I had arrived in Khari Baoli, Asia&rsquos largest spice market, in time to watch the start of one of the world&rsquos greatest pieces of street theatre. The flower sellers, as always, opened the show, slashing open their vast sacks and letting a tricolour of marigold, jasmine and rose tumble out on to the street. Then, as the spice vendors&rsquo shutters flew up and hundreds of small pyramids of dried fruit, nuts and spices appeared, a cast of thousands began to emerge. An army of sweepers cleared mountains of debris from the previous day and threw up clouds of dust with their twiggy brooms while chai wallahs crouched over their stoves, hurrying to make the spicy brew that would get the market moving. Portly spice merchants started to stroll in from their homes in the suburbs, tended to their pujas, garlanded portraits of their ancestors and prayed fervently for a good day&rsquos trading. Scrawny porters dragged aching limbs from sleep. The lucky ones were curled up on the handcarts that served as both home and workplace the less fortunate were waking up on the pavement or the roof of Gadodia Market. Most wore long shirts and lungis, with checked scarves flung over their shoulders, ready to wipe away sweat and cushion heavy loads. As the tea slowly worked its magic and traders turned their attention to the day&rsquos business, the porters loaded up their carts or heads with sacks and boxes. For the rest of the day, they would race back and forth, delivering goods to shops, trucks and railway stations, oblivious to anyone who got in their way. (A common souvenir of a trip to Old Delhi is a set of bruises from collisions with market porters.) Later, when the work had run out or complete exhaustion taken over, they would wash themselves and their clothes at standpipes, then eat their only meal &mdash for most of the day they are powered by gutkha &mdash and perhaps smoke a bidi, the tiny hand-rolled fast track to emphysema and lung cancer. On a good day there might be a card game or a few swigs of cheap rum.
For a while I was mesmerised by the magnificent mayhem of the spice market &mdash buyers adopting an air of indifference as they assessed and haggled over turmeric, cardamom, pepper, nuts, fruit and tea wily traders driving hard bargains, one hand always on their giant metal cash boxes the constant coughing of traders, porters, sweepers, chai wallahs and tourists from the fumes of a thousand sacks of dried red chillies until, by mid-morning, the market was a frazzled, hacking, teeming gridlock. But I had to tear myself away. I had heard that one of Old Delhi&rsquos finest plates of food was to be found in the area just beyond the spice market in Sadar Bazaar.
The boundary between the two areas was marked by a slight incline where a long tailback of cycle rickshaws, market porters, bullock carts and shoppers on foot had brought the road to a standstill. Suddenly, the spectacular displays of spices gave way to the more prosaic commerce of plastic toys from China, counterfeit perfumes, garish wedding supplies and what looked like second-hand dentures. Thousands of locals, as well as traders from all over northern India, were jammed into the warren of streets, hell-bent on nailing the best prices on cheap crockery, glass, steel, kitchenware, ironmongery, election banners, stationery and fireworks. Despite the merciless heat, Rahul, my rickshaw driver, powered through the nursery slopes of Sadar Bazaar, dismissing my offers to dismount and only conceded defeat when we reached our final destination, where he sheepishly asked me to walk the last few yards.
Apart from being unusually steep, Subhas Chowk turned out to be a relatively quiet, nondescript street. There was a sweet shop doing a brisk trade in chhole bhature and a vendor firing up his jalebi pan, but nothing to suggest I was in the presence of culinary greatness. Heading upwards, I dodged a fast-flowing stream of waste near a tea stall, where a young boy was crouching over the gutter, scraping steel plates and rinsing them in a plastic tub of murky water. It was a few minutes before I noticed a faded, grimy sign &mdash &lsquoAshok and Ashok Meat Dhaba&rsquo, although the shop itself was sealed with a battered steel shutter. A passing local told me I was early, the shop didn&rsquot open till 1pm, so I ordered a cup of sweet chai from the stall and found a ledge to sit it out.
Groups of hungry-looking men started to arrive, but nearly an hour later there was still no sign of life. Soon, about thirty men, a macho-looking bunch with Bollywood shades and slicked-back hair, were hovering around the shop looking at watches and wondering aloud about the delay. Most of the men seemed to be regulars&mdashone told me that he and his team of travelling salesmen had compiled a list of the best places to eat all over India. &lsquoShokkys&rsquo,&rsquo he said, &lsquois definitely in the top five. We always come here for Diwali lunch.&rsquo He couldn&rsquot quite put into words why they were so devoted to the food we were all waiting for &mdash Ashok and Ashok&rsquos korma &mdash but the words &lsquotender&rsquo, &lsquorich&rsquo, &lsquospicy&rsquo and &lsquoghee&rsquo were uttered with a faraway look in his eyes.
Just as it seemed the good-natured banter and anticipation could topple over into unrest and anarchy, a skinny young man hauled out two grimy trestle tables, set them on the edge of the foul-looking gutter and gave them a cursory wipe with a blackened rag. Then a well-built surly, stubbly man, oblivious to the mounting tension, made his way through the crowd. First, he released the steel shutter to reveal a high counter and a large, faded portrait of two unsmiling thickset men who looked as if they were keeping a beady eye on proceedings. He then snapped on a cassette player and a further agonizing few minutes passed as we waited for him to perform his puja. Finally, he turned and gave a sign. From nowhere, it seemed, large metal pots were borne in trailing clouds of ghee and spice. The waiters started to throw metal plates of sliced onion and lemon down on to the tables, and we all prepared to eat. But the agony was still far from over. A murmur rippled through the crowd that the rotis weren&rsquot ready and all eyes turned accusingly to the young man a little further up the street, hurriedly slapping discs of dough into a tandoor. Shoulders drooped &mdash Shokkys&rsquo korma is nothing, I was told, nothing, without bread to ensure no drop of the precious gravy goes un-mopped. Bottles of Thums Up were ordered, mobile phones fiddled with, mouths watered, fingers tapped. &lsquoTo know how to eat well,&rsquo these men didn&rsquot need Brillat-Savarin to tell them, &lsquoone must first know how to wait.&rsquo
A nervy silence gripped the diners then at last the rotis were ready and plates of korma were unceremoniously slapped down in front of us. Juicy pieces of mutton shimmered in a lake of deep mahogany sauce &mdash so far removed from the anaemic, gloopy, bland concoctions that go by the same name in British curry houses as to be an entirely different species. Armed with pieces of hot, crisp, coriander-laced rotis, we all dived in. Some immediately started chewing on the bones but most of us made straight for the gravy. The first taste was an eye-watering blast of chilli heat that had me spluttering and reaching for the water bottle. This was quickly followed by layers of more nuanced, elusive ingredients &mdash &lsquoUp to thirty different spices,&rsquo one of my dining companions assured me between mouthfuls&mdashin a devilish pact with ghee. The meat itself had been cooked long and slow, and fell away easily from the bone at a nudge from the bread. For the few minutes it took us to devour our korma, no one uttered a word, and we paused only to signal to the waiters when more rotis were required. Too soon, we were again staring at empty plates, this time with no hope of a refill. The day&rsquos korma was already sold out.
As soon as I had resigned myself to the fact that there would be no seconds, I tried to talk to the owners. I wanted a few quotes for my blog to accompany a fulsome description of the meal I had just eaten. I had started the blog a few months earlier as a way of recording my food adventures in India and had generally found vendors happy to chat and had even managed to prise some recipes from them. But at Ashok and Ashok I couldn&rsquot even catch the surly one&rsquos eye. He simply pretended he hadn&rsquot heard my questions and held out his hand for payment.
I walked back down the street to console myself with jalebis, knowing no more about Ashok and Ashok and their mutton korma than when I arrived. But what I had seen contradicted everything I thought I knew about great eating experiences. First of all, Ashok and Ashok&rsquos approach to hygiene is enough to give a health and safety inspector nightmares. The ambience and décor is what might be tactfully described as &lsquono-frills&rsquo&mdash in fact, things would need to improve considerably to reach &lsquono-frills&rsquo. The front of house is at the rude end of the efficiency/offensive spectrum and there&rsquos an interminable wait for the food. The menu is extremely limited &mdash in fact there are only two dishes on offer &mdash biryani and korma (chicken every day, mutton on Wednesday and Saturday), both of which are, I had gathered, finished within an hour of opening. And yet, those two dishes, I discovered, were heart-stoppingly good &mdash possibly literally, given the amount of ghee involved. It was food to crave and get misty-eyed over food to brave filthy backstreets and a searing Delhi summer for.
The reluctance of the &lsquoShokkys&rsquo to tell me anything about their history or recipe was disappointing. Puzzling too, because I was already starting to sense that Old Delhi&rsquos street food vendors, like great restaurateurs the world over, understand the importance of talking up a colourful backstory, the unique narrative that enhances a restaurant&rsquos reputation, mystique and custom. Most of the vendors I met had shared, at the very least, eventful family histories involving heroic ancestral migration, often at the time of India&rsquos Partition, and hinted at secret family recipes more closely guarded than the formula for Coca-Cola.
Over the next few months, I was a regular at Ashok and Ashok but never managed to get a word out of the owners. It was only when I started to ask around that I began to understand why they might be uncharacteristically tight-lipped. Gradually, I discovered the shop had no shortage of colourful history, in fact there were many versions of their story &mdash none of which they seemed to want the world to know about.
I started with some online research. What I found was intriguing &mdash as well as salivating reviews of Ashok and Ashok&rsquos food, there was the occasional reference to &lsquohoodlums&rsquo and &lsquotoughies&rsquo. One newspaper food columnist, Rahul Verma, who claimed to have known the shop&rsquos founders, was more explicit. &lsquo[They] ran one of the best dhabas in Delhi that I have ever been to,&rsquo he wrote. &lsquoThe friends, both called Ashok, were engaged in some nefarious deals in the daytime, and in the evening, when they gathered with their booty, they would pool in their money, buy some meat and make the most delicious mutton dish of all time. It was such a hit with their friends and neighbours that they gave up their old ways and became professional cooks. And people from far and wide [&hellip] used to go there for their meat dish. The two friends are no more but their sons and nephews are carrying on with the lip-smacking legacy of &ldquodesi ghee ka meat&rdquo.&rsquo* If this were true, I thought, the current owners were probably happy to let their food do the talking rather than the family history.
*Rahul Verma, The Telegraph, 29 April 2012