A nip in the city air draws a Moradabad family to Purani Dilli, which will be its home for the next five months. Baburam and his brothers churn out a delicacy that can only be conjured up in winter months. Once you spoon their gossamer dessert into your mouth, it disintegrates like the dew in sunlight.
Daulat ki chaat, as it is called in Delhi, goes by many names in the north. Malaiyo in Banaras, malai makhan in Kanpur, and nimish in Lucknow. Food historian Pushpesh Pant, who calls daulat ki chaat the “ultimate souffle”, says the name could have two roots-one, in the name of the man who may have introduced it to Delhi, and the other, in the fact that it was considered a rich dessert.
Third-generation chaatwallas and brothers, Rajesh Kumar, 31, and Baburam, 24, rent a two-room set in Sitaram Bazaar when in Delhi. Baburam wheels his daulat ki chaat pushcart into Dariba Kalan, Old Delhi’s jewellery hub, while his elder brother parks his wares in Gali Paranthe Wali. Two other relatives man a cart each in Daryaganj and Dariba.
This is a dessert that takes a whole night to prepare. Baburam’s recipe goes thus: in an aluminium bucket, mix raw buffalo milk, milk cream, kewra and “samundri panni”, probably a leavening agent though he is not clear on this. Park the bucket on an ice slab through the evening and night. Eight hours later, around 3am, a portion of this mixture can be removed and moved into a larger vessel and hand-churned.
Bleary-eyed, Baburam guides me to the ground floor rooms of a building in Sitaram Bazaar. His brother-in-law had just finished the hour-long churning process and worked up a milky foam that is transferred to a large thali.
Baburam takes over the reins as his brother-in-law settles for a quick nap. The business is tough and made tougher by the arrival of new players in the market. Beyond the romance of the sweet chaat, there are really some tough stories. Of sleep-deprived men living in cramped quarters, families that set out with pushcarts every morning and stay on the streets till the last bits are sold. Once winter ends, the family returns to its village to cultivate wheat, rice and pulses.
The finishing touches to the thali that Baburam is readying come in the form of yellow food colour and a garnish of khoya and pistachios. Baburam says kesar is used only for special orders. At Dariba, he scoops out the foam, places it in a dona and tops it with caster sugar and another helping of khoya. A small plate costs Rs 30 and a larger one, Rs 50.
At the other end of the city, in Friends Colony, I meet the man who makes daulat ki chaat through the year. Chef Manish Mehrotra doesn’t rely on the chill winter nights to make this dessert; instead, he uses nitrogen to instacool the ingredients-pasteurised milk, cream, kesar and nuts-before whisking up the foam. He serves it in a leaf platter placed on an earthen bowl decorated with fake paper currency notes.
“We talk of molecular gastronomy and it is a pity that old Indian specialities like daulat ki chaat are not marketed properly,” Manish says. He feels that several Indians don’t know much abo-ut this light dessert, which can be enjoyed even after a heavy meal.