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On a cold wintery night in Old Delhi, a sweet maker looks up at the moon as he whips up a mass of creamy milk in an arced brass vessel. As it begins to froth and form foamy pillows, he gently lifts each cloud with a slotted spoon over to a large tray. After returning any residual milk to the vessel, he resumes his task of whipping. Hours later, dawn is breaking over the old city as the tray fills up. Spoonfuls of golden saffron milk are drizzled and gossamer-thin layers of varq are spread gently across, the beaten silver sheet adding a patina of luxury to this already regal dish. The tray is put out on a cold stone slab on a windowsill, where the morning dew sets it in a fragrant cloud.
Old Delhi’s historic Moonlit Market, Chandni Chowk, seems a fitting location for this most esoteric of winter desserts, Daulat ki Chaat—literally meaning a ‘snack of wealth’— which is, according to legend, best created under the moonlight on the coldest of winters. It appears each year in the crowded by-lanes and crossroads of the old Market, a harbinger of the Indian winter. (You begin to see it in early November, just after Diwali, and it’s available until February just before Holi, the festival of colors.) And though it may seem otherwise, a cup of Daulat ki Chaat is no rich man's food: It's street fare that can be had for a mere Rs.30 (40 cents).
Early morning shoppers and tradesmen, worshippers at the Juma Masjid (Friday mosque), students with backpacks, and rickshaw drivers all stop at the makeshift stalls, traditionally a large brass plate perched on a bamboo tripod, called a komcha. They will start the day with a little bowl of dewy froth garnished with thickened milk kurchan, chopped pistachios, and a dusting of bura, a coarse unrefined sugar. By 10 AM, the brass platter has been emptied, and the customers disperse for more mundane pursuits.
India is a country of diverse and dramatic seasons, each eagerly awaited and celebrated with music, dance, and an array of seasonal foods. Just as the fireworks and glitter of Diwali, the festival of lights, comes to a close in October, the entire northern plains cool down and the Indian winter sets in. Chestnuts, sweet potatoes, yams, and fresh turmeric flood the markets, arriving every morning in large wicker baskets from farms on the outskirts of the city; little make-shift food stalls selling crisp samosas, roasted kebabs, and spicy ginger tea have no dearth of customers as the enticing aromas vie with each other for attention.
By early November, when the mornings are heavy with dew, the sweet-makers of Chandni Chowk start producing its legendary winter dessert, Daulat ki Chaat. There is a lot of speculation about its origins; some say it came from the mountainous regions of Afghanistan where a concoction of the cream of horse’s milk and honey was fed to slaves for extra nourishment. Others surmise the dish came from Iran, a precursor to the foamy nutmeg flavored milk drink doodh na puff beloved of the Indian Parsi community. Food historians are divided in their opinions, theorizing that the dessert was created by the royal chefs for Princess Jahanara who designed the historic moonlit market and gardens in the 17th century; or possibly, for Prince Murad of Lucknow, a city known for the subtlety and delicacy of its elegant cuisine. But it’s agreed about that it’s been around no fewer than 400 years.
For years, Daulat ki Chaat topped my personal list of “101 things to eat before I die,” after reading about it in food writer Madhur Jafferys memoir Climbing The Mango Trees. She remembers Delhi winters in the 1930s when an old lady in immaculate white muslin would appear at the gate, carrying a brass tray holding little mutkainas, or clay pots, of the froth. The recipe was the stuff of mystery and magic, and immediately piqued my interest. In Jaffrey's book, the lady in white tells her:
First I take milk and add dried sea foam to it. Then I pour the mixture into clay cups. I have to climb up to the roof and leave the cups there overnight in the chill air. Now the most important ingredient is the dew. If there is no dew, the froth will not form. If there is too much dew, that is also bad. The dew you have to leave to the gods.
This teased me for years. I couldn’t wait to taste it.
Daulat ki Chaat had all but disappeared for many years, with just a few vendors in the old market faithfully producing it each winter. After all, it takes two men several hours of churning to produce a platter, which would have to be sold by late morning before the sun rose too high. By noon, the airy sweet would collapse into a puddle of milk again. The sudden appearance of the intriguing dessert in Jaffrey’s ’s memoir triggered memories—which brought a revival of Daulat ki Chaat hawkers. Now, a stream of food connoisseurs, bloggers, and tourists join the residents of Chandni Chowk to try the dessert.
When I took my first spoonful of Daulat ki Chaat one cool November morning, I held it in my mouth, puzzled and then surprised when it dissolved in a few seconds. The second and third spoonful were savored consciously, my mind registering the airy coolness of the foam, the grittiness of the chopped nuts and sugar, and the fleeting fragrance of saffron all in quick succession. Each spoon ended with a pleasant nothingness, an almost surreal feeling of was it even there? Did some quirky philosopher-chef create this dish, all foam and flamboyance, and even name it ‘snack of wealth’, as a reminder of the impermanence of material possessions and of the transitory nature of each moment?
Every aspect of this dish is a delightful anomaly: The decadence of the winter delicacy conflicting with the price, a rich man’s food in appearance only; a dessert served as a breakfast food; the flavors ubiquitous (it’s only milk, I remind myself) and yet nuanced. It is rich and frothy-light, smooth and gritty, real as I spoon it into my mouth, only to have it disappear in a whiff; a metaphor for life itself, a paradox in every way.
Daulat ki Chaat
- 1 liter whole milk
- 250 milliliters heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 2 tablespoons bura (or boora, an unrefined powdered brown sugar; see note above)
- Few saffron strands mix with 2 tablespoons milk
- A few tablespoons kurchan, to serve
- 2 sheets varq (edible silver)
- 2 tablespoons chopped pistachios
- 1 tablespoon finely ground pistachios