Delhi’s diverse food offerings reflect hues of various cultures coming together in one mouth-watering mosaic.
It is said that Delhi was the capital of the famed Pandava kingdom more than 5,000 years ago, then called Indraprastha (as mentioned in the Mahabharata, one of the major Sanskrit epics of ancient India). In fact, in his book City of Djinns, William Dalrymple wrote about the seven cities of Delhi. The city changed names and rulers like a king changes robes, retaining its majestic elegance through centuries. It would be fair to say thus, that the food of Delhi has also seen influences far and wide, both from nearby states as well as far away countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Persia and even Portugal. To dine in Delhi is akin to taking a trip around the world in a time machine.
‘Indian food’ is a misnomer and clouded with misconceptions. In Singapore, Indian food is oft limited to thosai and idli (a savoury rice cake), which essentially represent only one of the cuisines of merely one state in southern India called Tamil Nadu. In Europe, chicken tikka masala is said to embody Indian cuisine, a regretful concoction created with tomato ketchup in the kitchens of London. In truth however, Indian food is as diverse as the country itself, with more than 40 distinct cuisines, each unique in its method of preparation as well as ingredients used. If you want to sample a few of these, Delhi is the perfect destination to do so.
Breakfast walk through Old Town
What is now known as Old Delhi was earlier Shahjahanabad or the capital city of Mughal King Shah Jahan, who also built the Taj Mahal in Agra. The meandering lanes of Old Delhi retain memories of the Mughal kitchens and this is where you should start your food journey when in the city.
A breakfast walk in Chandni Chowk is the perfect way to dive in headlong. The sleepy lanes will transform into a buzzing maze of organised chaos, but at 8am, all you have are sleepy dogs and chai walahs (tea vendors) for company. Anubhav Sapra founded Delhi Food Walks seven years ago and knows a few of the secrets that these lanes hide. He will take you to a sweet shop (Shyam Sweets) that has served nagori halwa (fried dough balls served with a sweet pudding) for more than a century and follow that up with a fourth-generation vendor selling chole kulche (boiled chickpea mixed with spices and served with baked bread). Squatting outside a shop that opens at 10.30am, Lotan Ji only sits here for a few hours every morning, selling out his day’s fare within a few hours just as his ancestors have been doing for the past 90 years. You can ask him to vary the spice level to suit your palate, and it is perhaps the best thing you will eat all day. One of the last few stops on this walk will take you to a shop that serves chole bhature, another preparation of chickpeas served with fried bread lined with cottage cheese, arguably Delhi’s favourite street food (though there are many contenders for that slot).
The reign of the Mughals
The breakfast walk covers a vegetarian part of Old Delhi, influenced by Jain immigrants as well as those from neighbouring states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. A lot of the food served here is made without onion and garlic (adhering to religious beliefs), essential ingredients in many Indian dishes. In contrast, just walk over to the lane opposite Jama Masjid, merely five minutes away from Chandni Chowk and you will witness a stark difference in food. Here you will find the non-vegetarian influences of the Mughal period, with restaurants like Karim’s claiming that their ancestors cooked in the royal kitchens more than a hundred years ago and the recipes were passed on generation to generation.
Though Karim’s is known for its ishtew (a colloquial word for stew), nihari (slow-cooked meat) and korma (meat curry), it is the seekh kebab (spicy grilled meat skewers) that stands out here. Succulent and soft, it is unlike any that you will find across the city. While the food in Old Delhi may have originated from Afghan and the Middle East, they have evolved over centuries and the kebabs served in Delhi differ greatly from those served in Iran, Turkey or elsewhere. Over dinner in a new age Parsi (of Persian and Iranian origin) restaurant in New Delhi, William Dalrymple, perhaps the most knowledgeable historian about the city, cautioned that the food served in the lanes across Jama Masjid may not bear any resemblance to those enjoyed in the courts of the Mughals. In fact, he suggested, after reading historical accounts like Baburnama and Palace Diaries of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Court, that the Mughals enjoyed hunting and thus ate a lot of venison, quail, duck and other game meat. They also enjoyed European wine, which King Akhbar reportedly remarked tongue-in-cheek, was “the only civilised thing about Europeans”.
Street foods of Delhi
Delhi’s street food is legendary and no trip to the city is complete without sampling some. Besides chole bhature mentioned above, you must try gol gappe (fried semolina balls stuffed with a potato mixture and dipped in spiced water) as well as papdi chaat (Indian street snack with potato, chickpeas and noodles), a mish-mash of textures, flavours and colours all served on one plate. Chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent, awarded the best restaurant in India by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 swears by the chaat at Vaishno Chaat Bhandar in North Delhi. This is where he goes for his chaat fix, which he insists serves the ‘traditional’ Delhi chaat without influences from other states. On the other end of the spectrum from the street food of Delhi or the lanes of the old city, chef Mehrotra’s Indian Accent restaurant sits in regal surroundings in the classy The Lodhi Hotel in Lutyen’s Delhi. The degustation menu is highly recommended, one of the best ways to get acquainted with regional food from various parts of the country. It is also a great spot for star-gazing, a favourite haunt of celebrities and well known personalities.
The British Raj
The Mughals may have made their mark, but pre-Independence India soaked in influences from the British Empire too. During the British reign, the heavily spiced food of Delhi was softened to suit the European palate and thus, the ‘club culture’ was born. Gymkhana Club and other such institutions still serve food that was popular during the British era, featuring dishes like chicken a la kiev and vegetable au gratin. Though Delhi Gymkhana is all big boast small roast now, Marut Sikka, a highly respected Indian restaurateur has taken famous dishes from all clubs across the country and put them on the menu of the excellent restaurant Delhi Club House, making them more accessible than the dining rooms of these closed-door clubs.
With the influx of Tibetan refugees in the city, many popular dishes from Lhasa like momos and thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) also found their way onto the streets of the capital. Momos are chicken dumplings encased in a flour wrapper, steamed, fried or baked as per your preference. Served on every street corner today, momos in Delhi even come tossed up in spicy sauces. Chef Mehrotra hints that momos served across the city may be similar in flavour, but what sets one vendor apart from the other is the chilli garlic sauce served alongside, giving the dumplings a much needed kick.
Across the 1947 border
The India-Pakistan partition in 1947 saw many recipes being exchanged across the border. The famous butter chicken was actually invented in Lahore and brought to Delhi by Moti Mahal, a restaurant that still has many outlets in the city. They are also responsible for creating dal makhani, a creamy black lentil preparation that is now synonymous with ‘North-Indian’ food. If you can’t go all the way to Old Delhi to try these at Moti Mahal (Daryaganj), the centrally located Pandara Road’s Havmore Restaurant is a convenient option.
Food in Delhi, or even India, may have used various combinations of spices through history, but it lacked chilli until the Portuguese brought in the plant in the 16th century. It took another 200 years for chillies to reach the North-Indian plains according to Lizzie Collingham in her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. Even today, food in most parts of the country is not fiery, each dish instead highlights one or two spices like cardamom, cinnamon or cumin to give it a unique flavour. Thus, the belief that Indian food is spicy (read: fiery) and will set your mouth on fire is another popular misconception.
It is impossible to try everything noteworthy on one trip to the capital city of India. Delhi’s food is so diverse that it will take you a few trips and perhaps even an extended stay to do it justice.
New-age Delhi and its global palate
Historical journey aside, Delhi is a bustling metropolis with its eye firmly on global culinary standards. You will find a smattering of international cuisines here, some altered in true-blue Delhi style, others as authentic as they come.
Artusi Ristorante is highly recommended for classic Italian fare, and Japanese food is best tried at Guppi by Ai. No one in town can beat the sushi at Yum Yum Cha, the Burmese khao suey at Burma Burma or Southeast Asian food at PaPaYa or Ping’s. New age concepts like Perch, a wine bar in the sophisticated Khan Market which serves amazing coffee sangria, are a popular and refreshing break from traditional perceptions. The recently opened Fig and Maple, a café in posh South Delhi has a menu that could have you believing you are sitting in New York. The tiny eatery is a tedious walk up nondescript stairs, but their signature Fig & Maple salad makes up for it, and then some more. If you want to work out of a café, The Grammar Room near Qutub Minar is bright and sunny, with an exceptional Gin & Tonic menu best paired with a surprisingly good spiced prawn benedict. At the top of the list, Chef Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent and Zorawar Kalra’s Masala Library jostle for space in the Modern-Indian arena, both outdoing the other on a good day. And this is merely scratching the surface.
It is impossible to try everything noteworthy on one trip to the capital city of India. Delhi’s food is so diverse that it will take you a few trips and perhaps even an extended stay to do it justice. A handful of favourites listed above however, will give you a glimpse into the excellence that the city offers in terms of flavour. After all, you can’t do justice to a city that traces its roots back 5,000 years in one short trip.
Delhi Club House
Sangam Courtyard, Major Somnath Marg,
Sector 9, R.K. Puram, New Delhi
Tel: +91 97175 35544
Fig & Maple
M-27, E Block Rd, Block M, Greater Kailash II,
Greater Kailash, New Delhi
Tel: +91 88006 65972
11-12 Pandara Market, Barda Ukil Marg,
Tel: +91 11 2338 7171
Plot No. 5, Shop No. 1/2, Sagar Complex,
New Rajdhani Enclave, Vikas Marg, Laxmi Nagar,
Tel+91 11 2250 6311
Perch Wine & Coffee Bar
71 Khan Market, Rabindra Nagar, New Delhi
Tel: +91 83739 76637
The Grammar Room
One Style Mile, Kalka Das Marg, Mehrauli,New Delhi
Tel: +91 81302 88558
This article was first published in Wine & Dine’s May/June 2018 issue – Future Foods.