WAY BACK in the early 1960s, when all was well with the world and the Nehruvian vision of a vibrant India seemed just around the corner, I was introduced to the street food of Delhi. I was a small boy then, but still distinctly remember the time when I was taken to a kachori shop at Barsha Bulla near Old Delhi. I was handed over a dona - a small plate made out of sal leaves - and given a dollop of potato sabzi along with two bedmis or stuffed puris and two hot gulab jamuns.
The love affair with the street food of Delhi started then, and has been continuing ever since. I moved from one place to another in North India, the years rolled by but I somehow managed to extend my adolescence. Even now, a hot crispy bedmi on my plate makes me all moony-eyed. There was a time when I used to go Daryaganj every Sunday. I would first potter around the row of stalls that sell old books, and would then move to one of the small eateries in Matia Mahal or in the Hindu area of Old Delhi. The Barsha Bulla stall is still there, but every little lane in the area has its own bedmi or kachori seller. The kachori, as we all know, is a hard puri stuffed with a spicy masala. It usually comes with a hot vegetable dish - a thick potato or a pumpkin curry. There is one good man in Gali Anar off Kinari Bazaar who gives his kachoris with rai ki chutney.
The problem with kachoris is that most kachoriwallahs have their fixed time for selling kachoris. And because the stuff sells like, well, hot kachoris, you have to time yourself in such a way that you manage to reach the spot just as he opens his stall. One of my old haunts - the Daryaganj puriwallah - makes delicious kachoris, but only after 3 pm. If your stomach is yearning for some kachoris for lunch, you have to look elsewhere. But, for two major reasons, my favourite kachoriwalla is the one on Nai Sarak. For one, Dinesh Kachoriwallah makes some of the best kachoris in town. And two, he is there to be found - sitting at the mouth of Katra Jamun - through most of the day. You will find it easier to locate him if you approach Nai Sarak from Town Hall. The kachori stall is just 200 yards down the road.
I went back there last week to see how he and his kachoris were faring. Dinesh has one tiny place and he sells kachori-sabzi there just like his father and grandfather did years ago. I ordered several plates of kachori and sabzi because I was in a good mood and felt like feeding my wife and her colleagues. The kachoris were packed in a paper bag, the sabzi went into a plastic carrier and I bid a fond farewell to Dinesh - happy to find that when the cost of everything around us is spiralling, two of his kachoris still come for a mere eight rupees. Dinesh hadn't failed me. His kachoris are still as good as they used to be: perfectly deep-fried with a mouth-watering stuffing. The outer skin is crunchy and crisp, and the vegetable that comes along with it is hot to the touch and taste. We broke off a piece of the kachori to scoop out the hot potato sabzi and then placed it gingerly into the mouth. The effect was electric: it was like seeing a thousand stars burst into tiny astrals. The potatoes were simply cooked - but I have always found that somehow one can't make this dish at home. He had added a spoonful of masalas and some chopped coriander leaves to the sabzi and then topped it with a spoonful of sliced spicy kachaloo. I suppose these are the ingredients that give the dish its own taste - without his special masalas, it would taste like one of those bland but elaborately named veggies that you get in a five-star hotel