A food tour through Old Delhi and into a haveli.
In his classic travel narrative, City of Djinns: A year in Delhi, William Dalrymple writes, “The haveli was a world within a world, self-contained and totally hidden from the view of the casual passer-by.”
Originating from the Persian word hawli for “an enclosed place,” a haveli is a traditional private mansion found across India and Pakistan, with a central courtyard and several stories of connected rooms.
Havelis dating to the 16th century line the streets of the historic Delhi neighborhood of Shahjahanabad, concealed from sight behind carved doors and high courtyard walls.
But thanks to a man named Dhruv Gupta, I will have the chance to step inside one. Gupta offers walking tours of Old Delhi that culminate in dinner inside his family’s home.
“Welcome to my city, my Delhi,” he says to our small group of three when we meet on a bright Sunday afternoon. “I want you to feel like a local, walk local, eat local. When you think about this part of the city, I want you to have a big smile on your face. I always say this is God’s favorite part [of Delhi].”
As we walk, Gupta occasionally stops to point out details we might have overlooked on our own, even though our primary purpose is the street-side stalls. We are here to taste Old Delhi.
For two hours we weave through the crowds toward stalls roasting shelled peanuts in an iron wok, crushing pungent ginger and cardamom for a fresh pot of chai tea, or frying aloo tikki (potato patties) in giant pans of bubbling oil.
Other shops sell matar kachori— round savory snacks filled with peas and spices like cumin and fennel seeds — and serve sweet lassis (blended yogurt drinks) in little clay tumblers, which are often discarded in the street once finished. Shards of clay sometimes crunch beneath our feet.
While each stall yields new finds and flavors, I most enjoy meeting 60-year-old Har Prashad, sporting a gray mustache carefully twirled at the ends. He’s been selling naan khatai cookies from a wooden cart in the same spot every day for more than 40 years.
“My elder brother used to make them,” he tells us, “so I am carrying on with the same tradition — with what my father taught my brother, and what my brother taught me.”
“Garam,” Prashad warns as we sample the cookies, and I thankfully recognize the Hindi word for “hot” before taking a bite. As I savor the almonds and ghee, the clarified butter so prevalent in Indian cooking, I wonder if we’re tasting history itself.
One bicycle rickshaw ride and a short walk later, we arrive at Gupta’s front door. We leave our shoes at the entrance and take in the courtyard’s colorful mosaic floor, intricately carved sandstone walls and a ceiling completely open to the elements.
“We enjoy the sunlight, moonlight, even the rain,” Gupta says.
His wife, Richa, greets us with glasses of freshly squeezed lime juice in their living room. There, set out among hand-carved rosewood furniture, are family heirlooms — including the spinning wheel that Gupta’s great-grandfather once used to spin thread from cotton.
With the rest of Delhi now on the other side of 18-inch-thick walls, it truly feels as though we have stepped into another time.
Our tour of the house ends beneath the stars on Gupta’s rooftop. In the distance, I spot the distinctive domes of the Jama Masjid mosque, imposing in person but so much smaller from this vantage point.
Back on the ground floor, dinner is served around the family dining table, set with bronze plates, utensils and cups. Richa piles our plates with steaming basmati rice, dahl (lentil stew), zucchini kofta (balls of breadcrumbs, grated zucchini and spices), and as many warm puris (deep-fried unleavened bread) as we can manage.
The flavors of India run strong throughout each dish, piquant with coriander seed, turmeric and red chili powders. Dessert is rose-flavored kulfi — Indian ice cream with a smooth, gelato-like texture, made from just milk and rose petals.
“This is my small world, which I like to share,” Gupta says as we scrape up the last of our kulfi, thanking us for spending the evening with him and his family.
But it is we who thank him more — for giving us a taste of history and for this glimpse into a side of Delhi we would never have otherwise seen.