y January the sky was, at best, a soft grey marl but some days there was just a gradual shift from ebony to slate. Planes at Indira Gandhi International Airport were grounded by fog, lungs were attacked by a thick yellowish pall of smog and, as temperatures hovered near zero, many of the city's homeless people died on its freezing cold pavements.
But for food lovers, those very cold weeks in Old Delhi had some compensations. The markets were full of vibrant fruit and vegetables — spinach, mustard leaf, peas, beans and deep red "desi" carrots; strawberries, citrus fruits and the brilliant bunched orange orbs of ras bhari (cape gooseberries) beaming at us.
One of the great highlights of the winter is a heavenly milky dessert that makes a brief but unforgettable earthly appearance in the gullies of Old Delhi almost as soon as the last Diwali firecracker has fizzled. From then until Holi, the Daulat Ki Chaat vendors wander through the bazaars, their snowy platters dazzling in the pale sunshine, as if a dozen small, perfectly formed clouds have dropped from the sky.
Daulat Ki Chaat (meaning "snack of wealth") is probably Old Delhi's most surprising street food. Anyone expecting the punchy, spicy flavours usually suggested by the word "chaat" will be disappointed. It resembles uncooked meringue and the taste is shocking in its subtlety, more molecular gastronomy than raunchy street food, a light foam that disappears instantly on the tongue, leaving behind the merest hint of sweetness, cream, saffron, sugar and nuts; tantalising, almost not there. I've often wondered if Daulat Ki Chaat is a preview of what might be on the menu should we make it as far as the pearly gates.
The means by which a pail of milk is transformed into the food of the gods, though, is the stuff of Old Delhi legend rather than of the food lab. First, so the story goes, milk and cream have to be whisked by hand before dawn (preferably under the light of a full moon) into a delicate froth, then left out on grass to set by the "tears of shabnam" (morning dew) — but not too many, nor too few. At daybreak, the surface of the froth is touched with saffron and silver leaf and served with nuts and bura (unrefined sugar). Daulat Ki Chaat is only made in the coolest months because at the first ray of sunshine, it starts to collapse. It doesn't travel well either — to enjoy this very local speciality, a winter pilgrimage to the shady gullies of Old Delhi has to be made.
||It resembles uncooked meringue and the taste is shocking in its subtlety, more molecular gastronomy than raunchy street food, a light foam that disappears instantly on the tongue, leaving behind the merest hint of sweetness, cream, saffron, sugar and nuts; tantalising, almost not there.
As amazed bloggers and food writers have begun to rediscover the dish, there has been a renewed interest in this culinary treasure. Five years ago there were only a couple of Daulat Ki Chaat carts in Old Delhi; now there are perhaps 15 to 20. There is just one shop left, Hazari Lal Jain Khurchan Wale, that sells these silky white "scrapings", down at the Dariba Kalan end of Kinari Bazaar. If you visit early in the morning, before the wedding shoppers descend, you'll see Hazari Lal's men out on the street painstakingly reducing and scraping milk in giant cauldrons.
The preparation of Daulat Ki Chaat is much more secretive. I ran into my guruji, Rahul Verma, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club one night and he wasn't encouraging. "They'll never show you how it's made," he declared definitively. "They're almost certainly adding something to the milk to make it set and also they wouldn't want you to see the conditions in which they're operating."
Then, during one of the Civil Lines brunches, jalebiwallah Abhishek Jain said he would be happy to help. I jumped at the offer even though it was issued with dire warnings. By early February, when there were a few alarmingly warm and spring-like days, Abhishek must have felt under siege as I stepped up the pressure. Finally, he told me that he had asked the local police to get involved and promised to set up a meeting within a week. A few more days passed and Abhishek told me that one Daulat Ki Chaat vendor, Rakesh Kumar, was willing to show me his chaat being made but was demanding 5,000 rupees in exchange. Holi colours were already appearing in the markets, a sure sign of the imminent summer heat, and of the disappearance of Daulat Ki Chaat makers, so in desperation, I quickly agreed.
At 3.30 a.m. the next morning, Mr Mishra, our security guard, was curled up on the porch and I had to climb over him to get to the waiting taxi. One of our local taxi drivers, an old Sikh man named Mr Singh, had arrived to pick me up, probably assuming it was an airport or station run. Within 15 minutes we had reached the Sri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir guarding the entrance to Chandni Chowk and although the daytime chaos of cars, rickshaws and carts was missing, I could see there was still plenty of activity on the dark streets.
The gully was a filthy dead end strewn with garbage and rubble, pitch dark and silent apart from a distant rhythmic sound. As we walked through a once-grand archway and into a small room, the sound grew louder and I was suddenly enveloped in the pungent smells of milk, last night's dinner and life being lived in a confined space. Inside, most of the room was taken up by a bed and a mattress on the floor, both packed with people sleeping.