Swipe your ticket at Chawri Bazar Metro, and climb the escalator at Hauz Qazi Chowk. By the end of the ten-second ride up to the surface, you're in wonderland, and light-years away from the swanky steel and concrete of New Delhi. This is purani dilli, accent-free, high on cholesterol and as real as it gets, baby.
Considered by intrepid gastronomes as the nerve-centre of unpretentious food, the walled city – if you can navigate it – can be your food moment in the City. Start off from Chawri Bazar metro and walk up towards Jama Masjid. En route, you'll see clearly demarcated Hindu and Muslim localities, each bearing the promise of a legendary local speciality.
On cold winter days, expect to see pushcart vendors lining up selling malai makkhan, or milk foam, for the uninitiated. That's right. Milk foam. Molecular gastronomy with a Lucknowwi twist crashes into haute cuisine? You bet. The result, of course is divine, weightless flavour, specked with sugary condensed milk that disappears all too soon.
Walk deeper and watch out for Heera Lal Chaat Wale – that's the shop on the left, half-way down to Jama Masjid. Shout out to the tau-ji sitting on the counter for a plate of kulle. Bide your time before wolfing down on the bite-sized stuffed treats. Kulle, much like the other things in the walled city, is a closely-guarded local entrée. Palate cleansing, light and spiked with black salt, kulles are a great way to start off your romance of Old Delhi.
Further down the road, dive left into the bylane on your left, right before Nayi Sarak. If you got your bearings right, you'll be in Raghuganj, a sleepy blind lane filled with granaries. On your left is Jain sahab's little coffee shop.
The renegade operation, manned by Jain sahab himself sells seasonal fruit sandwiches with fresh cottage cheese slivers. For 30 Rupees, you could have the best high tea experience, sitting next to sacks of wheat. The fruits are thinly sliced and put between soft bread slices, with a thin layer of marmalade to keep it all together. It's a snacky, guilt-free dessert you are unlikely to forget in a long time.
Back on the road, bypass the imposing Jama spires and saunter into Matia Mahal. Skip Kareem's and head for Old Jawahar instead, or Rahmatullah further down the road. The air in Matia Mahal is thick with cloves, garlic and roasting spices. You could be back in time. You could be in Lahore. The meat is melt-in-the-mouth, and the curries always kept simmering over a pile of embers.
Soak up the gravy with a soft Khmer roti, and round off your meal with a clay kulhar full of kheer from Bade Miyan on your way back. Have a seat in one of those ancient wooden chairs at the back. Watch him shear off a thick, creamy hunk off the container that always sits on a bed of ice. This rice pudding, with a layer of caramelised sugar on top, is to die for.
Stumble through the alleys and shops selling jewellery, attar, fried fish, and pathan suits and check out Kale Baba's kabab shop. A small hole in the wall operation near Chitli Qabar, Kale Baba opens up in the evenings to a brisk business, dishing out a variety of buff skewers. Ask for the gola kabab, and marvel at the shop assistant as he expertly shapes a ball of pounded meat on the skewer and ties it up with a length of string. This, he explains, is to ensure the tender meat does not fall off the skewer while cooking. A minute over the embers and the sizzling kababs, with a side of mint chutney and julienned radish are handed out in sal leaves. Loaded with the aroma of ginger, garlic and ground spices, gola kababs are best polished off on the spot, in the midst of the narrow lane that is perpetually bursting at the seams.
Walking through Old City may require you to be a bit zen at times. There are always too many people, too many animals, too much load on the pushcarts. The rickshaws wizz past you with millimeter accuracy, so you better be good with your sidestep. But take a moment to soak in the air. There is a bit of attar-tinged magic in it.