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Zakir Nagar: Serving the Emperors’ Food in a Ghetto

Photo: South Delhi Dispatch

By Sadiq Zafar
After overpowering Ibrahim Lodi and Rana Sanga, Babur established the Mughal Empire in Delhi. Since Babur was busy fighting his rivals, his nomadic life of warfare necessitated all those things, which were required for a longer stay. The Mughals came to India with their distinctive tradition, culture, art, architecture, and culinary. As Mughals were here to stay, their cooks got trained in the tradition of sub-continental food, which produced a fusion  between Central Asia, the region of Babur’s origin, and North India, the region which Babur occupied. The taste of cuisine varied from mild to extremely spicy, with a distinctive aroma. These scrumptious delicacies are famous throughout the sub-continent and there are people who serve them even today. Being a politically important city, Delhi still carries much of the Mughal traces as part of their legacy.

Zakir Nagar in Delhi is a residential pocket, a Muslim ghetto, adjacent to a high-end residential area, New Friends Colony. As soon as you take a turn from the ramp which marks the beginning of the Muslim locality, the streets become lively. Zakir Nagar has seen a lot of migrant population, resulting in a ghettoization of Muslims. After the demolition of Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, Delhi, along with other cities, started getting polarized. Zakir Nagar became introverted with least socially interactive spaces between communities. Sitting next to Jamia Millia Islamia University, Zakir Nagar has a huge population of those who are studying at the institution; the rest are the working population dwelling here for better employment opportunities.

As soon as one enters Zakir Nagar, one’s olfactory receptors are infected with the aroma of Mughlai food. There are a large number of such eateries, where such delicacies can be enjoyed which once graced the table of the Mughal emperors. As restaurants and eating joints operate late into the night and offer a variety of food at a reasonable price, it attracts university students and a sizeable working class diners. Ramzan nights are famous among the students of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), which has its residential hostel adjacent to this ghettoized Muslim locality. The glittery charm of Ramzan can be seen on the streets of Zakir Nagar through the night, as the eateries regale people with warm hospitality. As people from across the national capital flock this region for non-vegetarian food, Zakir Nagar serves a variety of non-vegetarian cuisines.

Nahari is one such food. Nahari derives its name from the root word, ‘nahar’, meaning morning. It was usually served during the morning hours when Mughals were ruling the subcontinent. Since then it has been tantalizing the taste buds of the inhabitants and the visitors. A spicy stewed meat cooked overnight reveals the preparation and presentation of an aesthetically appeasing balanced diet.

In Zakir Nagar, Javed’s nahari is famous throughout Delhi for the taste it has managed to maintain for long. At a throwaway price, Javed serves nahari in an area which celebrates such food. This landmark shop is always crowded with avid food lovers throughout the year, and special visitors during the month of fasting. As the eatery overflows, people often wait on street for their turn, testifying to the popularity of the place.

Javed shows the main wall at the entrance of his eatery with pride. The wall is adorned with excerpts from blogs, magazines, and newspapers, which covered this restaurant. While greeting those who enter the restaurant, Javed takes the feedback of those coming out of the restaurant. “My only aim is to serve better food, the quality for which we’ve been striving since the opening of this joint and which has helped us make it a brand. People from various parts of the city, even media persons, come to taste what we’re famous for,” says Javed. Umar Khan, a mass communications student at the university, who has shot a story in this restaurant, says that Javed’s restaurant is preferred by the students because of the quality of food and affordability.

As we move out of Javed’s restaurant, the next stop worth acknowledging is Lucknow’s famous galawati kebab. This dish was specially innovated by the rakabdars at the court of the Nawab of Oudh in Lucknow for Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. To please the Nawab, the cooks of the royal court came up with a dish from ground meat to suit his appetite and teeth. To prepare this mouth watering and soft cuisine, cooks marinate the ground meat and mix it with unripe papaya, leaving it for hours in a paste of exotic spices, which is then fried in a pan with minimal spray of ghee. Once the food of the Nawabs of Oudh, galawati kebab is now famous in the lanes of Lucknow and a celebrated joint Tunday Kebabi has been serving this food since generations. The taste of Tunday travelled all the way from Lucknow to Zakir Nagar carrying the legacy of the famous Nawabi food. Lucknow galawati in Zakir Nagar offers a variety of dainties, from chicken and buffalo meat kebab to chopped meat, kebab rolls and paranthas.

The only restaurant in Zakir Nagar which proudly carries the taste of lanes of the walled city of Shahjahanabad is Purani Dilli restaurant. This restaurant has been covered by a number of journals and magazines for the quality of food, aroma, and ambience. With elegant interior spaces, best suited for family gatherings, Purani Dilli maintains the tag of being the only high-end quality restaurant. It offers lamb, the only of its kind served in the area, and specializes in roasted meat items, which fill the whole setting with rich aroma.

This food street of Zakir Nagar which starts from Dilli Nahari hotel and ends at the Blender’s Point has an enormous variety of food. Nayab’s Mughlai Cuisine offers curry items made from chicken meat and specializes in the traditional taste of Mughlai food. Madina Biryani specializes in biryani mainly from the lanes of Old Delhi. Talib’s Seekh Kebabs serves stick (seekh) kabab roasted on the coal tray. Talib’s quality seekh kababs are best known among the students as it serves a platter full of hot roasted kababs in less time and at an affordable price. Blender’s Point is a fresh juice junction, where health-conscious and gym-freaks flock to enjoy the blend of fresh vegetable and fruit juices. The food joints also serve as spaces where students and bachelors gather in large number and discuss politics and religion.

The culinary aroma in Zakir Nagar reminds one of the heady days of Mughal India.

Sadiq Zafar completed his urban planning thesis on ‘Sustainable Development of the Yamuna Floodplain in Delhi’ at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Delhi.


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2 Responses to “Zakir Nagar: Serving the Emperors’ Food in a Ghetto”

  1. Shikeb Khan

    Article is powerful enough to raise my appetite. Writer is my favourite for his versatility , creative and grounded expressions in his writtings and work.


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