Algorithm, Biryani and Chalis Futa Road — the culinary facelift of Shaheen Bagh

Roopashi Semalty,

Purani Dilli (Old Delhi) — a haven for the juiciest meats and most buttery kebabs? That sounds like old news. Lately, Shaheen Bagh’s 40-Feet Road (popularly referred as Chalis Futa Road) has managed to provide sawab (heaven) through its potpourri of savory meats from cultures (both Oriental and Persian), but of course, with one bite at a time!

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Be it a local or a visitor, the moment one steps into the lane, a blanket of aromas from the tikkas welcomes you like your tabby cat after a long workday. The tikkas on display are not just an open invitation for pedestrians but a fiery faceoff between the promising lineup of restaurants, which compete to occupy your olfactory senses.

These restaurants have also picked up their virtual lightsabers as they have embraced the newfound clout online and now compete to gather maximum engagement on social media. They frequently collaborate with food vloggers and community pages, creating Instagram reels adorned by trendy hashtags and viral tunes, which are a hit from.

House of Delhicious (HOD) is a maestro at this social media game. Being a foodie, it is hard not to stumble across a reel featuring mouth-watering food it offers. These reels are more or less collaborative posts, which make sure that all the traffic gets routed to the restaurant’s official account.

The restaurant owner, Danish Raza, who has been running his family business, said, “Last Ramadan (the Islamic month of fasting), we saw hype for the first time since the pandemic. There were two main factors — first, customers here have parking space so they can bring their families along (a facility not available in the Old Delhi area, which is much more congested; second, the online reels posted by food bloggers have helped attract new visitors.”

Hamza Khan, a blogger known for his channel, shared, “Earlier, the majority of food chains were concentrated in Zakir Nagar. However, Shaheen Bagh of late ended up becoming the magnet for food lovers in Delhi. The owners here are too generous as they hardly charge us for the food, knowing that the viral reel will add value to their sales. There is a sense of camaraderie among the businesses too as the presence of two-three carts selling the same Afghan samosas shows mutual respect and no competitive tension among them.”

Another video content creator, Mohammad Fazal, who runs a food blogging page named ‘non veg lovers’, talked about the negative or hate comments, which he occasionally receives.

“Although sometimes my reels get comments such as “Remember the name, it’s Shaheen Bagh”, I do not let them bother me as it is somebody’s point of view. I simply choose to delete or hide them so that it does not affect anyone’s sentiments,” he said.

His page feigns a solid fan base of 269K followers on Instagram.

Saqib, 22, who makes the Afghani samosas at Al-Naseeb restaurant, reflects on how time seems to have stood still for him as he still confuses the anti-CAA protests (which took place in 2020) as a recent event.

The eatery became an overnight landmark when a food content creator recommended his one-of-a-kind chicken samosas online, which took the internet by storm.

Saqib, who wishes to go by his first name, estimated daily sales of a whopping 1,300 samosas and 600 chicken rolls, given their pocket-friendly rates. Although Afghan in origin, he gives it a desi twist by drizzling chutneys on top to add on the colours of Tiranga (tricolour) — made in India indeed.

Four years ago, the same internet rendered the daadis of Shaheen Bagh mere puppets of men operating for a daily wage of Rs 500 and a plate of biryani, courtesy to the bad PR drive powered by BJP’s IT Cell in-charge, Amit Malviya. How the tables have turned for this very biryani is now winning over the palettes of netizens for its authentic flavours, which now have a legacy of solidarity and inclusivity along with the spice mix.

Biryani once became a symbol of “antinationalism”. Cut to 2023, the delicacy retains its crown as the most ordered food on Zomato with over 10.09 crore orders. Taking us on a khayaali biryani (read pulao), these many biryani orders are enough to fill eight Qutub Minars in Delhi.

The residents have borne witness to Shaheen Bagh’s culinary facelift from an infamous no-go neighbourhood to now a bustling food capital.

“The protest against the CAA-NRC created a popular opinion that Shaheen Bagh is all about agitations. It was only after people started bringing their cultures that we saw several food joints coming up. Even franchises of legacy Old Delhi restaurants like Madina Nihari and Qureshi Kebab shifted here. And this became our mini new Old Delhi. Nowadays, even food walks are happening here for tourists from the American and French embassies,” said Mohsin Javed, 23, who has been calling the area home for the last five years.

A modern-day Alice in Wonderland, 19-year-old Sidra finds herself lost in the chaotic gullies of Chalis Futa Road.

She scans the lane to identify those hip food spots she sees on her Instagram feed.

A student at Amity University, Noida, her day’s agenda, she said, includes “gobbling down some hot-piping samosas, along with shawarma, tikkas, kebabs, and of course, the highly sought-after biryani”.

To combat this ginormous list, she has brought along an army of her friends who are on the lookout for their next prey. The food-loving warriors huddle up outside Shayari Cafe, checking the pop-up board for “deals of the day” — a classic move from the rulebook of guerrilla warfare 101 for foodies.

As evening descends at Chalis Futa Road, Himanshu, 28, does a headcount amongst his friends as he gives an order for some much-needed chai (tea) at Nagori Tea Point. Leading the pack stood the day’s guide, his friend who resides in the same neighbourhood.

Reflecting on the day’s finds, a central government employee said, “Having tried biryani at a lot of places across Delhi, I must say, nothing beats the biryani that we get here. Neither too spicy, nor too bland. Just the right amount of spice that I like.”

Shaheen Bagh’s food might hit all the taste buds at the right notes. But for Aafreen Ansari, 21, all it took was a mouthful of shami kebab wrapped between laccha paratha to take her back in time to her hometown in Lucknow. The buffet lined up before her, overwhelmed her, reminding her of family dinners she used to have at the city’s Akbari Gate.

“Akbari Gate used to be our go-to place for all things scrumptious like Sheermal, Shahi Tukda, Chicken Korma and how can we forget Tunde Kebab, which defines Lucknow,” said Ansari, who is a history student at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi.

After gorging on some butter chicken tikka from Zaika Mughalai Cuisine restaurant, Ansari chuckled at a wordplay, “I travelled all the way from north Delhi as some zaika (taste) was missing from my life. That zaika I finally found in Shaheen Bagh.”