When temperatures dip and nights turn frosty, a group of cooks in Delhi's walled city carry cauldrons of milk into the open and begin churning under the moonlight, hour after hour as dewdrops fall gently on the froth that is formed and carefully ladled out in a separate container. Blending in romanticism and legend in equal measure, the cloud of creamy goodness that is the 'daulat ki chaat' can be found only in winter months. Visit the winding lanes of Chandni Chowk to sample the sweet delicacy, which is mixed with cardamom powder and saffron and topped with powdered sugar, dry fruits and lashings of brown, roasted milk.
Every winter, vendors carrying large platters, or khumchas as they call it, filled with the dessert atop wicker stands return to the crowded streets of Old Delhi, doling out portions to hungry customers. It is called 'daulat ki chaat' in Delhi, 'malai makkhan' in Kanpur, 'malaiyu' in Varanasi and 'nimish' in Lucknow. Carrying forward a legacy of almost 40 years, Aadesh Kumar, standing next to his platter of daulat ki chaat in the famous Parathewali Gali, proudly shares the recipe of the dessert spread in the 'khumcha'.
The process begins on a cold winter night under the moon and continues till dawn as the dew falls on the milk, a labour of love that has probably been made the same way, year after year, decade after decade. "After keeping raw milk outside for two-three hours in the night, we churn it till the morning. All the while, we separate the froth in a separate vessel, mix cardamom powder and saffron in it. Then we start setting it in a flower shape in the platter till it is full," Aadesh told PTI.
It may sound easy but it is not, he said, adding that they get to sleep only four hours each night during the 'daulat' season. Aadesh, his father Khemchand and younger brother Ravi take turns to churn the milk for around seven hours starting.
Does this hard work pay enough?
"I have brought up five children, four boys and one girl. All of them are educated. The oldest one just completed his BTech. So I guess, you can say the earnings are enough to run the household. But it is obviously not enough to own a shop to sell 'daulat ki chaat'," Khemchand said.
One bowl of the 'chaat' is priced at Rs 50 and a day's sale can yield between Rs 1,500-2,500. Weekends get better with earnings doubling to Rs 4,500, Aadesh said. To prepare two platters of 'daulat ki chaat', the family buys around 40 kg milk every day. Aadesh's cousin Vijay said it costs around Rs 900 to get a platter full.
The origins of the name are as interesting as the making of it. While the name may suggest that it must have been started by someone named 'Daulat', Khemchand said it is an Arabic word which means money or fortune, indicating that only rich people could afford it.
"Since it is made with milk and garnished with dry fruits, there was a time when only rich people could afford to eat it. It is so light that no matter how much you consume, you can never have enough of it," he said. While the word 'chaat' is commonly used for the tangy, spicy range of savoury dishes made with tamarind and yoghurt, in the case of this dessert it also probably means finger licking good after the Hindi word.
Khemchand, who has prepared and sold the winter dish for over 30 years, plans to continue doing so for the rest of his days. "I know only this work, what else can I do? As far as my children are concerned, all of them are educated, they can choose to do this or whatever they seem fit. There is no pressure," he said.
Khemchand and Aadesh, a bachelors in arts, put up stalls every day in different parts of Chandni Chowk, while the youngest Ravi, who is still in school, manages the business on Sundays. Several members of the extended family can also be found in the narrow bylanes of Maliwara, Dareeba Kalan, Nai Sadak and Chhipiwara Kalan in the area.
Originally from Muradabad in Uttar Pradesh, the family sells the regular 'chaat' -- 'golgappas' and 'chaat paapdi' during the rest of the year. Khemchand said he learned the art of churning out 'daulat ki chaat' from his "ustaad", Jaimal.
"He passed away some 20-22 years ago. I learned from him. You will find people saying my father used to do this same business but that's only for publicity and not true," he said.
As the evening darkens, the rush in the cramped alleyways increases with curious people stopping to look at the white and yellow mound of fluff.
Aadesh resumes his work, deftly scooping the snowy nothingness into bowls and sprinkling it with crushed pistachio, powdered sugar and chocolaty brown scrapings of roasted milk.