Plunging into the labyrinth of Old Delhi's Chandni Chowk, Sunil Badami embarks on a quest to find the elusive, ephemeral daulat ki chaat.
Chandni Chowk loosely translates as "moonlit square", and perhaps it once was. Mughal chronicles describe shops arranged in a crescent-moon shape wrapping around a shimmering pool, but the square is now indistinguishable within a chaotic, entrancing, intimidating labyrinth of bazaars at the heart of Old Delhi, choked by traffic and thrumming with noise.
In ancient times, Delhi was known as Indraprastha, home to the Pandavas, heroes of India's epic Sanskrit text the Mahabharata. It's now buried with nine other former cities under the teeming streets of the modern megalopolis, though monuments of successive waves of invaders and rulers remain, mouldering at every corner.
Naturally, many visitors come to see Delhi's historical sites, from Jama Masjid in Chandni Chowk, one of the world's largest mosques, to the boulevards of Lutyens' magnificent New Delhi. But among Indian nationals, the country's largest city is more interesting for its food than its history, and many of its storied eateries are in Chandni Chowk.
At Karim's century-old curry house, hidden in a courtyard behind a gloomy arch near Jama Masjid, I've mopped up the restaurant's renowned nihari - a rich, slow-cooked stew of goat's feet, marrow and brains, traditionally eaten for breakfast - with flaky, smoky naan. I'm partial to sohan halwa, a crumbly milk-and-lentil biscuit dipped in ghee and stuffed with nuts and fruit at the 224-year-old Ghantewala Confectioners, a grimy shopfront adorned with awards. I've watched the queues grow outside Giani's di Hatti as I sip its famous rabri faluda, a thick, perfumed concoction of milk, rosewater, vermicelli, ice and rabri, a partially condensed milk studded with cardamom and pistachios. And I've queued for jalebi, crisp scribbles of batter straight from the karahi and dipped in sugar syrup at Old Famous Jalebi Wala.
But there's one dish I've been dying to try, so ephemeral it's often rumoured that only nine wallahs still make it, and only in the winter months between Diwali, the festival of lights in October, and Holi, the boisterous festival of colour in March: daulat ki chaat.
Veteran food writer Rahul Verma alerted the world beyond Chandni Chowk to the delights of his favourite sweet in 2005, in one of his regular columns in the national broadsheet The Hindu. "I used to walk from my house in central Delhi to Chandni Chowk every Sunday and try out the street food," he tells me.
"That's how I stumbled upon it."
Madhur Jaffrey described daulat ki chaat in her memoir Climbing the Mango Trees as one of her fondest childhood memories. "Translated as 'snack of wealth', some cynics who assumed that all wealth was ephemeral must have named it," she writes. "The most ephemeral of fairy dishes, a frothy evanescence that disappeared as soon as it touched the tongue."
To describe daulat ki chaat as frothed milk "merely underlines the sheer inadequacy of language to convey the experience of eating it", writes Scottish expat Pamela Timms on her popular Eat and Dust blog. Timms has spent years wandering bazaar lanes, and she reveals their mysteries and some of the daulat ki chaat wallahs' secrets in her book about Delhi's street food, Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi.
There is spirited disagreement on the origins of the dish. In one legend, it must be whipped by the light of a full moon and set by early morning dew.
But everyone agrees the chief ingredients are buffalo milk, cream of tartar, caster sugar and rosewater.
The cream of tartar is added to the milk, which is refrigerated overnight, then whipped in a pan with sugar and rosewater until the milk foams and sets.
It's garnished with saffron, khoya (similar to ricotta), varq (silver leaf) and chopped pistachio nuts, and covered with muslin to keep away flies.
Traditionally, daulat ki chaat is served from a wooden cart or a cane tripod stand called a tarona.
The foam is scooped into small terracotta, leaf or foil-lined paper cups called donas and eaten with a wooden or bamboo spoon. What makes the dish even more mysterious is the elusiveness of the daulat ki chaat wallahs, who move around Chandni Chowk constantly, like Mr Whippy vans, lingering in the shadows to avoid the sun, which ruins their dish. This peripatetic behaviour prompts desperate fans to text and call each other if they spot a hawker. And time is against them - daulat ki chaat is generally served only before midday, after which time the foam collapses in the heat, even in the middle of Delhi's frigid winter.
Many wallahs come from surrounding Uttar Pradesh or the notoriously poor state of Bihar, staying in Delhi for the daulat ki chaat season, then returning home. Although Timms tells me only a handful of families make the dish, Verma isn't so sure. Both note the number of vendors has grown and the quality varies. Timms laments the "synthetic" taste of some, and Verma the too-thick consistency of others. Timms says daulat ki chaat can't be made out of season; Verma reckons it can.
But that doesn't make the dish any easier to find. On my most recent visit last year, during the coldest January in years, I tried for a week to find daulat ki chaat. I'd almost given up hope, but on my last morning I plunged into Chandni Chowk for the last time.
Delhi's Metro subway is surprisingly clean and efficient, and there's a stop at the centre of Chandni Chowk. I pick my way along alleys devoted to spices, wedding gear and brass vessels. I'm soon lost. Every alley looks the same; the harder I try to escape, the more entwined I become. I spy a queue outside a shop with a sign proclaiming its founding in 1862, and the sixth-generation proprietor exhorts me to try his parathas, 50 rupees each. Usually they're like roti canai: light, fluffy, layered. These are unlike any I've tasted: crunchy and solid, deep-fried in ghee and stuffed with a choice of fillings. As Krishna reminds the Pandava hero Arjuna in the Baghavad Gita: "When the stomach is full, all the senses are content."
At that moment I look around, and there it is. Daulat ki chaat. It's as white and beautiful as a shining moon in its brass pan, and already half gone. I rush towards the vendor, who appears bemused by my excitement. He spoons the foam into a dona and flicks the garnishes at speed: desiccated coconut, bura (a fine white sugar) and khurchan. It costs just 20 rupees.
The initial taste is buttery, slightly unctuous. Curiously, it's at once airy and dense, the texture somewhere between cappuccino froth and pavlova meringue. The nuts, bura, khoya and khurchan offer a crumbly, almost biscuity grittiness, close to a cheesecake base, with notes of saffron, pistachio and rosewater. I return for a second bowl. The flavour is so delicate, I'm torn between savouring and devouring.
It's beyond anything I had imagined.
Before I can ask for more, please, the wallah has disappeared, as fleeting as daulat ki chaat, and I'm left with a hint of sweetness on my lips, like a half-remembered dream.