Khari Baoli: What You Did Not Know About Asia's Largest Spice Market
I had heard of Khari Baoli from friends who live in Delhi and to me, a lover of markets, it seemed to be the ultimate wonderland. I had seen pictures of crowded lanes lined with sacks of exotic and mysterious spices, colourful piles of ground spices, dry fruits, fresh produce, and even random shops selling kitchen utensils, soaps and whatnot. I just couldn’t wait to go there myself, so when, at the start of this year I was in Delhi Khari Baoli was at the top of my list.
One would imagine there’s a ‘baoli’ or well there, given the name of the place, but there isn’t one anymore. The name Khari Baoli comes from a stepped well built in the 1500s. It was a saline well and was thus named khari (salty) baoli (stepped well) and is no longer in existence. The easiest way to get to the Khari Baoli market is to take the Metro to Chawri Bazaar station and then hop on to a cycle rickshaw. It’s a 10-minute ride though a chaotic narrow street packed with rickshaws, pedestrians, and porters carrying huge bales of goods, an adventure in itself! You can also come to the Fatehpuri Masjid at the end of the main Chandni Chowk road and start from there. The market is just around the corner with many shops actually along the outer walls of the masjid.
Once you are at Khari Baoli, you will find the main thoroughfare lined with shops on both sides and complete chaos down the middle of the road. Just get on to the sidewalk and start exploring. The shops you see here sell wholesale and retail. From kitchenware, plastics, spices, nuts, grocery, to fruits and vegetables, these shops cater to home buyers and traders alike. You will see gateways leading into the buildings and inside are the wholesale markets, segregated according to products. I asked where the spice market was, and was directed to Gadodia market, which is near the Fatehpuri Masjid, down the road.
Gadodia market was the wonderland I was seeking. I stepped through the gateway into a dark corridor that led to a smaller market inside. I stood there in that dark corridor assaulted by the smells, and I felt such a thrill I had to just stand there for a minute, shut my eyes and just breathed in. I had a silly grin on my face and I was happy. Of course I was soon jolted out of my happy movement, and scolded to get out of the way by the busy porters rushing around carrying heavy sacks. But I didn’t mind at all. I grinned at them and carried on inside.
I saw sacks of spices everywhere. Familiar ones like coriander and cumin, a variety of chllies, cassia bark, Indian bay leaves or tejpatta, rock salt, turmeric, and so many unfamiliar things I was astounded. Though not all the traders welcome inquisitive tourists, but there were enough who were ready to answer my questions. I saw ratanjot for the first time ever! I saw more varieties of dried chillies than I knew existed. There were dried vegetables – varieties of melons, and dried fruit – mangoes, amlas, lichens (dagadphool/patharphool) so different from what I’d seen before, dried flowers like roses, marigolds and more – it was amazing.
I bought small quantities of spices (including ratanjot!) from the retail shops outside. The sheer variety of ingredients available made me go back to Khari Baoli for another visit. You can be sure I will go back every time I’m in Delhi!
5 new things I saw at Khari Baoli
Ratanjot: Used in Kashmiri food, this is a natural food dye with very little flavour of its own.
Clove stems: The clove is actually a dried flower and I discovered that even the stems on which the flower grows are dried and sold as a spice. They have the same intense flavour as the cloves themselves.
Pepper stems: Just like the clove stems, I also pepper stems being sold here.
Dried melons/squashes: While I had seen melon seeds often, I had no idea that entire melons were also dried and sold. There were halved and sliced larger melons and even small whole melons here.
Black/purple carrots: Available in the winters across all of north India, ‘kale gajar ki kanji’ is the most well-known preparation made with these carrots.
Photos: Rhea Dalal