My mother once told me of a paratha that my cousin would bring home on Fridays. Early in the morning for breakfast, with the notoriously luscious baigan bhartha, an Indian gravy of eggplants charred and pulped to a cream that I have never quite been able to successfully replicate on my stove. On occasion, mother has altered the story by replacing baigan bhartha with aloo ki subzi, potatoes that I imagine were spiced in ways reminiscent of a modest village. Said cousin had moved back to India a couple of years ago, and the weekend supply of parathas and baigan bhartha, or aloo, depending on which version of the story you hear from my mother on any particular day, had abruptly stopped right after.
This year, I finally reached out to the cousin and asked him for his secret source of Friday parathas. In Meena Bazaar, go by 8 in the morning at the latest, there’s a long line. But how do I find him? Ah, how do I describe it…it’s in an alley. Ask anyone, they’ll know! Oh and what subzi is it served with, baingan or aloo? What? Where'd you hear that from? No, the guy makes koki paratha, with this special daal. Make sure you order the daal. I nodded at my blackberry messenger in obedience, ji bhaijaan.
The roadmap to my cousin’s paratha supply was hazy, but there were a few telling clues. He had mentioned koki, a paratha that has only recently made my acquaintance at the famous Paratha King, and one that has quickly shot up to number one on my list of most loved parathas—those discs of whole wheat flatbread, sometimes stuffed, sometimes layered, sometimes both, shallow-fried in oil...or on a decadent day, slathered with ghee.
I have vowed to write about my Paratha King experience someday, after I finish tasting all 101 of their parathas—but Pankaj Pathak, the “King” of that paratha show has countered that by the time I’m done sampling the lot, he’d have evily extended the empire by annexing countless more creative paratha ingredients.
Unless I could eat 2 parathas per meal for 3 meals every day for the next 16 days. Muahahahahaha.
Though I think my grand plan to conquer the 101 parathas would be sidetracked by paratha #5 on meal #3, and then every two meals after. I'd end up repeatedly begging for the koki. This paratha variant is the creation of the Sindhis, the people originating from the Sind province of Pakistan, the Hindu contingent of which had migrated to India after the partition in 1947. While made with the same wheat flour as the rest of its North Indian brethren, the koki is stuffed with onions, coriander, sometimes pomegranate seeds. They key is the characteristically crispy, parched-looking, cracked outer crust. Some recipes call for partially toasting the half-rolled out discs of dough before rolling them out to full size, some call for making the dough more crumbly in the first place, some completely ignore any difference in technique between koki and any other ordinary paratha. But in my humble, non-Sindhi opinion, a koki should always be crispy, and leave that lingering earthy toasted onion aftertaste which keeps you mesmerized by the rapidly diminishing paratha disc in front of you. I'd recommend pairing it with curd and lemon pickle, or devour it plain, enjoying the carby buttered bitefuls in their own onion-breathed isolation—but bhaijaan had ordered me to order it alongside the daal.
Bhaijaan had still not given me an exact location. And knowing my luck, I’d be hunting around Meena Bazaar like a lost lemur for hours on end, finding the place only after it had shut, or worse, after it had sold its last paratha to the obnoxious customer who had stepped into the shop fifteen seconds before I could stumble in. With something as popular as this paratha, getting lost was not an option.
The next clue was from a friend one who understands old Dubai like the back of his hand, and whose knowledge of old ethnic eateries I have come to respect. Karan confirmed that indeed, a kokiwalla does exist. That he does have a long line. And thankfully, that I could go any day of the week, without having to heave myself off the bed early on a Friday morning.
The final clue was a tweeted response to my desperate plea: does anywhere know where the kokiwalla in meena bazaar sells his goods in the morning? Twitter can be so productive when targeted at information other than Kim Kardashian’s next boringly predictable move.
The tweeted coordinates: His name is Nihal. Tip Top Lane, next to Delhi laundry.
Tip Top Lane is really not a lane at all. It's a little mouse hole diagonally across the Tip Top shop, where tiny little mouse children were hauling their mattresses over to Delhi Laundry. As they scurried out of sight, I noticed an A4 paper sign proudly stating ‘Nihal’s’ on the door of a restaurant mysteriously called Dorrat Al Bahr. This was the place. My koki and dal was just steps away.
I peeked into a room with two tables flanked with plastic chairs, an open kitchen with a staircase leading to what was potentially a bigger kitchen, or a pantry, upstairs, a coke fridge converted into a cold storage for leafy vegetables, and a small sink unceremoniously crouched at the far end of the room. I’d say that an interior designer had thought of giving the place a facelift, but left the ceiling with nothing save three tube lights, only two of which were still functional. Groups of wires dangled out of the ceiling, hinting to the possible lives of aspiring ceiling lamps that eventually walked past the mouse hole of Tip Top Lane, completely ignoring its existence altogether.
None of it really concerned me. I was here for the koki paratha and daal, and I declared my intentions as such through the opening in the glass that separated that kitchen and its two nimble inhabitants from the two tables. The daal wasn’t ready—10 minute wait suggested one man, the more amiable of the two. 20 minutes at least, the other snarled back at us.
Sure, I’ll wait. With a cup of chai if you please.
I like doing that. Sitting and sipping and observing and getting absorbed into the faded walls. Watching how customers walk in, straight up to the glass window, and shout out their paratha order—koki or aloo, the latter being a more commonly found North Indian paratha stuffed with curried potatoes. Nearly everyone took their orders to go, this wasn’t a place to really lounge about. The sweet stench of garbage wafting up from the trash can behind me and the pipe infected with red paan-spit measles right outside the restaurant weren’t particularly appetizing, but the thought of koki parathas and daal were enough to mask all unworthy smells and sights.
At long last it arrived. My daal and the…wrong paratha. It was the potato one, and I can’t really tell you if it was good or bad—all I knew was that I was craving a koki, so that first anticlimactic bite of paratha was completely lost on me. There were a bunch of men crowded around the window by this point, so it didn’t surprise me that they had got my order mixed up. But I still wanted my koki.
The amiable server replaced the aloo I had sampled and quickly returned with a folded koki. The surface of the paratha looked incredibly crispy, mottled with light brown, golden brown, and crispy dark burnt spots. It was tattooed all over with charred onion flecks, the same kind you’d crunch into on the top hat of an American onion bagel.
Unfolded, this paratha was massive, the perfect area for me to stencil two and half of my palms in. Or maybe three if I squished them in close. It was one of those breakfasts that you could have at 8 in the morning, and would keep you going till at least 2pm.
The daal it was served with was minimal, one of those daals that had been spiced so subtly that you could immediately sense the earthy lentil taste rather than hunting for it between spoonfuls of ghee and spice. There were chopped chillies too, looking venomous at first sight, but mustardy and irresistibly picklish when bitten into. My personal technique was to tear off a miniscule piece of the gargantuan paratha, curve it into a baby boat, scoop up some daal, and then follow that bite with a quick speck of chilli.
I’d love to say that at the end of the hunt, at the end of the wait, the paratha was earth-shatteringly good and that you should all queue up outside the mouse hole. But honestly, even though the chillies were I prefer the one at Paratha King. This one was a bit too thick and carby, with insides that felt somewhat doughy and under cooked. Maybe this wasn’t the kokiwalla that bhaijaan used to get his Friday supply from after all?
I’m still on the lookout for a mindblowing koki. And I know Meena Bazaar has a ton of other koki places just begging for them to be tried. The veggie blogger Raji has professed her love for Vaibhav's off of Al Fahidi street in the past. And I've walked past a bunch of small, near invisible places that proudly declare they serve koki too. So consider this the first of my blogged about koki explorations. I can sense that there'll be more crunchy, onion-odoured quests to follow.
In the lane across from Tip Top in Meena Bazaar. Adjacent to Delhi Laundry.
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