Food and culture

A Delhi locality serves up food from Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan – and the bittersweet taste of loss

Khirkee Extension is home to migrants from several parts of the world, each with their own food and stories.

“If kings could make rotis, this is how they would look,” said an ardent admirer of Khalifa, holding up a piece of round, fluffy Khameeri.

Khalifa, meaning king in Persian, is the popular name of Karimuddin. A Hazara Afghan, Khalifa arrived in Delhi from Afghanistan 15 years ago, and now shares a home with three other men, all Afghans, at Khirkee Extension, home to a majority of New Delhi’s refugee populations.

Khalifa speaks Farsi, but switches to Dari or Arabic depending on the number of customers gathered at his shop. On a cold winter morning, young men waited for Khalifa to bring out a fresh batch of Khmeeri. Pulling a large cake out from the oven, his hands dusty with dough, he handed it around before returning to the tiny den where he worked.

“Best had with tea,” he called out from the dark, as he began to knead the next batch of bread.

Photo credit: Azra Sadr
Photo credit: Azra Sadr

Descendants of the Mongol King Genghis Khan, Hazara Afghans have historically suffered discrimination in Afghanistan, because of their Asiatic features and religion (they are Shia Muslims in a land with a majority of Sunnis). Their persecution began as early as the 18th century, and has only escalated in recent years.

In 1997, the Taliban declared it part of their mission to persecute Hazaras: The killings began with a massacre of 3,000 Hazara men, women and children in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997, and rose to 8,000 by 1998. In July 2016, an Islamic State attack claimed the lives of 300 Hazaras during a protest in Kabul.

Since then, the lives of Hazaras in Afghanistan have been riddled with terror. Large populations of Hazaras have fled to Iran and Europe, and a small section of 500-700 has settled in Delhi.

India does not have a law dealing with refugees, so most asylum seekers here are placed informally into neighbourhoods by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Usually, refugees like Khalifa receive inadequate support and are expected to fend for themselves immediately upon arrival.

“There is no space for tandoors here,” said Khalifa, contemplating his customers as he sipped a glass of tea. “In Afghanistan, every home has a tandoor.”

House of cards

Khirkee Extension, a stretch of the historical Khirkee village built by Feroze Shah Tughlaq, has been populated by large sections of resettled refugees for over a decade. The first immigrants to arrive in Khirkee were peasants who had suffered communal violence during the Partition and were re-settled in the neighbourhood by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

In the 1980s, a rash of buildings came up in the village to house the growing, displaced, middle class of Delhi. After the 1980s, Khirkee was freed from all municipal control, and private landowners began to build ruthlessly on their newly acquired land, to make space for the growing population of the village.

Today, Khirkee spreads upwards like a house of cards, with homes precariously stacked atop one another. The population of Khirkee Extension is a mix of Indian, Pakistani, Afghan, Somali and Iraqi folk, who make valiant attempts to re-create their homes and cultures in dense lanes.

Photo credit: Azra Sadr
Photo credit: Azra Sadr

Civic amenities are all but absent in the neighbourhood, but Khirkee Extension is replete with an abundance of foreign foods. The streets are lined with Afghani juice stalls, little shops selling falafel and smaller one-fire establishments vending fried chicken.

“The village became popular with foreigners seeking healthcare because of its proximity to Max hospital,” said historian and academic Sohail Hashmi. “Khirkee’s unauthorised building frees construction from limitations. It becomes a viable choice for people looking for cheap housing.”

Homes away from home

Rahim, Khalifa’s assistant, brewed a pot of green tea. His shop was lined with native Afghan products. Dates, honey and tea imported from Afghanistan are among his fastest selling products.

“There’s nothing like strong tea and a long smoke,” Rahim said, as he took out an assortment of flavoured cigarettes for his customers.

The lanes of Khirkee are dotted with tea stalls and hidden restaurants. The Afghan Restaurant and Al Changezi are two popular spots, but Burg Sabz, a small café on the main road, remains the neighbourhood favourite.

“It is impossible to replicate Afghani cuisine with no resources,” said Abdul, a Pashtun Afghani dining at the Burg Sabz. “It is the food of the kings. It is not easy to re-create.”

Photo credit: Azra Sadr
Photo credit: Azra Sadr

The proprietor of Burg Sabz – another young man named Rahim, and Abdul had left their homes in Hazarajat and Kabul as 10-year-olds. They arrived in Khirkee around the same time, discovered a mutual love for football and grew close.

“In India, we are the same,” Abdul said. “We eat the same food and smoke the same cigarettes. He is Shia, I am Sunni, but here, we do not fight.”

Photo credit: Azra Sadr
Photo credit: Azra Sadr

The evenings at Burg Sabz are busy, particularly at dinner time, when the restaurant is full of Iraqi families, groups of Pashtun women and business meetings conducted by Somali men. The menu is simple, consisting of a few Afghani favourites like Qabuli Uzbeki and Kofta Chalao, as well as simpler fare like grilled chicken. The meat is halal, making it an easy dining option for the Muslims around Khirkee.

Photo credit: Azra Sadr
Photo credit: Azra Sadr

The walls are covered with posters of Afghanistan, pictures of high mountains and Mecca. The restaurant does more than serve food, it attempts to create lost memories of a faraway home.

Seeking refuge in Delhi is not easy. Most refugees in Khirkee come from countries facing severe conflicts, and often live far from their families. Rahim recalled the time he once spent with his family, seated around long tables, eating for hours on end.

“We had to, it was cold,” he said. “Afghan food is subtle, you can eat a lot of it. It is not like Indian food. Here, everything has too much spice. Too much salt. It’s not classy.”

Fraught haven

Abdel, a young Somali businessman who came to India for his mother’s treatment, said the spicy Indian food was symbolic of his new life. At the Somali restaurant located at the bend off the main road, he ate his food with extra salt and chillies. The restaurant’s single TV flickered between news and football.

“I have spent so much time here, I am Indian,” he said.

The Somalis make up a large part of the population of Khirkee. Unlike the Afghans, who can still hope to blend in, the Somalis are racially distinct from Indians, and this often makes survival harder.

Photo credit: Sharanya Deepak
Photo credit: Sharanya Deepak

“In the beginning, we would be harassed by the Indian villagers,” said Abdel. “They thought we were eating children. But we were only eating Kac-Kac,” he laughed, holding up a sweet puff pastry, usually eaten with tea.

Kac-Kac is served in abundance at the unnamed Somali cafe, paired with extra-sweet black tea. Other food available at the café includes meat, with rice or pasta, sometimes without any other accompaniments.

The accessible healthcare available at Max Hospital is one of the main reasons for Somali immigrants to come to Delhi. Some stay for a few months, or the duration of their treatment, but often, they settle down. In addition to this, Delhi’s Somali population in Delhi is a mix of immigrants from North Somalia, here to study or work, as well as refugees who have fled the civil war in their country.

The Somalis in Khirkee face strong discrimination from locals: they are frequently called “monsters”, evicted from homes and shooed off streets. A mob raid in 2014, in which a group of Nigerian women accused former Delhi minister Somnath Bharti of harassing them, is only one of the racist attacks on African nationals in Khirkee Extension. More recently, a young Congolese man was beaten to death. Somalis, as Muslims of African origin, face even greater difficulties settling into their lives in Khirkee Extension, but through the years, many of them have assimilated.

“Where I’m from, there is shooting everywhere,” said Hodon, a 20-year-old Somali woman. “At least here I can live without fear, and I can eat momos.”

Like Hodon, an increasing number of young refugees have developed a taste for Indian street food. A vendor who sells chilli potatoes, momos and a deadly red chutney is extremely popular with the immigrants at Khirkee.

“Chilli potato is the national dish of India,” said the vendor, and everyone around him – of Indian, Afghan and Iraqi origin concurred.

Although it is diverse, Khirkee is not grand. It holds cultures together with uncertainty, a fraternity built on the resolve of its immigrants. The restaurants of Khirkee are not centres of high cuisine either, but built to preserve memories of home, find fleeting moments of friendship in lives characterised by deep alienation.

Later in the evening, as his customers left, Khalifa sat down to eat his last piece of bread, with korma borrowed from his neighbour’s home. How did it taste?

“It tastes like my life. Of inadequacy.”

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