Old Delhi Spice Market

by Wes Marshall

We’ve imagined being here for most of our adult lives, but even our dreams understate the reality. The mass of humanity is breathtaking and the senses stagger. Neon-hued saris pale next to the explosive rainbow of produce, herbs and spices while the aromas of cardamom, cinnamon, garam masala, cloves, nutmeg and cumin hit as hard as the audio of a third-row seat at an AC/DC concert.

My wife, Emily, and I are at the Old Delhi spice market in India, the center of the universe for Mughlai cuisine—a style of cooking prevalent in northern India (especially Uttar Pradesh and Delhi), Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Indian city of Hyderabad, and often associated with the distinctive aroma and the taste of ground and whole spices. If the supreme Mughal leader Shãh Jãhan should look down from the highest garden of paradise, he would be pleased.

Along with us is our guide, Srinivasan “Raj” Rajendran. He takes us places where the folks look as amazed to see us as we are to see the treasures of their twisted passageways. Raj stops now and then at street vendors, the best of which features a man making kela ka paratha—unleavened bread stuffed with plantains that have been hyper-spiced with coriander, ginger and turmeric.

After a few hours of wandering from stall to stall, Raj takes us to lunch near Jama Masjid, the principal mosque in the area. He chooses Karim’s, the legendary 100-year-old place known for its heavenly Mughlai cuisine, and orders a spread that includes seekh kebab (minced lamb with cilantro, garlic, ginger, cumin and chaat masala), chicken and mutton burra (marinated meat with curds and balsamic vinegar), mutton keema (spicy fried minced lamb), roomali roti (whisper-thin flatbread), biryani (fried rice with meat, eggs and vegetables) and kheer (sweet spiced rice pudding).

We soon discover that Raj has two agendas. First, he wants us to taste the wonderful food, but second, he wants to check whether we’re game enough to withstand a little excitement, because our next step is into an area few outsiders ever see. Raj asks if we wonder where all of the spices come from. Frankly, we have been so wrapped up in the experience that we hadn’t thought about it. Raj has us follow him down a snaking alleyway. We wander past dozens of tiny shops and land just to the left of a tight staircase. We start up and when we emerge, we are at the top of a huge courtyard of a grand old home. Since squatters have long ago taken over this place, there’s really no discernible title to the property—people just move in and take a slot. We have arrived at the wholesale area of Khari Baoli—the heart behind India’s spice trade.

Short, skinny porters lumber by, carrying 100-kilo burlap bags filled with mystery spices and aromas sufficient to take the breath away. Two barbers busy themselves in makeshift shops set up on the walkway while a young couple settle into one of the beautiful old bedrooms, soon to be their family’s home. Walking around, we notice that each room is a specialty store offering a single item. Peppers are grouped into one area, while sticky fruits and intoxicating powders are in another. Out on the street, the individual stalls vie for attention—each an intense concentration of its specialty item, forcing a buyer to attend to the minute variations in skin texture and color, but also allowing the deep attention to singular aromas.

We leave our adventure in India struck by a few thoughts: despite the fact that the country has poor public health and safety utilities, the private sectors of the spice market are clean—we never once had a problem eating street food and we’re stunned by the monomaniacal pursuit of food perfection. We’ve traveled the world’s great food markets on all the continents save Africa, and the only one that comes close to Old Delhi’s spice market is the Tsukiji market in Tokyo, where they pursue fish with the same singular vision that the people of Delhi pursue spices. For anyone with an interest in food—not just Indian food, but any food—the Old Delhi spice market must be considered an essential pilgrimage to a culinary mecca.