Sadia Dehlvi’s Delhi in “Jasmine & Jinns” is Delightful and Inviting

The title of Sadia Dehlvi’s latest book ‘Jasmine and Jinns’, brings to mind images from fantasies like Tilism-e-Hoshruba and Alif-Laila. And why not! Within its 200+ pages, Sadia Dehlvi reminisces about her childhood, punctiliously preserved in photographs and mostly recollections of people, of whom only some remain. She introduces characters like Apa Saeeda, Amma, Mamoo Abdullah, Abba and Nani in a heartfelt manner (almost like TV serials on Doordarshan during the 90s- unfeigned and mirthful)  that you can’t help wanting more after you’ve finished reading the book. ‘Jasmine and Jinns’ by Sadia Dehlvi is priceless in its blend of anecdotes, family recipes (around 88 recipes for you to relish), city history and its evolution in terms of language and etiquette.

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Making shaami kebab can be tricky and requires some practice. Once the mixture is ready, they can be made and frozen. Most of these are now prepared plain but in the old days, Amma would add a kachumar, stuffing, in the centre of the kebab.

Jasmine and Jinns

The instances mentioned in the book stirred up memories of my own childhood when our family would visit India during the summer vacations and we’d get to hear of all kinds of stories from our cousins. When I say ‘all kinds’, I mostly mean frightening stories of how jinns possessed people because they used perfume at night and many others where the central character would always be a jinn and the plot included some kind of flower or its fragrance. The concept of a jinn was made delightful and mystifying for children by TV serials like ‘Alif-Laila’ (much later Zee Horror Show, Grahlakshmi Ka Jinn, Udan Chhoo etc.), after which most empty bottles and old, discarded containers held the possibility of changing ones fate.

In the chapter ‘Jasmine and Jinns’, Sadia writes:

“Amma placed small bunches of jasmine on the chaarpai of the elders. These were taboo for us young girls. She warned that jinns are attracted to the fragrance of jasmine and if they smelled it on a unmarried girl they could become her ashiq, possessive lover. This would ruin their chances of getting married because many obstacles would arise.

Apa Saeeda narrated a story from her village of a young girl who went for an evening walk and never returned home. Her family looked everywhere but in vain. One day, the smelled an overpowering jasmine fragrance from a small kothri, storeroom, in a corner of the house. They found the missing girl there, and she told them that she had married a jinn and should be left alone. She asked them to forget her and advised them not to ever break or rebuild the house!”

Another such episode she writes about, involves her mother’s elder sister; Badi Khala, who lived in Mohalla Baradari near Novelty Cinema. She writes, “Strange and unusual incidents in her neighbour Mariam Bi’s house, had convinced them of the presence of jinns. They never harmed the family, but handwritten notes began to appear demanding specific food at odd hours! The poor woman had to make pakora or procure jalebi for them. Apparently, the note would specify where to leave the food, usually on the terrace. It would soon disappear. Apart from food, the jinns liked film music and wanted certain songs to be played on the gramophone.”

Ye Dehli hai janaab. Jalebi aur pakodon kay saamnay jinn kya aur insaan kya! Neeyat sabhi ki kharaab ho jaati hai!

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Beef is traditionally referred to as badey ka gosht and mutton, as chotey ka gosht. These are terms unique to Muslim terminology in the subcontinent. While travelling on the road in the interiors of Uttar Pradesh, a friend recalled seeing a signboard in Urdu on a roadside kebab shop that read, ‘Khuda ki qasam, chotey ke hain!’ Implying , I swear by God, the kabab are made from mutton

The Old Bazaar

Recreating the convivial scenery of the old bazaar for the benefit of the reader, in a chapter titled ‘The Mystique of Shahjahanabad’, Sadia writes:

Once upon a time, the markets of the old city had a carnival-like atmosphere. Hawkers came up with ingenious ways of grabbing customer attention. Cart vendors selling cucumbers called out, ‘Laila ki ungliyaan, Majnu ki pasliyaan, khaao taazi kakdiyaan’, Laila’s fingers and Majnu’s ribs, eat fresh cucumbers. Those selling digestive tablets repeated , ‘Lakad hazam, pathhar hazam’, digest wood and stone. How vividly language and manner of speech portray moods and a general vibe of a space, is obvious in the use of such phrases!

The book acquaints the reader with places to buy meat, spices, vegetables, kababs, habshi halwa, karachi halwa, namkeen and heaps of things to eat. If you’re looking to visit Delhi especially to try out some popular items Sadia informs about, like Daulat ki chaat, Malai ki baraf, Gheeghwar halwa, etc., this is especially useful. She also talks about the relatively newer items on Delhi streets like paneer tikkas, paranthas with various kinds of stuffing, chholay bhaturay, etc.

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Once upon a time, the markets of the old city had a carnival-like atmosphere. Hawkers came up with ingenious ways of grabbing customer attention.

In another chapter titled ‘Dilli Dastarkhwan’, Sadia talks about meat that is most preferred in Dilli – goat mutton, chicken and fish, and explains how beef was never appreciated, viewed as ‘the poor man’s meat’. She writes, “Beef is traditionally referred to as badey ka gosht and mutton, as chotey ka gosht. These are terms unique to Muslim terminology in the subcontinent. While travelling on the road in the interiors of Uttar Pradesh, a friend recalled seeing a signboard in Urdu on a roadside kebab shop that read, ‘Khuda ki qasam, chotey ke hain!’ Implying , I swear by God, the kabab are made from mutton!

Family Recipes

Everyone who cooks, knows how aggravating it is to have someone insist you hand them the recipe. Sometimes, one tries being polite by promising to mail the recipe later (in other words, “No”) but the unfading desire in some people to snoop around someone else’s business is never satisfied with such answers (Side note: Unfriend them NOW) and they brazenly ‘request’ (threaten to finely slice your liver).  A bit about this from ‘Jasmine and Jinns’ :

Traditionally, family recipes were never shared with outsiders but just passed on from mother to daughter. Some of my aunts took offence on being asked for recipes. Decades ago, I remember a guest insisting that my aunt tell her the recipe of the nihari she had served. Avoiding the request, she offered to send the family the preparation whenever they wished. The lady remained adamant, saying it would not be right to impose frequent requests. Reluctantly, my aunt gave the recipe, which the lady hurriedly noted. After the visitor left, I expressed surprise at her large heartedness. With a mischievous smile she retorted, ‘I am not so foolish. I did not reveal one main ingredient! She can never make it taste the way I prepare nihari.’

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Aloo Salan – Potatoes with Meat

  • ½ kg mutton
  • 5-6 potatoes
  • 4-5 medium-sized onions, golden fried
  • 2 tsp garlic paste
  • 1½ tsp ginger paste
  • 1½ – 2 tsp red chilli powder
  • 3-4 tbsp coriander powder
  • 4 cloves (laung)
  • 2 black cardamom pods
  • 6 green cardamoms
  • 200 gm curd
  • 1 cup oil
  • Salt to taste

Heat oil and add the green and black cardamom pods and cloves. After a minute, add chilli powder, garlic and ginger paste, coriander powder and salt. It’s best to put all this masala on a plate and then add with a little water, maybe a quarter of a cup. The water ensures that the masala does not burn. After a minute or two, when the masala is lightly fried and the oil bubbles rise, add the mutton. Stirring occasionally, leave on medium or high flame for 5 to 10 minutes. Keep the cooking vessel open so that the water released from the meat evaporates as does its bisand, odour. Meanwhile, blend the fried onions and the curd together for a few seconds in the mixer and keep it aside.

Once the meat is slightly cooked, and the oil is bubbling, add the blended onion and curd mixture to the meat. The secret of smooth gravy is this blended mixture. Keep on medium flame for 5 to 10 minutes to bhuno, cook the curd. When oil bubbles rise, add 2 cups of water for the gravy. The level of water should be a few inches above the meat. If you are going to use the pressure cooker, then you could add a little more water.

I rely on the pressure cooker for aloo salan, allowing one whistle for the meat. When the cooker cools, check the meat, which should be half done. Now add the potatoes and close the cooker. The potatoes should and meat should be done with one more whistle. If cooking on low flame without a cooker, keep a check on the meat. When it is half done, add the potatoes and cook till both are cooked. Garnish with fresh chopped coriander leaves and a sprinkling of garam masala.

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Tali Machli – Fish Fry

Although Dilliwalas prefer singhada for frying, this recipe can be used for other varieties of fish.

  • 1 kg fish, sliced
  • 2 tsp garlic paste
  • 1 tsp ginger paste
  • 2-3 tsp red chilli powder
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 250 gm curd, thick
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • Gram flour (besan) for coating
  • Salt to taste

Marinate the fish with all the above ingredients for 4 to 6 hours. Then coat the pieces of fish with gram flour and deep fry in piping hot oil. The flour can be dry or made into thick batter by adding a little water and a pinch of salt. Spread the fried fish on paper towels to soak the excess oil. Serve with fresh green or any other chutney.

Lasan Lal Mirch Chutney – Garlic Red Chilli Chutney

  • 15-20 garlic pods, peeled
  • 6-7 red chillies, whole
  • ¼ onion, chopped
  • ½ tsp cumin seeds
  • Salt to taste

Grind all the ingredients in a blender. This is a hot, spicy chutney, often served with biryani, shaami kebab and pakora.

“Jasmine and Jinns” by Sadia Dehlvi is a valuable source of information and is written with charm, delight and a sense of wonder. You most certainly should add this remarkable book to your collection!

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