The air smelled like human urine when we entered the tangled back alleys of Delhi's Chandni Chowk. In search of Gali Paranthe Wali—also known as the "Fried Bread Street"—I was happy to trade the piercing glares of rickshaw drivers on the main road for something less intense, even if that meant breathing in the ghost of urines past for a bit.
My friend from Bangalore, Abhinav, used his rough Hindi to ask strangers for directions until we found the fried bread haven. The multistory buildings of the alley blocked out the sun a little, but it was still miserable to be outside. In the 93-degree heat, cooks braved the scorching temperatures of stoves and sizzling frying pans.
Walking through Gali Paranthe Wali felt like the past smashing into modernity. Bicycles delivering blocks of ice dodged orange-robed babas and people stopped at a manual water pump to wash their faces and fill up water jugs. At the same time, century-old shops advertised their TripAdvisor rankings and tourists snapped photos on iPhones while waiting in line for food.
Our first stop was Babu Ram Paranthe Wale, one of the last shops on the short street. Rusting fans whirred overhead as our waiter, Jai Kishore, told us that the mixed and potato paratha were the place's most popular orders. We ordered accordingly. Jai returned to our white formica table moments later with a silver thali tray of pickles, tamarind chutney with banana, and sweet mashed pumpkin curry. We shovelled down the two hot flatbreads, paid our $1.50 bill, and returned to the hectic street.
We then stopped into Pandit Gaya Prasad Shiv Charan, arguably the most popular place on the Gali Paranthe Wali. Operated by sixth-generation descendants of founder Gaya Prasa, the shop features photos of Indian celebrities including Indira Gandhi.
Sitting in the restaurant, I could practically kiss the two Sikhs sitting across from us—not because I particularly wanted to, but because the communal table was so small that only a minimal lean would put our perspirant faces in lip-lock range. The woman behind me used me as a backrest. Personal space appeared to be a rare commodity inside the sweltering eatery.
We ordered a banana paratha, but my stomach turned when I bit into the calzone-like puff. While the outside was steaming hot, the inside was slightly raw. The cool concoction of banana slices, cream, cashews, and raisins seemed like a surefire way to summon Delhi Belly. Laughing in the face of danger, I finished the entire high-risk puff.
From our spot in the back of Pandit Gaya Prasad Shiv Charan, we watched the lifecycle of a paratha carried out. One man was responsible for mixing the dough, another shaped it into small balls, while a third smashed the dough into a flat circle. The flat dough was then picked up by the man behind the fry station who dunked it into the bubbling ghee until it turned brown and crispy. Another staff member was in charge of the curries and chutney ladling.
Servers in jeans and flip flops buzzed around the tight space delivering the silver trays to guests. Guests shouted out requests for lassi, and the staff dropped clay mugs of the frothy yogurt drink to tables moments later.
There was little lag time. Diners were delivered their orders in minutes, and expected to devour them in similar fashion to accommodate the growing lines outside the shop.
These shops have had time to perfect their systems. Many of the establishments on Gali Paranthe Wali date back well over 100 years. As Susan B. Anthony was voting for the first time in 1872, the founding fathers of Pandit Gaya Prasad Shiv Charan were steadily stuffing paneer into freshly rolled dough. In 1865, America was busy ending the Civil War and Babu Ram Paranthe Wale was serving piping-hot parathas to the hungry Delhi public.
The street may be bread central, but there was more to be found than paratha. Wedged in the middle of the street, Pandit Gaya Prasad Madan Mohan churned out rabidi, a creamy dessert made with bits of malai. Through a glass-front display, potential customers peered in at the sweet white goo. People also stopped by for lassi to sip in clay cups for standing, or in paper cups to take away.
Around the corner from the major paratha thoroughfare, even more can be found for those brave enough to tackle the Chandni Chowk chaos. Samosas, jalebi, delicately crafted paan servings, fruit carts, and paneer cutlets are available for the taking.
Like Pokémon, it was impossible to catch all of the paratha the street had to offer. Some shops served 35 varieties, and by our fifth sampling we could hardly breathe. I was happy to be wearing a maternity-friendly tunic perfectly designed for a food baby.
We left Gali Paranthe Wali smelling like ghee smoke and sweat, and I braced myself for the impending Delhi Belly. To my surprise, I was able to stomach the afternoon.