Text and photographs by Ritika Sharma
Kailash Jain claims he sells 10,000-15,000 jalebi rings a day, and each little plate is worth Rs 20.
By the end of the 18th Century, the Mughals were a spent force. They were mere puppets strung to the Marathas, the British and their own fickle nobility. The military might and treasures of their great forebears were exhausted, and to sweeten their sorry existence, the last 'emperors' had to resort to ordinary pleasures like sweetmeats...
In the old quarter of Delhi, a story is told about emperor Shah Alam II, who was especially fond of sweets from a shop beside a school in Chandni Chowk, the wide road that leads from Red Fort to Fatehpuri Masjid. Every afternoon, the school's ghanta (bell) would be the blind dynast's cue to send for sweets from the shop, which he fittingly called 'ghantewala'!
This 'Ghantewala' is still around, more popular than before. And though I don't know which one of its many excellent sweets the Mughal was most fond of, sohan halwa a crunchy sweet made from sprouted wheat and assorted nuts is undoubtedly the shop's greatest claim to fame today. This halwa is not native to Delhi; that honour probably goes to Ajmer where it is sold at dozens of shops around the Dargah. But for quality, I am tempted to rate Ghantewala's version higher.
Ghantewala is but one of the many sweetmeats specialists in Chandni Chowk, and though it is the oldest, many of its peers are no less legendary. Take, for instance, the Old and Famous Jalebiwala (as the shop now styles itself) at the intersection of Dariba and Chandni Chowk. It's been around since 1880, when Nem Chand Jain, a resident of Agra, started frying jalebis at a makeshift stall.
Jalebiwala's jalebis are thick, as thick as say your ring finger... Which is why they are juicy. Not necessarily to everyone's taste, but they have a following. Owner Kailash Jain claims he sells 10,000-15,000 jalebi rings a day, and each little plate is worth Rs 20. That's some scale of operations!
Stray from Chandni Chowk, into the parallel Kinari Bazaar, and you will find Hazari Lal Jain's famous 'khurchan bhandar'. It's a shop specialising in a rare sweet called khurchan, which is made simply by boiling down a lot of milk into a flaky mass. Typically, five litres of creamy milk boiled for an hour yields just 1 kg of khurchan. At the end of the effort, the semi dry milk solids cling to the trough, and need to be scraped off, which is why its called khurchan (khurachna is Hindi for scraping). It is said that a former PM was a big fan of Hazari Lal's khurchan, and even took a boxful of it across the border as a gesture of friendship!
Back in Chandni Chowk, walking from the Jalebiwala towards Ghantewala's, you will come across another old shop called Kanwarji's. It's been around since 1830, and is famous for imartis and gulab jamuns. The shop lies at the entrance of the Parathewali Gali, and tantalises passersby with its brightly lit display of imartis.
Although not a Delhi institution and no longer a strictly mithai shop, Haldiram's, just across the road from Kanwarji's, is another Chandni Chowk landmark. It's popular with foreign tourists and Indian families for its show of hygiene and the fact that it's got ample seating. But if you place taste over style, visit Haldiram's somewhat rundown neighbour, Annapurna Bhandar. It is Delhi's best shop for Bengali sweets, and has been around since 1929, when a certain Mukherjee babu established it. They do a range from sandesh to rosogollas but what critics love the most are their not-overly-sweet kancha golla and ras madhuri. I would also vouch for their mishti doi.
Further up, you will find Tewari Brothers, which claims to be a Kolkata institution and has been around in Delhi since 1986. The shop has a reputation for the best kaju-anjir barfi. But the more modest motichoor laddus are just as much a work of art. Not too sweet, nor chewy, they melt in the mouth, without the cheap aftertaste of vanaspati.
Having come this far, you are just a minute away from Fatehpuri Masjid and another of Delhi's old mithai shops: Chaina Ram Sindhi. This one claims to be the origin of the gooey Karachi halwa. As for the sweet's name, the shop has its origin in Karachi, where it was founded in 1901. Post Partition, the owners set up shop in Delhi, and have never had to 'look back' since. Another old shop nearby is Giani di Hatti, which is famous for its rabri faluda and urad dal halwa. In winter, it is equally popular for its gajar halwa. But then, that's one treat every third shop on the road offers during December-February.
If you have a sweet tooth, you would be spoilt for choice in Chandni Chowk. There are just too many sweetmeats shops around, each with a mind-boggling array of common and uncommon treats. And then, if you're lucky, you'll also find a lone ranger or two hawking a seasonal secret. Take for instance Raj Kumar, who I met outside Kanwarji's in February. He was selling a fairy white sweet called daulat ki chaat out of a small trough. Guess what the sweet was all about. It was simply the accumulated froth from churning a mixture of milk and cream on a cold night!