Over the last five years or so I must have photographed Delhi street food a dozen times for different magazines. I would always however try and steer the piece towards the Ghantewala sweet shop on Chandni Chowk – as much because that gave me a good excuse to try the ladoos and the sohan halwa which was always offered.
I was deeply saddened this morning after reading the excellent Delhi Walla blog that the Ghantewala sweetshop had suddenly closed. According to a piece in today’s Hindu, the current owner, Sushant Jain, said unavoidable personal circumstances – and a drop in profits – had led to the closure. Ghantewala had been around in one form or another since 1790 and legend has it that the Emporer’s favourite elephant used to ring the bell hanging outside the shop to be fed sweets. As so often, the truth behind the legends matter less than the legends themselves: so cities ebb and flow. In recent years it seems that India has rediscovered its food heritage and realised that its culture is wrapped up in more than bricks and mortar. There are numerous Delhi food walks around now and my friend Pamela Timms, (although now recently relocated back to the UK) is the author of the definitive Korma, Kheer and Kismet – a wonderful and detailed tour of many unsung street eating joints. The globalisation of food means that I can eat at any number of Japanese or Italian restaurants in Delhi but I should be hard pressed now to taste sweets that link the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam to the present day. What a shame.
According to a report in the Observer newspaper, Britain is again falling for the charms of the jellied eel. Apparently Tesco sales of the stuff have grown by “35% since the supermarket giant took a gamble and started selling them outside London”. The increase in consumption is being “attributed to a new, more austere environment”.
I’ve written and photographed jellied eels and the Pie and Mash shops of the East End a fair few times for different magazines over the last couple of years and I have to say reports that I have heard from there tell a completely different story. Very, very few people ask for eels in pie shops these days and those that do seem to fall into two categories. Firstly, older people that have always eaten them and remember their hayday pre-1950/60’s and secondly, young middle class emigres to the trendier spots of Hackney, that do so once for a bet.
What I suspect we might be seeing are the novelty buying habits of communities that still identify with the traditional accoutrement of a rosy, cosy fug of a dying white working class culture. These are to be found primarily in the post-war new towns of Hertfordshire and Essex. That would certainly explain the supermarket connection and why at least most pie and mash shops stopped killing and jellying their own eels years ago. Jellied eels are totemic of a simpler and now unrecognisable East End Victoriana but eels have long been a staple part of London food and were synonymous with the city and its people. In King Lear, Shakespeare’s Fool in his ramblings to the King, witters – “Cry to it, nuncle, as the Cockney did to the eels when she put ’em i’ the paste alive; she knapped ’em o’ the coxcombs with a stick, and cried ‘Down, wantons, down!’”
In a city dominated and bisected by the River Thames the eel’s popularity was that it was plentiful, cheap and when most meat or fish had to be preserved in salt, eel could be kept alive in puddles of water. The Victorian curate Reverend David Badham reports in his ‘Prose Halieutics; Or Ancient and modern fish tattle’ published in 1854 that –
“London steams and teems with eels alive and stewed. For one halfpenny a man of the million may fill his stomach with six or seven long pieces and wash them down with a sip of the glutinous liquid they are stewed in.”
Such was the demand that eels were brought over from The Netherlands in great quantities by Dutch eel schuyts and these were commended for helping feed London during the Great Fire in 1666. Although they were seen as inferior to domestic eels, the British government rewarded the Dutch for their charity by Act of Parliament in 1699 granting them exclusive rights to sell eels from their barges on the Thames. During the nineteenth century however, the Thames became increasingly polluted so that it could no longer sustain significant eel populations and the Dutch ships had to stop further upstream to prevent their cargo being spoiled.
The rise of the pie shops were a direct result of the adulteration of eels and pies sold on the streets. The shops were indicators of aspiration for sections of the urban working class and their physical rootedness. Their decoration and their hygiene were ways to ape ‘social betters’. The idea in the Observer article that jellied eels are traditionally austerity food is wrong. They were seen, certainly in the pie shops, as a treat. In wider society however, eating jellied eels and pies has a comedic value (but then the British always either laughed at or scorned its poor – except when it sent them off to die in the mud or Flanders or elsewhere) and a resonance with the ‘jolly’ Pearly Kings and Queens. Nowadays seen as quaint costumed charity workers, they were originally leading and respected costermongers that would settle often violent street disputes between gangs. A cartoon representation of poverty and tradition. The undoubted death of the pie mash and eel shops on the High Street is symptomatic of what the New Economics Foundation calls ‘clone town Britain’ where every High Street has the same shops. As Jane Jacobs argued in the Death and Life of Great American Cities (1960) communities are “created by myriad small daily encounters… the sum of such casual, public contact at local level is a feeling for the public identity… a web of public respect and trust”. It was that trust that made people flock to eel and pie shops in the late Nineteenth century because they knew that the food was ‘clean’ and somehow honest. It is what drives a more allegedly ‘sophisticated’ palate away today.
It’s what drives people to shop at Tesco. Even those whose families would describe themselves as ‘working-class East Enders’ whilst living in more affluent suburbs.
When I interviewed Graham Poole, one of three brothers that run the authentic, remaining Manze pie and mash shops, he seemed to bear this out.
“We get emails at all times of night – after people have had a few drinks… old East Enders that have moved out, reminisce – they want their eels and pies”.
They want their memories.
Some memories are dangerous however. As much as I personally enjoy eating them, eels are endangered. In 2010 eel populations in the Thames had fallen by 98% in five years. Across the country there are similar issues. Nobody really understands why elvers aren’t spawning – but then nobody actually knows the precise mechanism for and the location of, the migration to the Sargasso Sea.
Catholic priest Father Oliver Kennedy, 80, has for forty years run one of the only remaining commercially viable wild eel fisheries in Europe (Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland). “Things are very bad (for the eel) in Germany, Holland and France… we on the other hand are relatively safe – we buy elvers out of the Severn (River in the UK) and they take between twelve and twenty years to mature so our crisis might be delayed”.
It is clear however that unless we find a way to farm eels like salmon or clear migratory paths, the European eel may not see the end of the century.
Here’s a recent tearsheet – a cover and two stories – from the Independent on Sunday Magazine. Firstly, a piece on Fergus Drennan, (also known a s Fergus the Forager who I’ve written about and photographed before) and a piece on Karims restaurant in Old Delhi.
Here’s a recent tearsheet for the German Magazine, Effilee of an article that I wrote and photographed about a particular response to non-native invasive (alien) species – Muntjac Deer, Grey Squirrel and American Crayfish… the German headline has it best – something like, “Who is a stranger here is eaten”. Less sensationally, the piece explores the environmental fallout of introduced species and a discussion about both ‘speciesism’ and, the realization that we now live in an age that may come to be known as the Anthrocene.
Here is a recent tearsheet from the wonderful Effilee Magazine for whom I wrote and photographed a really interesting story about seaweeds – an important and potentially significant food source across the world. I focused on the Welsh tradition of Laverbread and had the most wonderful time experiencing Welsh hospitality and a delicious new food.
I’ll be posting (as usual) the 5000 word text on my website in due course.
No, I don’t know how to say it either but this Russian magazine that commissioned me were utterly charming, paid well – before time – and were a pleasure to work with… My thanks to Olga, Evegeny and Natalia.
The Hindustan Times has reported that the Indian Coffee House in New Delhi, my favourite haunt for a dozen or more years, will now finally close because of unpaid rent. According to the ‘paper, “…the civic agency has finally told them to vacate the premises by the end of the month.” Pratap Singh, manager of Indian Coffee House is quoted as saying “We owe them nearly Rs 55 lakh as rent and interest apart from the monthly rent. We don’t have so much of money as our sales have dipped over a period of time.”
I first wrote about the Coffee House on this blog in June 2009 when I compared it to the great post-war classic cafes in London. Only last month Effillee magazine in Germany published a spread of my work shot over two years in the place. In that piece I tried to explain how I felt that the Coffee House was a kind of critical aide-memoire to Post Independence Delhi. I said that:
The Indian Coffee House is buried deep in the collective memory of Delhi. Perhaps never as flamboyant as its cousins in Calcutta on Bankim Chatterjee Street and Chittaranjan Avenue where Satyajit Ray et al held court, its presence is like a reincarnating deity. Stuck on a corner of one of the radials of the Colonial city, seen from above it is like a spur, preventing the wheel of Connaught Place fully turning and making itself into a Western High Street. It locks down an older geometry like a portal to the past. It will not let Delhi, always a city of trauma (from the destruction of Old Delhi to the Sikh riots of 1984) forget itself. Delhi is a palimpsest of cities (seven, eight, nine?) and if you look carefully the past is barely below the surface.
I am sad that a place that I cherished so dearly will close but sadder – and more concerned for the staff – cut adrift in a cruel city that has no time for the poor and those down on their luck. I am also sad because the Coffee House with a little imagination could have worked. Malvika Singh, that most extraordinary of Delhi-wallahs (and publisher of Seminar) who I interviewed for the Effillee piece argued, quite simply that with a little imagination (and a bit of a paint-job) someone could turn the place into something special and profitable whilst preserving the character of the place. Only last week I ate in Dishoom – a very good pastiche of a Mumbai street cafe in London. Someone recognised that people will pay good money to eat somewhere that is not an Americanised chain selling plastic, mediocre food and expensive coffee. Someone obviously realised that people might want to spend time in places like this that have at least a stab at a cultural resonance…
The loss I think will be keenly felt – the last time they tried to close the cafe there was a minor public outcry. I can only hope that this will happen again and someone will step into the breach. I suspect however, that, as the unnamed official in the Hindustan Times piece salivated, “Once they vacate we will start the procedure of renting it out and we are hoping to get a rent at a rate of at least R400 per sq ft”, this really will be the end. The shame is of course that the coffee shop’s closing is a metaphor for what India and Delhi in particular, is running headlong into: a mishmash of Market-led, corporate half-truths that will be the disaster that this short term, only-for-profit thinking has brought all across the world. Delhi doesn’t need another fake Western, air conditioned soulless hang-out that caters for the tiny minority that can afford to eat there living out some 1980’s fantasy of wealth. It has plenty of those already.
The plain truth is that the closure marks the victory for an imported mindset that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.