When the first chill of winter hits Delhi in mid-November, the city changes overnight. Rickshaw drivers don mufflers, morning chai becomes hotter and sweeter, and in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk market, street vendors start selling daulat ki chaat. The creamy seasonal confection resembles smooth tufts of mousse and can only be prepared in the cool weather, otherwise it will melt. Piled into deep aluminum vessels, it is shaped into a dome, dolloped with saffron foam, sprinkled with rose petals, and then covered in a fine muslin and set atop slabs of ice.
When a customer approaches, the vendor pulls back the muslin like a bride’s veil – a delicate, two-handed job – and scoops spoonfuls of the sugary whipped cream into a bowl, topping it with crumbled khurchan (rich, nutty, condensed milk solids), edible silver foil and nuts.
In a country known for its savory street food, sweet daulat ki chaat is an anomaly. For one thing, “chaat” usually refers to a variety of savory, tangy street food. For another, the origin of this dish largely remains a mystery. It shares similarities with other foamy snacks across northern India (makhan malai in Kanpur, Malay in Varanasi, nimish in Lucknow, solah maze in Agra and dudh na puff in Gujarat), but any true fan will tell you that daulat ki chaat is a notch above the rest.
Daulatki chat loosely translates to “snack of wealth”, an opulent moniker that might come from the effort and care that goes into crafting it. During the winter, Adesh Kumar, a well-known street vendor in Chandni Chowk, who took over his family’s 40-year-old business from his father, wakes at 02:30 every morning except Sunday to hand-whisk a mixture of milk and heavy cream that he leaves out overnight in the cool air. (Street vendors prone to romanticizing the dish will tell you that the milk and cream are left outside to be touched by moonlight and dew, which perfectly set the chaat.)
Using a traditional mithani, a wooden butter dasher coiled in string, he tugs the two loose string ends back and forth like a pulley until the liquid is transformed into an airy froth. Despite the availability of modern kitchen tools, Kumar firmly believes his handmade method (which he learned from his father) is better. “The whole process [of whisking] takes us about six hours,” he said. “By 07:30 or 08:00, we’re out selling it fresh for the day.”