The old grizzled man in the blackened brick box smiles at the little legs dangling out of the baby carrier strapped to my chest, then reaches up and hands over a small pile of biscuits. They’re rusks, the original ones, Simone tells us, which sound like bland baby food but turn out to be quite the opposite. Golden, crisp and with a sweet, nutty toastiness, they’re immediately addictive. We grownups gobble them up, thankful that River’s asleep.
There are other reasons to be grateful that the baby’s passed out, because this place is completely, wonderfully crazy. The smells and sounds and sights are heightened to the limit and threaten to engulf us, so for him it might just have been overload. Baby sensory classes gone mad.
We’ve ventured into Zakir Nagar, the favourite market of our good friend Simone, long-time Delhi dweller, expert tuk tuk negotiator and mutton fanatic. So basically, the perfect guide. Zakir Nagar is a tangle of narrow alleys that plays host to a Muslim community and some of the most authentic Mughlai dishes in Delhi.
Here, we can smell the food. Really smell it. Not the generic hum of some forgettable markets, but a distinct wave of each individual ingredient. From the clouds of meat-tinged smoke on the charcoal grills to the steam rising from the vast vats of curry to the chilly minimalism of the lassi shop, a wander down the crowded streets of Zakir Nagar feels like we’re walking through food.
And what food it is. Long skewers of dark buffalo heart are shuffled across the grill (they say buffalo, though Simone suspects beef). Eggs sizzle in red-hot pans. Chickens spit fat ruthlessly at passers-by from their bubbling oil. Chapatis are thrown directly onto naked flames, inflating and deflating as though they are breathing. Heavily spiced desserts sit waiting in their sticky syrup, perfumed with cardamom, cinnamon and clove. Naan breads are peeled expertly from the inside of a tandoor and flicked into a pile of warm carbohydrate that smells like a hug.
We take a break and slide into one of the street side restaurants for a ‘snack’: fresh bread, still warm, for scooping up and soaking up a fatty, spicy and entirely glorious mutton stew. At the front of the shop sits the man responsible, cross-legged and beaming over his belly as he surveys his collection of pots, each filled with some slow-cooked wonder.
This place isn’t about gentrification or hipster invasions or branding. There are no ‘concepts’. People don’t have loyalty cards here. They just keep coming back because it’s really, really good.
Food aside, the people-watching is wonderful. Everyone has to eat, and so everyone’s out. The old guys chattering away, the young couples exchanging shy glances, the groups of friends who choose charcoal over clubbing. And then there are the kids. Whilst many parents in the UK are slaves to the routine and believe the world might implode if they take their kids out of the house past 7pm, here, there’s an entirely approach. It’s 10pm, and there are children absolutely everywhere.
Now, we’ve always been on this side of parenting. Olivia spent much of her toddlerhood evenings hurtling around her father’s restaurant with her friends and River has already become an expert at getting himself adopted by waiters and whisked off into kitchens to visit the chef. Both are absolutely fine spending a night at Lewisham’s Model Market, one drinking milk and the other munching cheerfully on fried squid and Taiwanese buns. If they’ve had enough, we take them home. If they fall asleep, we carry them. They love it, but they are definitely in the minority when it comes to their social lives. Here, it’s the norm.
A little boy, peaceful amongst the chaos, perches between his parents on a motorbike, sucking an ice-cold lassi from a dripping glass, his mother’s hand acting as back-up in case of any spillages.
Tiny girls in headscarves bolt down alleyways, past the cats sipping at the sewer water. A toddler perches on her parents’ chicken stall, wide awake and watching the white neon glow of the market in action. They’re not traumatised, or overtired, or causing chaos. They’re having fun. And if that’s the case, why in the world not?
Unusually, we left our daughter at home tonight, playing with her new friends and sheltered from the thick haze of pollution, but we did promise her a takeaway. As we climb into the car and pull back onto the highway, the market soundtrack of blaring horns, tuk tuk shouts and meat hitting heat recedes. And the only thing that’s left is the intoxicating smell wafting from the warm bags of food at our feet. Olivia, my love, dinner’s on its way.