Chandni Chowk means ‘moonlit square’ but there is nothing romantic about this place. Our aim was to get to the spice market bit – Khari Baoli. It’s a mission not for the faint hearted.
Accompanied by Manisha Bhasin, executive chef of ITC Maurya, however, I felt I was in good hands. She braves the crowds regularly to get the best produce for her kitchens.
We took the air-conditioned, chauffeur driven option until just outside the market, then swapped to the more practical bicycle autorick. If you’ve never seen crowds before, this is a real eye-opener.
Everyone in the world seemed to be descending on the spice market, on foot and on bicycle like us; and a ever-ending trail of shoppers loaded with their spices seemed to be leaving, travelling in the opposite direction.
The road was packed and progress was slow. It was boiling hot and uncomfortable. I was after a story; how can normal people put up with this? But put up with it they did. Eventually, we reached a crossroads and Manisha told me to disembark.
What I saw could only be described as organised chaos. Huge sacks of produce piled onto a barrow and and usually being pushed by a skinny, sweating single man. Streets fronted by narrow shops, open to the elements, all selling their spices, usually by weight. Street dogs lying asleep in the sun, everyone walking around them.
Manisha showed me all the spices on sale. She said people come here because the produce is the best you can get. The quality in even the best shops is never as good as the market. And some items, you just can’t get in the shops.
Where there was a square yard of ‘unofficial’ space, people had set out their wares. I saw an ever popular marigold seller and various fruit hawkers.
We eventually stopped at a food stall and sat down for a welcome rest. The samosa and paneer pastry were among the best I’ve ever tasted. At around £1.50 for two people, it’s probably the cheapest too.
After an hour of being jostled and walking in the airless heat, I was pooped, so we got a ride back to the hotel car.
Two months later, I’m still using my spices and every time I cook with them, I’m reminded of that trip to Chandni Chowk.
Want to do it? Top tips:
- Take someone who knows the market with you. It’s easy to get lost.
- Wear enclosed shoes. Even though it’s hot, there are some dubious brown puddles around.
- Take a bottle of mineral water with you.
- A shopping bag would be useful.