My kids have home sprouted alfalfa in thier lunch bozes this week – I am torn between pride and worrying if that is just sad. xjk

  5. @ Narender thanks for your very kind comments – I suffer from pulse confusion – are chick peas not the same as cholla? I will be organising some food walks – get in touch when you’re back!
    @ Geoff – thanks
    @Jackie – the fresh chick peas are really delicious! Amla is an Indian wonder-food, a type of very sour gooseberry. Use for pickles and in dals, generally considered to be good for whatever ails you! http://tinyurl.com/yhontn4

  6. Sorry to muddle the issue, these are two items confused with each other. chick peas versus black gram. What I think is in the picture is fresh black gram also know as Chollia (not chollay – that is chick peas). You can see the difference very clearly in the dried pulses. Chick peas are ivory in colour and black gram (look same shape as chickpeas but usually smaller), is well: black and/or very dark brown.
    Out in the Canada I was confused when people were referring to Besan as chickpea flour where it is actually black gram flour. Guess what, I went to a bulk food store and they DID have chickpea flour – whitish not yellow like Besan. Hope this helps. Amla is Emblic Myrobalans, very astringent, sour, almost bitter, is one of the highest sources for Vitamin C, and god alone knows what other goodness. You should be able to find Amla powder, one of my relations, who is diabetic, swears by it and adds it to practically everything except tea (ha ha). I know it will be murderously hot in April/June when I am in town. I plan to explore some of the places described by you, Sitaram Dewanchand in P Gunj for sure. Thanks for the pleasure you give us all with your blog, please keep up the good work.

  7. Pamela,

    Very interesting indeed. I love to read about these non-politically-correct areas. When anyone says Delhi, it is limited to Vasant Vihar, Saket, GK, South Ex, Moolchand and max CP. People have forgotton that there is a Delhi beyond. Thanks for bringing this Delhi in focus.

    The big green melons are actually white pumpkins, Pethaa in Hindi, used for Pethe ki Mithai. The fossils look like dried Amla. The green “chickpeas” are actually baby black-gram. Chickpea is a white variety, called Kabuli-chana in Hindi, meaning Black gram from Kabul (Afgan).

    I was in this area showing parts of this stuff to a friend, amazing, he said.

    There are similar areas in most Indian cities worth exploring and writing about…nostalgia.


  8. Hey Pam, Sorry for my silence on this.Was away away away two weekends running. just caught this. Your lovely, inimitable style suffuses the mundane with sublime exotica. Loved going out there with you and Anil. Sharing this on my page. 🙂

  9. Hi Babaesha – I’m no expert but amla is considered a wonder-food – great source of vitamin C apart from anything else. Many Indians try and eat some every day. It’s sometimes made into pickle (I have a recipe I must post!) – I’ve also heard of it being put in dal

  10. @Babaesha
    amla is made into amla ka murabba (sweet). also, amla juice is very good for the skin and hair.
    I’ve been to the khari baoli market and the experience was wonderful. bought black currants and made my own version of black currant ice cream. When is the next uparwali chai event? Would love to attend it.

  11. Khari Boli,
    Every time I go to Delhi, even though I left the country fifty years ago, I invariably visit Khari Boli, The walk from Ajmeri Gate, Lal Kuan, Frashkhana is so nostalgic and then of course Fatehpuri Masjid…its great to walk the memory lane. Masalas do make you sneeze, but then I think, its worth it.

  12. Pingback: New Delhi Sightseeing | Urban Travel Blog

  13. Never heard of dried pomegranate in the whole, I think it suspiciously looks like betel nuts (broken pieces) But then I could be wrong

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