No conversation about sub-continental street food can be complete without the mention of dahi bhallay or its cousins spread across the region: dahi with vada/bada, phulki, boondi, and the many South Indian variants. Its origins can be debated, but this lightly spiced snack is described in a 12th century Sanskrit encyclopaedia.
This multipurpose dish almost always finds a spot on the table be it a religious festival, tea party, an evening snack, appetiser or a side dish with a meal. These soft fried daal (urad, mash, moong — depending on the part of the subcontinent it’s being made in) fritters/dumplings soaked in spiced yoghurt, mixed most commonly with cubed potato and julienned onion and topped with sweet or sour chutneys, salad, chaat masala and papri make for a colourful, comforting, quintessentially traditional snack.
Here in Lahore, one of the oldest and most popular dahi bhalla points is the Amritsari Dahi Bhallay, established by Muhammad Siddique in 1948 after he migrated from the namesake city across the Indian border in 1947 with his family. One of his sons, Muhammad Nawaz, took over after he died of dengue around five years ago.
“My father was in this business in Amritsar’s Haathi Darwaza for at least six years till the Partition. After moving to Lahore, he started selling dahi bhallas from a humble shop in Gowalmandi in 1948. When my siblings and I grew up, we also joined him. We then shifted to Lakshmi Chowk 42 years ago due to litigation on the property. After my father died, I took over this shop while my brothers opened up their own under the same name in Qila Lachhman Singh and Wahdat Road. They offer only a couple of items, while I have a whole menu not available anywhere else.”
Nawaz says his father was a landowner in Amritsar but learnt making dahi bhallay from a Hindu friend who convinced him to work together. They were doing really well and Siddique paid the friend a certain amount each month under a deal. “As soon as the bloodshed started, he left everything and moved here with his entire family. Dahi Bhallay were a very popular item back in Amritsar also, as the culture of the two cities is the same — the food, the historical gates etc. When my father set up his business, only a handful of people were selling bhallay in town.”
Siddique then passed on the skill to his children and the next generation. “He taught us everything. We prepare everything and purchase each item ourselves. There’s no adulteration and the bhallas are made from pure maash ki daal,” explains Nawaz, also known as ‘Naaji’ in the Anarkali area.
He says their sweet cream bhallas are very popular besides the regular dahi bhallay and fruit chaaat. The menu also includes aaloo channay, cream chaat, ice cream chaat, mutton bhallay that are made to order in winters. These mutton bhallay, he says, are bigger in size and made of mutton, daal and almonds, and priced at Rs200 each. “Some customers just eat the bhalla without the yoghurt and chutneys.”
“We even get customers from abroad who have read about us online. After eating the bhallay, they tell us it’s exactly how they had heard. We are open all year round though the footfall slightly decreases in winters. People even come to us early in morning and take away dahi bhallay to their offices, banks, schools.”
Back in Gowalmandi, they used to offer fried fish also in winters that Nawaz says his father was an expert at. “At that time, no one else was selling fried fish in the area. When we moved from that shop, we stopped selling fish as my children aren’t into it.”
Their customers are not just the common people, but politicians, senior police officials and film stars also stop by quite often. “Besides the affluent and not-so-well-off, an MPA from Faisalabad is our regular customer. There are also families who’ve been our customer for generations,” he says with a hint of pride.
Not all of Nawaz’s five sons — all Aitchison College alumni — and a daughter have joined the family business: two of his boys are into the hardware business right next door, two assist him at the shop and one is settled in London. “I always wanted my children to get good education and spent all my earnings to ensure that.”
Since growing up in the old Anarkali area, he has witnessed firsthand the evolution of the city, especially in terms of food. “When we started out in Gowalmandi, there was less noise and population. Men and women of all ages would sit outside their houses and chat all night. There was no behayai or advanced mahol when I was growing up. Gowalmandi was the most popular area for food; a huge variety of dishes was available all day. You could have paaye or mutton channay or lassi for breakfast. Lakshmi Chowk was the hub of film industry before so many food businesses opened up here. Lahore has changed drastically,” he concludes.