In Depth

The Rawalpindi food cart serving tastes in Lal Chowk since 1910

Decades before the harrowing partition of the sub-continent would suspend free movements and cultural interactions, a street food seller from Rawalpindi had arrived in Lal Chowk to sell his delicacy. 108 years later, the food cart continues to serve tastes in Srinagar’s trade heartland.

Well before Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah would host his buddy-turned-‘backstabber’ Jawaharlal Nehru and sing ballads for him in front of a jostling crowd, Srinagar’s City Centre Lal Chowk enjoyed the reputation of being a melting-pot marketplace. Traders from different parts of the undivided sub-continent would come and create a distinct flair and fervour.

One such trader had quietly arrived in the summer of 1910 from Rawalpindi and became a street regular.

Under the shade of the Clock Tower, he would sell a delicacy called Palley. Years later, as Ghanta Ghar would become the new Mujahid Manzil in Kashmir—where masses would occasionally converge to raise the pitch for a referendum/plebiscite and sing the Azaadi chorus, the food cart at the behest of its new owners was carrying forward the legacy of the distinct delicacy.

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On an unusually hot summer day in July 2018, a man in his mid-50s shows up in Lal Chowk, with his hand cart. “Mama, az kyazi logi yout time (Uncle, why are you late today)?” a young man greets him in a typical Srinagar street-style.

Mama aka Nazir Qureshi aka Nazir Palley responds with a smile on his tanned-plump face, stippled with sweat beads.

First, a short-stout man turns up to enjoy Palley, a street food originally from Rawalpindi, Pakistan. “It was 1910 when my grandfather introduced Palley to Kashmir,” Nazir says, airing the usual reluctance of a busy trader.

His grandfather Faiz Rasool Qureshi would sell Palley for six months in Srinagar, before moving back to Muzaffarabad for the winters. Back in the day, Nazir says, his grandfather was awarded for his finesse in preparing delicacies in Rawalpindi.

“I’ve been enjoying Palley since my childhood,” a customer forwards Rs 40 to Nazir, after finishing his plate. “My father would bring home this delicious street food a few times in a week.”

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In a place where the Domino Effect is quite a notorious trait, none could mimic and match the delicacy of Qureshis from Muzaffarabad. It now makes Nazir as the only surviving Palley-maker of Kashmir.

From his grandfather, his father Abdul Rehman Qureshi took over the trade in 1942 and began following the same schedule of spending six months in Srinagar, and the rest in Muzaffarabad.

After the historic events of 1947 created borders and barricades, his father settled in the Batamaloo area of Srinagar. He would sit in the shade of Clock Tower to cater to the street rush, before Nazir shouldered the family business in 1974.

As a delicacy, Palley is made of boiled potatoes, mahdaal, basin, curd and chuttnies. Its ingredients make it a nutritious and protein-rich diet. “But the new generation is least inclined to it,” Nazir says. “For them, junk food and fast food are more appropriate, despite being hazardous to their health.”

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At dusk, as his cart resonates with Mama and Palley cries, a septuagenarian man sporting a snow-white beard shows up. “Am I supposed to wait for a while?”

With a suppressed smile, Nazir quietly forwards him a Palley plate. “I first tasted the delicacy almost 50 years ago,” says Ghulam Nabi Kirtas, Nazir’s regular. “Back then, I would pay Rs 1 for a plate to enjoy Palley at his father’s cart.”

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Tasting the spoonful of delicacy in his half-toothed mouth, he continues, “Even after so many years, the taste is still there in hands of his son.” His remarks turn Nazir nostalgic.

As a naughty kid, he recalls, his father would send him to deliver the packed order to the former Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad’s office, where “the former head of the state would be curiously waiting” along with his associates for his father’s made Palley.

“And then they would enjoy the Palley party!” a teen standing near Nazir’s cart makes a quick rejoinder and create a hearty laugh in the deserted trade heartland. Nazir soon pushes off from the historic square, which gave his family a distinct identity away from their roots.

 

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