when the first winter hits Delhi in mid-November, the city changes overnight. Rickshaw drivers wear mufflers, morning chai gets hotter and sweeter, and in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk market, street vendors start selling daulat ki chaat. The creamy seasonal confection resembles a smooth tuft of mousse and can only be prepared in cold weather, otherwise it will melt. Piled into a deep aluminum container, it is shaped into a dome, coated with turmeric foam, sprinkled with rose petals, and then covered with fine gauze and placed on a sheet of ice.
Kumar sells his luxury snacks starting at 60 rupees (£0.63) a serving, and prices increase with the addition of other garnishes such as crushed pistachios, silver foil or extra turmeric foam. But with today’s ever-increasing material costs, the profit margins are shrinking. Moreover, inflation is only one of several current developments affecting the centuries-old dish; climate change (which shortens the selling season) and restaurant chefs’ interest in making upscale versions are also helping to create a perfect storm of modernity that could see daulat ki chaat disappear from the streets altogether.
Since India has a long history of oral tradition, scholars do not know for sure how this dish came to be. But it is especially beloved in Delhi because of its romantic association with the Mughals, an imperial dynasty remembered for their opulence. As Chef Sadaf Hussain, MasterChef India 2016 finalist and author of Daastan-e-Dastarkhan: Stories and Recipes from Muslim Kitchens, explains, “Chaat [in Hindi] means ‘to lick’. And just like daulat [means ‘money’ or ‘ wealth’] vanishes, so does daulat ki chaat.
He speculates that the addition of nuts and turmeric may also help give the snack its rich status. “This is what makes me believe this is a very Islamic and possibly Mughal [dish],” he added. “It’s rich man’s talk,” Kumar agreed. “It was eaten by the Mughal empire in ancient times; it was not for common people.”
The Mughals were a Turco-Mongol dynasty that colonized India between 1526 and 1858. According to legend (and to some vendors who sell the dish), daulat ki chaat was popularized by the daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan, Jahanara Begum, whose city planning influenced Shahjahanabad (the Old Delhi of the modern) in the 17th Century.
But since there is no specific mention of daulat ki chaat in authoritative Mughal era texts – such as the 16th Century Ain-e-Akbari (which details how Emperor Akbar ran his kingdom, down to his 400 cooks) and the 17th Century Nuskha -e -Shahjahani (which lists the recipes of Emperor Shah Jahan) – the origin of this dish has baffled culinary historians.
Another theory of its origin is that the Botai tribe from Afghanistan, who churned and fermented mare’s milk, brought the dish (or, at least, the technique to make it) to India via the Silk Road. This likely came from Botai,” Hussain said, but he noted there was no written documentation to confirm this. Additionally, Hussain believes the process is likely a preservation technique.
Culinary documentarian Shubhra Chatterji – director of the TV series Lost Recipes and author of the upcoming culinary history book Rasa: The Story of India in 100 Recipes (set for release in India in 2023) agrees, pointing out that while Botai is known for taming horses, it is unlikely that the dish the fermented mare’s milk was deliberately made into a dessert. “Food [at the time] worked,” Chatterji says.
Hussain believes that the possibility of a Mughal version developed when the empire began to invite artisans to its new capital at Shahjahanabad, as a way to improve culture. He thinks that an existing dessert, denser from Varanasi and Mathura, called makhan malai (“butter cream”), could get there and be refined into daulat ki chaat.
Chatterji, on the other hand, thinks today’s sweet street food may have originated with the nawabs (or viceroys) of Lucknow, who had money and time to spare in the late 1800s after the British took control of their state. “All the money, which [previously] was used for the army, was used to protect art,” he said. “Maybe here, under the nawab, nimish [Lucknow’s version of daulat ki chaat] might happen.”
Regardless of its past, daulat ki chaat is having its moment now. It’s become a trend on social media thanks to a string of food influencers who have popularized the beautiful and Instagrammable dish. High-end restaurants, such as Haveli Dharampura in Chandni Chowk and Trèsind in Mumbai, have started featuring it on their menus as well. Chef Manish Mehrotra’s version at Indian Accent in New Delhi is perhaps the most famous: he prepares it using a pressurized whipping cream siphon, and serves it with fake 500 rupee notes for 720 rupees (£7.60), which is 12 times what street vendors charge Kumar.
It’s street food that probably came from the courts [and] is now slowly making its way back into fine dining,” says Chatterji.