In the frothy world of Instagram, where food trends live and die by hashtags, the latest dish to enjoy its 15 minutes of fame is Daulat Ki Chaat. A classic with an origin story as cloudy as its texture, it is the newest obsession of influencers who are serving it up on their pretty feeds and recommendation lists. To them, it doesn’t matter where Daulat Ki Chaat came from, or that is it not even your conventional chaat.

“Why do you think Daulat ki Chaat is called chaat?” asked a friend earnestly. She had been planning to make a trip to the old gullies of Shahjahanabad before the weather gets warmer and sample the season’s delight. Sarson ka saag must surely be envious, I thought.

For the average foodie, chaat is chatpati, or tangy and savoury. Daulat ki Chaat is not that. It is a bit of milk froth and cream, saffron, sugar and sometimes slivers of dried fruit. This might cause some people to think that it is a mithai. But it isn’t, not in the eyes of Old Dilliwallahs. Unlike mithai, it is typically sold from mobile khomchas, the cane baskets traditionally used by chaatwallahs, and not from halwai shops.

Instead of the sweet-savoury binary, it would be more productive to view Daulat ki Chaat through its defining characteristic: transience. Its airy lightness cannot be held on to, it threatens to collapse as the day gets warmer and longer. This is no stodgy food to fill you up. All you get is a lick, or chaat, of something ephemeral, or something fickle as, well, wealth. Whoever named it clearly got the metaphor right.

There are some karigars (craftsmen or cooks), however, who do ground the foam. Bits of khoya or chenna are added to supplement the aerated cream, along with embellishments like sprinkled sugar, saffron, nuts and silver varq (foil). It all depends on the fitrat (disposition) of the seller and where you find him – in Dariba Kalan or Kinari Bazaar of Old Delhi, in Lucknow’s Chowk, Vrindavan, or in an old enclave of Benares.

Creamy layer

Loftily called Daulat ki Chaat in Delhi, it is a treat by many names in the Hindi heartland, with its cultural and economic affinity with dairy. Makhan-Malai, as it was initially and simply called, was most likely an unembellished and unremarkable dish of the countryside before it made its way into the cities possibly in the late 19th or early 20th century and got dressed up with varq, pista and zaffran.

Availability didn’t result in popularity, though, and it would be decades before Makhan-Malai became fashionable. Even Urdu food books produced in mid to late 20th century – such as Mirza Jafar Hussain’s Lucknow Ka Dastarkhwan (1980) – make no mention of Nimish, the beautiful name for the confection in Lucknow and Kanpur that derives from the root word nami (moisture), connoting drops of dew on cold mornings.

In making Nimish, the most important technique is hand-whisking cold, fatty milk and malai. This requires considerable skill. First, full fat milk is slowly boiled in a huge wok to reduce and thicken. Then, cream is added, along with sugar and sometimes saffron, to fatten the milk. This cools slowly over a couple of hours, right into early cold mornings, by which point, the fat solidifies into thick malai. This is when hand-churning with wooden mathnis (whisks) begins. Vigorous and brisk, the churning aerates the cold milk fat. The aerated froth and cream are collected and dished out on saal leaf pattals or in clay cups with embellishments.

The arduous process was described to me by Gopal Zhagwala, a caterer specialising in Nimish for huge weddings. Zhagwala, who belongs to Kanpur and learnt his craft there, now lives in Ahmedabad, where he concocts huge quantities of Nimish on order for events at his “factory”. Like biryani, Zhagwala says, Nimish is best cooked in bulk. Sourcing fresh milk and cream is important, as is the need to have dexterity with the hand churns that Zhagwala and his craftsmen still use (not modern electric whisks).

A Daulat Ki Chaat seller in Old Delhi. Credit: Gwendolyn Stansbury/Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0].

“At the minimum, you must make it with 10 litres of full fat milk, to which you add 3 kilograms of fresh cream,” he told me, revealing his secret proportion.

Dew is now more a poetic conceit when it comes to Daulat ki Chaat/Nimish than an actual kitchen coolant. Refrigeration has taken care of that. So, technically, if the ambient temperature is controlled, you can make and eat Daulat ki Chaat any time of the year or day.

Chemistry set

For students of gastronomy and chefs, Daulat ki Chaat is reminiscent of Chantilly Cream (whipped cream) credited to Vatel, the legendary 17th century French chef and maître d’ who is said to have killed himself before a large party because his supplies didn’t come through. Like in Chantilly Cream, what you get in Daulat ki Chaat is mostly aerated cream.

“Fat solidifies in the cold and is able to hold up the air bubbles – that is why it was a winter dish, requiring cold temperatures,” explained chef Manish Mehrotra. “It is all a play of temperature plus aeration.” When Mehrotra, described by some as the father of “modern Indian” cuisine, opened Indian Accent almost 15 years ago, on its menu was a curiosity known only to a few back then. His Daulat ki Chaat arrived on the table at the end of a long tasting menu, a decadent pièce de résistance, served surrounded by fake currency notes: a visual translation of name and a metaphor.

Even today it continues to be one of the most Instagrammed dishes from the restaurant’s menu, and has inspired a generation of restaurants and chefs to create similar dishes. But when these chefs make Daulat ki Chaat in controlled restaurant environs, they take the help of the siphon, an innovation of Ferran Adria, the Spanish chef who invented molecular gastronomy. The siphon pushes nitrous oxide into liquids, expanding them, thereby giving a silken, lighter mouthfeel to sauces, soups and even fruit purees.

Mehrotra first used this technique to recreate the old Daulat ki Chaat with consistency and accuracy not found in street food. “But we still rely on the play of temperature to keep the fat solid and do not use any stabiliser,” he told me.

Taste test

In Old Delhi, where khomchawallas sit on pavements outside bustling showrooms, ice slabs keep their wares cool and hand churns are kept on hand to constantly give the foam a shake, transferring it from one bowl to another for extra aeration. All this means high effort, which may explain why there are now whispers of stabilisers being used by some vendors.

“Nobody will admit it, but some stabilisers are used nowadays,” said chef Vipul Gupta of Mogul Catering in New Jersey, the largest Indian food company in North America specialising in weddings. A veteran chef whose family belongs to Old Delhi, Gupta studied street food in the old bazaars, before incorporating some of the classics on his menus.

All things considered, stabilisers may be the least intrusive of changes. In some quarters, gelatine is being added to the confection, making it more a French mousse. And in Agra, the land of the Taj Mahal, ambitious mishtan bhandars are selling “jhag ki mithai” (frothy sweet), as Daulat ki Chaat is dubbed there, in flavours like rose and even pina colada. The name given to this corruption is “Solah Maje”, or Sixteen Pleasures, a term ostensibly borrowed from the classical “Solah Sringar”, or Sixteen Adornments.

Should such sublime foods be tinkered with? That’s part of the larger discussion on inventiveness and a story for another day. But Mehrotra is clear where he stands: “Somethings should remain unchanged. There is a fine line between inventiveness and ruining a dish.” For now, let’s keep the ethereal intact.