Makkhan Malai – The Desi Soufflé

Come winter and the streets of the old towns of North India – particularly Uttar Pradesh – reverberate with the cries of the makhanwala. He comes every morning on his cycle and calls out to the sleepy residents in his trademark style, compelling them to throw off their thick quilts and run towards their gates to claim their dose of frothy heaven.

Soft and fluffy, makhan malai is neither butter nor cream as the name suggests, but a soufflé made up of milk foam. What makes it all the more special is the delicate dew of the winter mornings, which is an essential ingredient of the soufflé: no dew, no makhan malai.

Having grown up with the calls of the makhanwala in the sleepy towns of U.P., I am particularly biased towards the dessert. Even though there are versions of it found in the lanes of Old Delhi that look the same, they taste a tad different from what I grew up eating in Lucknow and Kanpur. So I grab every single opportunity savour it.

Believed to have been brought to India by the Mughals, the delicate dessert is made by collecting froth that floats on the surface after churning thick milk all night long and soaking it in early morning dew. The froth is then stored in large flat vessels called paraat and mixed, one portion at a time, with powdered sugar called bura. In Delhi, however, grated mawa, saffron, and nuts are also added to it, thus making it much a much richer cousin of makhan malai. This version, quite aptly, is called Daulat ki Chaat. Only this chaat is sweet and cold rather than hot and spicy.

After having my fill of Nihari and Roti at Karim’s, I am now out gallivanting on the streets of Old Delhi with the shadow of the Jama Masjid and wispy winter mist for company. The lanes of the famous Chawri Bazaar, which were asleep until an hour ago, have now sprung into action. Some men bathe at the municipality tap singing loudly to counter the cold; some, already dressed, sip steaming tea at the stalls along the street. Daily labourers have begun their day and are loading their carts with bundles of cardboard and reams of papers (Chawri Bazaar is a wholesale market). But my eyes are looking for something else.

While riding the rickshaw earlier in the morning, I had spotted at least five carts of Daulat ki Chaat, or the Makhan Malai of my childhood. Presently I can see everything – samosas, pooris, kachauris, even paan – but not even one cart selling makhan malai. I wonder where they have disappeared and if I can find them at all in this maze of narrow, winding lanes.

Just when I had started to lose hope, I see not one but two carts. I am now standing right in front of one of the carts, grinning from ear to ear, even as the young man prepares my portion. As I instruct him to be generous with the bura and the mawa and mix it carefully lest the froth settles, I am back to being the 12-year-old standing bare-footed right outside my mother’s house in Lucknow, waiting for my plate of heaven to be handed out to me.

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