As soon as we step off the metro station at Chandni Chowk, the cries of shopkeepers and the chaos of busy streets fill the air.
As we trudge along, the aroma of parathas strikes us.
The five senses scream, and the lips unwittingly smile at the sight of stuffed parathas being submerged in large cauldrons of boiling desi ghee. Fried, and beautifully transformed into golden-brown discs, they draw us closer.
Dariba Khurd, home to these parathas, was once known to be a barren alleyway littered with a few saree and silver shops before a family of Gwalior Brahmins gave it a new meaning 150 years ago.
“Aloo-puri and kaddu (pumpkin) ki sabzi are part of traditional cuisine served at most functions and weddings in Madhya Pradesh. That turned out to be a viable business opportunity when our ancestors moved to Delhi in search of work,” says Anil Sharma, owner of Pandit Gaya Prasad Shiv Charan, one of the first few shops established in 1872 and now run by the sixth generation of the Sharma family.
“Using the concept of puri — which is deep fried — they created stuffed parathas that were deep fried in desi ghee and served with the same sabzis such as aloo methi, kele-sonth ki chutney, and kaddu ki sabzi. They started with four varieties — aaloo, dal, besan and methi paratha,” says Sharma.
In a few years, the family branched out, opening more shops and at one point in time owned 10-12 paratha shops.
“Made with whole wheat flour, these parathas are stuffed with locally sourced ingredients and spices and deep fried. Deep frying is a surface treatment process. The oil will brown the outside and the steam will sear the inside. For this reason, these parathas tend to be less greasy, as they do not absorb as much oil/ghee as they do when pan-fried,” says HK Sharma, owner of Babu Ram Devi Dayal.
In addition to the classics, you can choose from savoury fillings and sweet fillings such as nimbu-pudina, mirchi, tomato, almonds, rabri, khoya and also the kulcha.
But all good things don’t last. With time, some of them had to down their shutters, sell their businesses and move on to something profitable.
Today, 150 years since it all began, smoke rises from only four outlets among the crumbling mansions: Babu Ram Parathe Wala, Pandit Gaya Prasad Shiv Charan, Kanhaiya Lal Durga Prasad and Babu Ram Devi Dayal.
Anil Sharma says people becoming calorie conscious and wanting experiment with new food has caused a decline in demand leading to the closure of many paratha shops.
“We mostly cater to local customers in and around the market. They come here for cheap and wholesome meal,” he says.
“I agree, the lane has lost much of its glory. Among the new crop of gourmet restaurants that have emerged all over the city, these humble paratha shops fail to impress. Moreover, these ghee-laden preparations don’t appeal to the urban calorie-conscious crowd,” he adds.
Anil Sharma also lays the blame on the owners’ inability to innovate due to meagre profits.
“People are hungry for something new, but they (the paratha shop owners) haven’t been able to innovate much,” he explains.
“The owners are struggling. Rents in the area have risen significantly over the years, leaving them with meagre profits. Because of space constraints and limited returns, they have struggled to expand. The fact that they have had to maintain reasonable rates to retain customers crushes any opportunity for growth.”
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