Planning a vegetarian meal for finicky guests is not an easy task. After all, how innovative can you get with paneer? I have friends who are actually reluctant to eat out, because they fear they will be served some kind of a paneer dish: kadhai paneer, shahi paneer, muttar paneer — essentially paneer souped up — and wouldn’t be able to say no to their hosts.
That is why, when I had some friends over for dinner some evenings ago, I decided that I could not torture them with anything to do with cottage cheese. And I thought I’d serve them a meal they’d remember — by bringing in food from Old Delhi.
The Walled City is not just known for its lamb kormas, chicken biryani and buffalo-meat kababs, but also for its delicious vegetarian fare. When Delhi was being established as a city of traders and administrators, a great many people came from Rajasthan to help set the city up. The traders missed the food that they ate back home, so some of them came with their maharaj or a cook, who knew how to prepare the best of Rajasthani vegetarian dishes with the minimum of fuss and spices. That’s how Delhi saw its first basas: houses where Rajasthani food was served.
The basas have almost all disappeared, but there are still some eateries in Chandni Chowk where you get delectable Rajasthani food. The food is still simply cooked, but is prepared fresh every day, with seasonal vegetables, and tempered with a few spices such as cumin and asafoetida. Red chillies — powdered and whole — go into the dishes, too, along with generous dollops of ghee. And the final outcome makes your mouth water.
So, for the friends, I went to Chandni Chowk to get some food packed. I went to my old favourite, Annapurna (because many of my friends enjoy their food, too), but for my own lunch, I stopped at another popular and much-loved eatery, Soni Bhojanalaya (161, Kuch Ghasi Ram, Fatehpuri; 011-23960281, 23981331). When you are in Fatehpuri, look out for Baba glass house. Enter the galli next to it. Turn left, and then right. Soni Bhojanalaya is right there, on your right, on the first floor. It is open from for lunch for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and from 6.30 p.m. to 11 p.m. for dinner. You only get thalis there, with a serving of dal and a vegetable dish (which changes for every meal, day and season).
My thali came with rotis, kadhi with palak, a cauliflower dish, rajma, arhar dal, kheer, a roasted papad, a slice of lemon and some green chillies. The thali cost ₹130. There is a special thali for ₹150, where every dish is tempered with a desi ghee tadka. You can keep asking for your ghee-slathered (or ghee-less, if you wish) rotis and dal, but they charge ₹10 each for the other dishes if you want more.
I had a delicious meal. The dishes were all spiced with cumin seeds, hing (asafoetida) and red chillies. The kadhi was light, and the spinach added taste and texture to it. I loved the simple dal, and the lightly-cooked gobhi. The rajma, alas, surprised me, for it had a few pieces of paneer in it. But then I suppose that’s an innovative way of presenting paneer! The kheer was runny, but tasty. And the papad at the end of the meal worked as a palate cleanser. Soni’s thali once again underlined two food mantras of mine: Simple is superb. And ghee is aw, gee.