Spice Of History

What’s cooking at the Nizamuddin basti? First City finds out along with Hope Project

First City
| November 2003

This book is a slice of the culinary life of the Dargah.

Nestled in the Phoolwali Gali of Nizamuddin basti, a city amidst the city, is the family of the Hope Project Charitable Trust, an NGO that has been working with the people of the basti on issues of development, education, subsistence, et cetera. Active for the last 21 years, the efforts of Hope have made considerable changes in the lives of the basti’s residents. 18-year-old Salma’s story is just one such instance. After graduating from the education centre run by the Hope Project, Salma enrolled in Delhi University and started working as an assistant to a judge for Rs. 600 a month. She defied her brother who forbade her to go out of the basti, with the question: ‘Can you pay me Rs. 600 every month?’ Today, Salma has a monthly income of Rs. 4,000, enough to ensure a secure home for her family. As one of its latest endeavors, The Hope Project has recently brought out a very special basti cookbook, with its Sufi history and appeal intact.


‘A Cookbook from Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin’ reads the subtitle, and that’s pretty much stating the obvious. An initiative of the Hope Project, an NGO that works with the underprivileged women and children of the basti, this book is a slice of the culinary life of the Dargah. Charmaine O’Brien (whose earlier work Flavors of Delhi was well-researched), collaborates with The Hope Project on a unique and exceptional food book, this time around. A brief introduction capturing the essence of the Sufi History and Delhi sets the mode for the pages to follow. Divided into comprehensive sections, O’Brien writes in detail about each dish – the specifics, ingredients, method et cetera. Starting with festive specials in festival foods, the book then makes a foray into the world of snacks. Meat Dishes list out Gushtaba, Murghi ka Achaar, Dal Gosht, Maghz (Brain Curry), among several others; the vegetarians need not be completely disheartened either; they can try out the Aley Aloo (with green onion), the Shalgam Matar Ka Saag (among other choices) from the section Vegetarian Dishes. Various sorts of breads – from the parathas to the makki ki rotis to the lal rotis (also known as sheermal), unique kinds of accompaniments like the Mooli Chutney, and typical Muslim sweet goodies like the Shakarqandi Halwa and the Sewiyan Zarda, all have a place of glory in the book. The writer’s personal journey (both literal and otherwise) that traverses the lanes and bylanes of Nizamuddin is evoked to an endearing effect. O’Brien talks of the women’s designated occupation here, with just a hint of a questioning attitude; in the traditional society of the basti, cooking is perhaps the only creative outlet available to a women.... And she expresses ‘terrifying’ astonishment at their deft and masterly handling: they do not use chopping boards to chop up ingredients; instead, they hold whatever it is they want to chop in their hand and cut against it. She never forgets to remind the reader of the traditional aspect: Recipes are passed on orally or by demonstration; some recipes have been in families for generations, never once having been committed to paper. She also employs humour to benefit; while tasting delicious delights during the month of Ramzan, O’Brien justifies her indulgence amidst abstinence thus: I was assured that the strength to endure the fast came from Allah (Having no divine support myself, I decided I need not feel guilty!). A recipe index, measurements in different standards (g/kg, ounces/pounds, ml/l), a beautiful and warm foreword by Pizade Zia Inayat-Khan and basti shots (in black and white and colour) add to the reading experience.

Interesting foods, written and compiled well.


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