Friday, October 27, 2006

Majnu ka Tila

In the wake of the 1959 Chinese takeover of Tibet, more than a hundred thousand refugees accompanied the Dalai Lama to India. While most settled in Dharmasala, Himachal Pradesh, some decided to make Delhi their home. They were given land at a place called Majnu ka Tila, compressed into 'MKT' by generations of students from nearby Delhi University.

Over the years, by dint of sheer hard work, the settlers survived and prospered. The Buddha Vihara area near ISBT became well known as a market for trendy clothes, handicrafts, and smuggled goods. Another popular trade was food. Tiny, inexpensive eating shacks sprang up all over MKT, and gained popularity with the University crowd. Their bill of fare comprised quintessentially Tibetan preparations. And of course, Chhang.

For those not in the know, Chhang is a kind of beer made of fermented rice. In spite of its disagreeable smell, it constituted a favourite tipple for many, mainly because it was cheap and only mildly alcoholic. Then the Delhi Police decided to ban its sale. The Dalai Lama concluded it brought Tibetans a bad name, and offered its sellers a generous compensation package in exchange. Ultimately, the Chhang trade at MKT was wound up.

My own acquaintance with MKT - and Chhang - dates back to 2000-01, about the time of my brief stint at the Delhi University Law Faculty. One day, a class was cancelled unexpectedly and I found myself with spare time on my hands close to noon. For some unearthly reason I have forgotten by now, I decided to walk down to the place in the midday heat.

The walk was long, ardorous, and quite unnecessary. Its primary outcome was to instill in me a raging thirst that cried for immediate attention. I barged into one of those small eateries looking for something to drink. The waitress, a cute little girl of not more than twelve years, rattled off the usual litany of soft drinks. Then, almost as an afterthought, she added they also sold Chhang, the ordinary stuff for ten Rupees and the special type for twelve.

Twelve bucks a glass did seem exorbitant. I thought Chhang was supposed to be cheap! Even most most soft drinks sold for ten Rupees a bottle. I asked for a cola, and she said they also sold half-portions for six Rupees. That seemed reasonable, so I settled for it instead. She presently reappeared with a glass and a plastic jug, and proceeded to plonk them both on my table. I reminded her I had asked for a 'half'. And she sweetly assured me it was indeed a half-jug she had given me. HUH?!!!

So the twelve Rupees was the price of a whole jug, was it? Good to know Chhang was not as expensive as I thought. Which was all very fine, but how the hell was I supposed to finish even that half-portion? The half-jug totted up to a fair amount of liquid. And its sharp, sourish smell didn't exactly help things either.

By then, though, it had become a matter of my dignity and self-respect. I made a tremendous effort, heaven knows how, and managed to get it all down my hatch. A fairly pleasant experience, it turned out to be. The Chhang had a sweetish aftertaste, and induced only a gentle buzz despite the amount I had drunk.

Along with Chhang, I also tried out Sukuti, or strips of dried buff (buffalo meat) fried in onion, garlic, and green pepper. Quite a nice snack it turned out to be, even if the portion given did seem a bit small for the price.

Somehow, MKT seemed to fade away from my life after I left Delhi University in 2001. Till the other day, when a friend and I happened to be driving past ISBT. On impulse I suggested a detour to MKT. It was a long time since I had been there, and I wanted to renew my acquaintance with Sukuti.

At eight in the morning, the area was just waking up. Only one or two of the innumerable food joints had anything at all on offer. We finally settled on this place run by a wiry, mid-30ish gentleman called Chhorten. He said Sukuti was not possible before ten, since that’s when the meat seller came. Instead, he offered us the usual gunk (Chowmein, Chilli Chicken) and Momo besides.

As is well known, Momos are the Tibetan take on dumplings. Made of stuffing (vegetables or meat of some sort) encased in a thin envelope of dough (in this case
crescent-shaped), they are usually had steamed. In Delhi, many shops sell fried Momos too, but I suspect that’s a bastardised version.

So, mutton Momos it was, and pretty toothsome ones at that. Steamed too, thank goodness. Twenty-five Rupees for a plate of eight, containing respectable amounts of stuffing, served with the usual fiery red sauce and bowful of stock. My friend even claims the stock did his sore throat a lot of good.

I promised the owner I’ll come once again for the Sukuti. He even offered to take me to the meat seller so’s I could buy some of that lovely dried buff. More on this later, stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

MKT brings back stomachful of memories. And here I burp. we frequented MKT, 4 or 5 of us piled on a rick( dont ask me how). Oh! and we did what we were extremely good at. Ate and ate and ate...shafaley, sukuti, momo...u name it!

angel281289 said...

i m in first year. today i went to majne ka tila for the first time. no comments on food coz i m a veggie i cud'nt hv tried much but the place, its feel is totally awesome. you actually dont feel as if u r in one of your usual delhi bazaars.