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The best food in the world?

I admit I am probably a little biased given I was born in the capital, but surely everyone agrees? Delhi features a plethora of cuisines but the one which is true to Delhi is extraordinary. Having travelled in many countries on all the continents, my (very personal) opinion is that it is the best!

As the capital, Delhi has attracted migrants from around the country and the fifth, sixth and older generations have not only brought their own food but influenced the local cuisine. Being a cosmopolitan city, Delhi boasts some of the best restaurants in the country. World cuisines are featured in many hotels and restaurants and are amongst the best you can eat in India.

Chinese is a very popular cuisine, whatever the political relationship between the two countries. On more than half of the menus in Delhi you are likely to encounter Chinese options. This time around I saw even street vendors selling chow mein noodles in Connaught Place. Closely related in terms of taste is the recent entrance of momos -a steamed or fried dim sum filled with meat or vegetables and a Tibetan import – which seems really rather popular amongst the youth. I tried one and though pleasant, it couldn’t beat the delicious dim sum in London’s China Town.

Aloo Tikki - Spicy Potato Cakes

Greater Delhi is roughly the size of South Wales and far more densely populated. It has at least half a dozen different centres of town and everywhere, including in the local neighbourhood market, you will find Punjabi cuisine. Punjab, lying in the North of the country, has a similar flavour in cuisine to Delhi and indeed is often seen by outsiders as the cuisine of Delhi. The chicken or mutton is portioned into large pieces on the bone, then marinated with delicate spices such as cardamom, clove and cinnamon whipped into the local yoghurt called curd before barbecuing in a clay oven – the tandoor. Tandoori food is accompanied with a side of onion and chilli garnish called laccha along with a mint chutney. A popular chain of restaurants called Pind Balluchi (or Park Balluchi in Haus Khas area) has been doing good Punjabi food with a flair for picking reasonably busy shopping areas and decorating the interior of the restaurants in scenes of Punjab village life.

For Vegetarians there are many options within the Punjabi cuisine. Cholle Bhature is a dish of spiced chick pea curry served with a deep fried bread made with self raising flour kneaded with yoghurt. Sarson ka Saag – a puree made with mustard leaves is a typical farmer’s lunch eaten with thick corn bread dripping in purified butter. Punjabi food is traditionally served with a glass of lassi, a sweet yoghurt drink much like Yop. Much of the cuisine tends to be ‘heavy’ in terms of fat and carbohydrates. No wonder then, when you look at the history of work within Punjab – hardworking farmers and soldiers.

South Indian cuisine is another popular food in Delhi. Though Kerala’s cuisine varies from Tamilnadu’s – both are southern Indian states – both are flavoured with a heavy use of coconut, rice and fish. Whilst Delhi is land-locked and several hours by air away from coast; the south with hundreds of miles of coastline is gifted by nature to produce tonnes of rice and fish. Of all the southern food, in Delhi the most popular by far is the mighty Dosa – a large thin and crispy rice flour pancake. Mashed potato delicately spiced with onions, Nigella and mustard seeds is folded inside this giant pancake and it’s served with a delicious bowl of sambhar – a soup of lentils and vegetables – and a small bowl of coconut chutney freshly grated and mixed with chillies.

If you visit Delhi today, you will find many restaurants specialising in Western cuisines. Italian food is very popular here. But you will find British pub style food, French, Greek and Mexican too. Disappointingly though not surprisingly there are a large number of American chains such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut and KFC which have shoved their way into the neighbourhood food markets to get in on the increasing size (yes, both population and waist lines) of the middle class of Delhi. But as they say, where there is demand, there is supply. Alarmingly, I read an article in the local newspaper about the decline in exercise, the increase in the purchase of personal laptops and subsequently an increase in the reported cases of obesity amongst the under 18s in Delhi.

Gol Gappe - Edible water bombs!

Some would argue that Mughlai cuisine, the food of the royal Mughal courts is the true cuisine of Delhi and it’s true to the extent that it’s very popular in Delhi; that this city has influenced the cuisine more than any other, and that the best Mughlai restaurants in the world can be found here. The rich butter curries of meat, naan bread, use of nuts and dried fruits shares it’s origins in Afghanistan and Iran.

Moti Mahal is a restaurant featured in Paul Merton’s recent series exploring India. I have known about this restaurant since I was a child. It was heralded as the best Mughlai kitchen and I had been wanting to go back their since I was a child. This time I got the opportunity. Not far from the backpacker’s district of Pahar Gunj, an unassuming little entrance opens onto a courtyard and before you know, you will be invited in and sat at one of the tables, galley style. The open air restaurant features a small stage on which an ensemble of musicians and a singer sit legs folded. A harmonium, a sitar and a tabla play with the ghazal singer. The harmony is matched in the food which is served – finely sliced ginger, grated garlic, fresh coriander and chopped chillies lend flavour as well as mouth-watering aroma to the food.

Kulche - stuffed bread cooked in a tandoor

To start, we ordered a seekh kebab – chopped mutton mixed with spices and shaped lengthways with the skewer in the centre. Seekh Kebabs are traditionally eaten with a Roomali Roti, which requires some skill to prepare and as this was available on the menu, we ordered it. Through the window in the kitchen I spied a chef making it. Roomali Roti is a bread rolled out so thinly by throwing it up in the air that it would make the pizza throwers of Naples blush. The roti is so large that it is cooked on a huge wok which sits on the fire upside down. The thin roti needs less than 10 seconds to cook on each side and is folded like a handkerchief (the Hindi word Roomali) before being served. You tear a piece of this roti, add a seekh kebab, ,mint chutney and freshly chopped onions with a squeeze of lemon and roll the whole thing up like a sausage roll and you’ll have one of the most delectable tasting mouthful of food in the world!

Only one cuisine in my eyes wins the accolade of true Delhi food -the street food. It’s cheap, it’s tasty and it’s what the masses eat everyday. My true purpose of visiting Delhi was the quest of sampling the best of what the street vendors have to offer.

The Delhi Metro now goes to Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazaar. In between these stations you will find the densest crowds of people going about their daily tasks of lifting heavy boxes, pushing hand-carts, calling out to the crowd to sell their wares, shoving, pushing, walking, running, eating. All in good nature.

The first food vendor I came past, by luck, was the the food I had been dreaming about for a long time! Pateela Matar. These are peas very similar to mushy peas of England and are boiled and kept in a very large pateela, a brass pot sat on a low heat. When he gets an order, the vendor takes a ladleful of

Fresh Lime Soda

the boiled peas onto a leaf (shaped into a bowl), adds fresh ingredients –  lime juice, chopped onion, chopped tomato, grated ginger, sliced green chillies, chaat masala and tosses it all up. This bowl of deliciousness is served up with a dry flat bread called a kulcha. Rickshaw wallahs, hand cart pullers, shop attendants, children after school, and tourists alike crowd around the pateela to get a taste of this incredibly fresh and tasty food. You can eat a bowl of matar and two  kulchas for Rs 10 or 15 pence of the British money.

The best thing about street food in Delhi is that none is so filling that you can’t stop by at the next vendor and drool!

Having licked clean my leaf of all the peas, I walked further along to find a man selling something that is hardly ever seen outside the square kilometre of old Delhi. A true local food – kulle. These are large potatoes boiled and sliced in half lengthways. Some of the flesh is then scooped out to make room for the peas mixed with masala and lime to be filled in. Again, very fresh tasting food which I highly recommend you seek out when in this area.

As I walked further, I saw other childhood favourites. Among them was fruit chaat – freshly cut chopped seasonal mixed fruits tossed with a black chaat masala and lime juice – delicious and healthy; mooli – long white radish split in the middle and sprinkled with lime and black salt; and everyone’s favourite gol gappe, a thin pastry in the shape of a flying saucer which you tap on the top of to make a cavity in which you fill a small spoonful of potatoes, chick peas and spicy sauce and put in your mouth whole – like water bombs – it’s an explosion of flavour!

To the brim, full of food, I made my final stop at the Lime Soda man to help digest the day’s bounty before climbing into an auto rickshaw to be taken home happy and content with life!

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  1. September 6, 2011 at 12:46

    Finger licking good, even though I generally tend to eat everything with a fork and at the most accompanied by a knife!!! Brings back fond memories of my trip to Delhi and the northern regions like Punjab which have a lot of this kind of food available everywhere. Thanks for sharing the places and different types of cuisine in Delhi.

  2. Lisa T
    September 7, 2011 at 04:35

    Sounds fab – Pateela Matar sounds yummy. I want some!
    xx

  3. July 31, 2012 at 19:01

    Hey! Loved this post and so glad you liked mine! Love food and Delhi food is number one any day.

    Now I know we have three common loves- travel, writing and food:) So glad you came across my blog and went through it, gave me a chance to check yours out. Following now, so that I can read more.

    Cheers!
    Priyanka

  4. Prof. J.A.K. Tareen
    March 3, 2015 at 06:39

    Sir,

    My wife is publishing a cook book with Indian Recipes and she would like to use some of the pictures published on the street vendors of food items in India, just to add colour to the book. I am writing to seek your permission to use the picture of Aloo Tikki – Spicy Potato Cutlets. She will acknowledge your paper if allow to use the picture.

    With best regards,
    Prof. J.A.K.TAREEN

    • March 3, 2015 at 07:30

      Of course. And hood luck.

  5. Prof. J.A.K. Tareen
    March 9, 2015 at 10:42

    Thanks for permitting us to use your photo. Please kindly send us the confirmation through email as the publisher request the same. Email id: vc@bsauniv.ac.in

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