One of the joys of visiting a new country is sampling its cuisine, whether haute or undeniably low brow. Gunjan Prasad explores the streets of one of her favourite cities, Delhi.
There is a story about the Emperor of Delhi’s elephant that says he would stop in the middle of a procession and refuse to budge until he was fed sweetmeats made out of real, clarified butter from a special shop called Ghantewala in Old Delhi. There is a story about the Emperor of Delhi’s elephant that says he would stop in the middle of a procession and refuse to budge until he was fed sweetmeats made out of real, clarified butter from a special shop called Ghantewala in Old Delhi.
The story may be an apocryphal folklore, but the delicious diversity of Delhi’s food is not. Maybe it has something to do with its immigrant population that has trudged hundreds of kilometers from the rural countryside to make this big city their home; and brought with them tastes and flavors that are now a part of what one can call dilli ka khana (food of Delhi). Being the place where I was born and lived for the first quarter of my life, Delhi to me means my mother’s delicious food, devoured either sitting outside in the verandah enjoying a few hours of sunshine in the North Indian winters or in front of the khus-padded water coolers when the mercury shot up to 40-degrees. With four distinct seasons came different vegetables every couple of months; greens, carrots and cauliflowers in winters and gourds, okra and nothing much else in summers. While growing up, eating out was limited to an orange lolly at India Gate, chaat (savory crisps served with sweet, tangy and spicy sauces; usually served cold) at Bengali market or an occasional sweet corn soup at the local mobile van from Chinese-looking cooks. Parties, birthdays, anniversaries were all celebrated at home with relatives, with food being cooked by mums and aunts or else ordered in.
It remained this way even when I moved out, as the only thing I wanted to do on my annual trips back home was to tuck into as much homecooked food as I could! Thus, recently when I was asked to write a long-ish article about “Top 5 Places to Eat” in Delhi after a trip to India, it was quite a task. That I am not a part of the “bling” crowd that visits the newly opened lounge bars and super expensive Thai restaurants does not help either. Thus, I decided to ask some dyed-in-the-wool Delhites (with at least three generations of history in the capital) about places they will recommend to people seeking dilli ka khana.
Karim’s in Old Delhi featured top on most of the non-vegetarians’ lists (including mine). Though I don’t expect that many people, even in India, regularly dine on goat’s trotters, I am reasonably sure anyone who takes this recommendation will develop a taste for them, just as they will for the unique ambience of the Walled City; the sights, sounds and smells that take you right back to the days of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan. Butter chicken is to Delhi what pizza is to Rome. Every gourmand in the capital has a favorite hole in the wall that serves this dish of succulent roasted chicken pieces in thick and creamy buttery sauce. Though Pindi near India Gate is where most tourists go, my voters’ pick was “Chick Fish” at the Malaviya Nagar market. Situated in a predominantlymiddle class colony, said to have been originally developed for Indian refugees arriving from Pakistan after the division, Chick Fish’s butter chicken is to die for. Match it with naans right out of the clay tandoor and some raw onions; you’ll be hooked for life.
A visit to Delhi without having chaat is simply unpardonable. Every neighborhood street has more than one chaat corner dishing out aloo tikki, pani puri, or papri chaat served with curd and piquant sauce. Though the upcoming Indian fast food chain Haldiram has made chaat-eating more hygienic, what with its plastic-wrapped potatoes and mineral water, to me the romance lies in queuing up with five others to wait for a turn at getting a spicy sour sauce filled crispy chaat and munching until my eyes water, due to the spices and chilies; the best place for such an experience is behind UPSC building at Shahjahan Road. There is not much to write about Karol Bagh in the west side of the capital if you take it purely from a tourist’s point of view. The roads are narrow, winding and dusty and adding to the chaos are thousands of people, either hawking their various wares, passing through or simply just there for the food. Though primarily populated by people from Punjab, Karol Bagh’s claim to fame is kulfi (an Indian ice-cream), served at a restaurant called Roshan-di-Kulfi. A rock solid block of milky icecream hidden beneath a delicious mix of falooda (a milk-based drink flavoured with rose syrup and named after the strands of cornflour vermicelli that float in it) is a treat to die for in summertime.
If you turn left on Lodhi Road from the Nizamuddin flyover, you will find a medical looking structure that locals call the Purana Gumbad, and right next to this there are some plastic chairs and a table and a small cigarette stall – this is Patrick’s Tea Stall. The menu comprises masala chai (tea), bread omelettes, bread pakora (fritters), biscuits and bottled water. Next to the Centenary Methodist Church, it is just the place to get some spiritual guidance from hordes of Christian students who come for the Sunday service. While roadside eateries churn out the most authentic cuisine in Delhi; it also houses a plethora of up-market eateries. As the Delhi-ites are gradually building an appetite for unique-to-them cuisines such as Mexican and Thai, one country that dominates the culinary scene in Delhi is China. However, don’t go in expecting such authentic fare as Peking Duck and Pork Dumplings; Indians eat what is called “masala Chinese” – an ‘Indianised’ version of the original! However, for the discerning gourmand, one eatery that is a must-do is Side Wok, in the hip and chic neighborhood of Delhi-Khan Market. On the menu you will find dishes from Burma, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Laos but with the emphasis on Chinese cuisine.
The wait staff are attractively dressed in a palette of beiges and browns; this is a place to go for Tom Yum Goong, Gado Gado and, of course, Chicken Schezwan. There is much more to India than the Taj Mahal and Jaipur. Delhi, in itself, has enough history and culture to match that of many countries around the world. What is required, however, is to see it, feel it, smell it and taste it from the perspective of the people who know – its residents, the dilli-wallas.