Walking in the alleys of Old Delhi, one always discovers loads of places for good food, be it a quick bite, like the varieties of chaats, or if one is so inclined, a longer break for a more elaborate food exploration.
Obviously, shops, stalls, and bakeries with a history of two or three decades are commonplace and the usual suspects for food-lovers. Some of the iconic food joints have re-invented themselves; and you have swanky new store-fronts, flashy neon signs, a more professional way to serve the goodies.
Which is also one of the reasons why you’re likely to dismiss a very plain-looking shop with the name 'Sheeren Bhawan', on Bazaar Chitli Qabar near Jama Masjid. Because unlike similarly popular shops, this one seems to have frozen in time. No sleek wall-tiling or marble floors for them; even the worn out flex-sheet signage seems a decade old, almost as if shadowed by uncertain times.
But appearances are deceptive, the only clue that all isn't lost and that they are serious about their sweets is the shining glass-fronted display, inside which sit rows of sweets, ready for a foodie. And the fact that if you mention the word 'Mithaai' to any resident of areas near Jama Masjid, he/she would direct you to Sheeren Bhawan...as the ultimate paradise for sweet, sinful delights!
It is 3 pm, on a day that rings with festivities. As I step inside the shop, for the umpteenth time in my past decade of food exploration, I get the same feeling I’ve had each time in the past; of stepping into another era.
“Festivals are very hectic, as we are catering not just for the locals, but also old-timers of this areas, who, though settled in other parts of Delhi, always come back to us for their special festival treats and requirements,” says Ahmed Shiraz, one of two brothers who manage the business now.
Starting its journey at the turn of the 19th century, as a trader of ghee prepared from creamy camel milk hauled on camel-drawn caravans from Rajasthan to Shahjahanabad (the original name of Old Delhi), this nearly 110-year old establishment has seen a century of Delhi's history unfolding.
From the sleepy, small-town style, British-administered residential Shahjahanabad to the year 1911, when the Royal Delhi Durbar saw the English King George V visiting Jama Masjid and announcing the building of New Delhi; then the wave of nationalism gripped the people in the Walled City, the conspiracies against the English government, the black period of pre and post-partition, the departure of old friends for a new country, adjusting to newly displaced people.
And then seeped in the joy of being free Indians, rebuilding a nation, to the ever-changing milieu, as more and more rich, aristocratic families moved out of Shahjahanabad while it gradually and steadily became the hub of traders in the late 1960s-70s and fast forward to the era of internet-fueled social media, which sent someone like me in search of the 'Sheeren' legacy 12 years back.
Standing at the same spot over this long period, this shop has seen it all!
Shiraz Bhai, the great-grandson of Tajuddin who started the business, tells me that by early 1940s they had also started selling sweets, their first attempt being "Imarti", (a deep-fried maid and lentil flour floral sweet dunked in sugar syrup). People loved it and there was no looking back. They didn't stop selling ghee, which incidentally they still do.
British rules in the city since the start of World War II were strict. Supplies of milk and sugar had been diverted for the war effort. In 1947, partition-affected Delhi was no better. It was left to the 'Kaarigars' (traditional cooks) who would create innovative sweets that circumvented the need for milk or sugar to a large extent. Thus, from the kitchens of 'Shiri' (fondly called so by Old Dilliwallas), emerged such gems which have endured the passage of time, loved by sweet eaters of all ages and walks of life!
Their two most unique and widely-known offerings are still a rarity in Delhi today; first being the Ghee Kwar Halwa (Aloe Vera Halwa) and the other being White Carrot Halwa! Shiraz tells us that the Aloe Vera Halwa, cooked in their own branded ghee, with dry fruits, is low on sugar and thus safer for diabetics. It even helps in joint pains, asthma and that along with the heavily clove-infused 'Habshi Halwa', all these halwas are also based on Unani principles of medicine. Another reason for a sweet-lover like me to throw caution to the winds and gorge on 'Shirin' goodies! Other must-haves include the Gond Halwa (Natural Plant Glue), Poori Subzi served only in mornings, 'Khoya-centred' Kala Jamun and their legendary Ramzaan specials of 'Pheni, Khajla & Khajlas!' (which are all fried white-flour batter, in various shapes in ghee.
As the new nation took birth in 1947, Shereen Bhawan was already one of the most popular sweet shops of Old Delhi. But being in the heart of the majority Muslim quarter in pre-1947 era, it was also witness to the sad times of pre and post partition violence. The elders of the family were undecided what to do as many Muslim businessmen of Shahjahanabad wound up and left for Pakistan, while for the family, despite being Muslims, they felt they didn't want to be uprooted from their land of birth. Prominent members of society also didn't want their best sweets sellers to move away and many reassurances later, they stayed on. And a good thing that they did!
Shiraz says that the family owes its luck and well-being due to the good 'Duaa' or prayers that people would silently bestow upon the makers of quality sweets that has been part of the life and festivities, cutting across communities of so many Dilliwallas.
He says once people eat their sweets, especially the halwas which have been lovingly prepared in home-made ghee, they are hooked. Same is the case of their Pooris and Subzee. It is the pull of eating freshly-prepared sweets, in kitchens just behind the shop, all sweets cooked in pure ghee, using age-old recipes, that keeps the legacy of their sweets alive. Neither has anyone in the family ever tampered with the recipes. As he says, "why do we need to, these specialties are known as our family secrets." Few things though were out of their control. Till the 1970s they used to gift-wrap their halwas and other sweets in tin-boxes. Now it’s cardboard boxes and so their packaging has changed a bit, but yes that's the only thing we hear that is different from 1947.
Nor do they have any intention of sharing the recipes any time soon. For them it's a strict family rule; no opening of outlets in posh malls of Delhi or even competing with fancy branded factory-style sweet shops. As Shiraz says, “For us this shop is sacred. We don’t’ want to change."
(Images courtesy: Shutterstock. Used for representational purpose)
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