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Kebabs of Delhi

February 23, 2012 2 comments

On arrival in Delhi, and finding time around the hectic schedule of my cousin’s wedding, I asked friends in Delhi and on the medium of Facebook – where to find good kebabs.

In London, kebabs are usually found in Turkish take aways, resemble an elephant’s foot and are consumed at the end of a heavy night of drinking and forgotten about the next morning (or sometimes remains of it are found at the bottom of the toilet bowl after a regurgitation session in the middle of the night). That’s not to say that all Turkish kebabs are bad. Just most.

In many Asian areas, particularly around East London, you can come across a good Pakistani kebab house where you can taste the best tikkas and kebabs in the country.

But there is nothing quite like a morsel of a good kebab in Delhi. The wedding turned out to mostly have vegetarian food and it gave me a good excuse to step out with a friend and try some of the kebab places recommended by friends in Delhi.

We arrived in Khan Market for the famous Khan Chacha’s. This place started out as a street stall around 40 years ago. It soon became a sensation and would see queues of people waiting patiently for a plate of Seekh kebabs. Today there is a two floor fast food style restaurant at the same place. Though my friend ordered chicken kebabs, I wanted to try what the place is famous for – Seekh Kebab. These are hollow sausages made of minced mutton and a large number of spices, shaped around a barbecue skewer and cooked in a hot tandoor. Along with it I ordered a Roomali Roti, a soft and wafer thin bread which is as large as a big scarf (hence the name which translates as handkerchief roti). Traditionally, you would roll the kebab along with some pickled sliced red onion and green chutney into the roti and eat it like a roll. I wanted to try the kebab on it’s own first and was dismayed by how it looked – bright red (obviously colour was used) and dry. It was also cold to the touch and when I tasted some, I was very disappointed. The roomily roti on the other hand was soft, warm and lovely and with the help of large spoonfuls of chutney I managed to disguise the taste of the kebab. My friend’s chicken kebab was much better.

Later that day, my friend invited me back to her house where her husband had cooked a meal of mutton curry and ordered seekh kebabs from a local tandoor in Jungpura. The curry was sensational as only a home cooked curry made by a true Delhite can be – soft boneless pieces of mutton cooked slowly for hours in a thick spicy hot gravy made with lots of minced ginger and garlic. The seekh kebabs were ten times better than at Chacha’s so the day was saved by a local unassuming tandoor.

On our last day in Delhi, my cousin (who was also returning to the US the next day) and I decided to go to Noida Sector 18 for a round of gol gappe. These are puffed balls made out of flour which are filled with boiled potato, chick peas and a spiced water and eaten whole. On our way to our favourite gol gappe stall, we passed a restaurant called the Kebab Factory. I looked at my cousin, she cocked an eye brow and without a word, we walked into the place. We ordered, seekh kebab and tandoori chicken. Both were freshly prepared in the tandoor and went down a treat!

However before all of this, and on just day two of my arrival in Delhi, my friend and I found ourselves in Defence Colony market and seeing there was a tandoor set up outside the bar called Moet’s, we decided to order a Malai Tikka. This is a chicken kebab that’s marinated in delicate spices like cardamom and nutmeg and laced with cream, butter and yoghurt. The result is a tender mouth-watering piece of meat which melts in the mouth. The green chilli and garlic notes come at the end of the mouthful like fireworks. The plate of this Malai Tikka arrived on a styrofoam plate accompanied with a mint and coriander chutney and wedges of lemon. This was placed on the bonnet of the car and we devoured the lot within a minute. It was quite possibly the best kebab I’ve ever tasted!

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Categories: Food, India Tags: , , ,

A Delhi Market

February 16, 2012 2 comments

Having only recently returned from an almost a year long trip around S America and Asia, I came back to Delhi this week to attend my cousin Hina’s wedding. Coming to Delhi is always a pleasure, with the sights, sounds and especially tastes to behold.

My cousin Disha and me

As is the case, the wedding attracted a number of long-lost relatives from around the world. This time around I met a cousin, Disha, who I hadn’t seen for a number of years after she moved to Michigan, US. We hit it off immediately and spent an excellent time together.

Indian weddings are not only a drawn out affair, but also generally quite badly organised from the outset. The upshot of that is that there is a hive of activity just before the wedding week starts. I arrived at the start of this and with Disha, was sent out to a number of errands. One of these was to a bustling market in Delhi called Lajpat Nagar.

There is nothing you can’t buy at the Lajpat Nagar market. Indeed, much of wedding shopping from dresses to flowers to ceremonial paraphernalia is bought here. Shops, stalls and walking vendors compete for space and customers. Street food is dotted around so buyers aren’t left hungry or thirsty.

Of the most interesting things I was offered as I walked through the streets with Disha were:

1. A Washing Machine Cover – In India, washing machines are now popular and Dhobis are unfortunately going out of business. As there isn’t a dedicated space for a washing machine in the home, these are often placed in the sitting or bed rooms. In order to disguise an ugly thing, the Indians devised a pretty embroidered cover which sits at the top and converts the top of the washing machine into a useful table!

2. Narra – A long flat rope used for tying the tops of Indian trousers (pyjamas) and petticoats to your waist.

I didn’t have a need for either of the above but it did make me smile!

Categories: India, Shopping Tags: , , ,

The best food in the world?

September 6, 2011 6 comments

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!

A homecoming – Delhi

July 25, 2011 3 comments

Old Delhi

After eight months of travelling around the world we finally arrived in the city of Delhi – my birthplace and a source of joy each time I visit it.

A late flight meant we found our own accommodation on the first night and the next day took the opportunity to explore old Delhi, and in particular the area where I was born. Whilst the rest of Delhi changes each time I visit, much of old Delhi remains the same, as though stuck in a time warp.

The international airport is now a pleasure to arrive at, the roads are excellent, the traffic congestion has been eased by the addition of flyovers and Delhi Metro. Some of these advancements can be credited to the recent Commonwealth Games being held here but mostly to Delhi Authorities cleaning up their act.

Old Delhi however remains as it was 10, 20, 40 and 60 years ago. The narrow lanes are congested with rickshaws, hand-pushed carts

Postbox behind my old house

and motorbikes.Thousands of tiny shops specialise in just one thing, whether it be spices, gold, stationery or wedding paraphrenalia. The alleyway with the house where I was born looks largely the same but has become more commercialised. The architecture remains but people moved out and the wedding stationers moved in. Walking around, I could still make out the traces of architecture I remember as a little girl – where our front door would have been, the path to the back of the town-house and the even narrower alley which leads to a large townhouse built in the crevice of where two houses met perpendicularly.

As we walked along these streets yesterday, I reminisced about olden days. When I lived here in the late 1970s and early 80s as a little girl, the entire street knew each other. There was only a sprinkling of shops and businesses, though even then it was known as the place to go in Delhi if you wanted a wedding card printed. There was a deep water well and  few large courtyards at which I remember all the neighbours playing Holi (Hindu colour festival). Each day I would hear the muezzin at Jama Masjid read the namaaz and at Eid, we took little bowls of sevaiyan (a dessert made of vermicelli soaked in sweet milk with nuts) to each other’s houses.

Turning left into the dead end alley, I went past the house where an Uncle once removed had grown up. It was the only place which looked like it may still have someone living in it. The postbox outside announced the name I remembered years ago and after plucking up some courage I

Street food

knocked on the door. it creaked open but there was no one inside. Not knowing what I would say if someone did appear, I took a tentative step forward. There was a courtyard with a neat kitchen set up in one corner and a parasol keeping the sun out of the most of the opening above.

Through the same door which I stepped in came in a lady who asked if she could help. I didn’t recognise her and felt embarrassed to have been inside the parapet without being invited in. She explained that she lived there with her sister and that she worked at the shop next door. I then introduced myself and she recognised me immediately – she said I looked just like my mother. She took us to the shop and insisted we rest our weary legs and have a drink. The summer heat had parched our throats and it was a pleasure to sit with a fan above us and have a cup of tea. It turned out she was the niece of the Uncle I mentioned above.

Though she wasn’t related to me and had a tentative relationship with me, she was so good to invite us in, buy us a drink and chat about old times. It’s experiences like this which make a trip!

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Ambling along the narrow lanes, taking in the sights and smells and sounds (and believe me they can be overwhelming!) we stopped off at a street food stall and asked for a plate of aloo ki tikki. The old man gently fried the little potato cakes in some oil, crushed them with  his hands and poured beaten salted yoghurt, coriander and mint chutney, and tamarind paste to the top with a generous sprinkle of chaat masala and handed it to me with a couple of wooden spoons. It was delicious!

Categories: India Tags: , , ,

The Hoi Polloi in Hanoi

April 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Me on a rented bike

The Vietnamese capital skates on two wheels. The traffic swirls – quite gracefully, if terrifyingly – around each other. Thousands of motorbikes face each other at the traffic lights like opposing armies at battle and at the merest hint of the lights turning green, they plough into each other in every direction. Unlike a battle however, the bikes manage to avoid each other and pirouhette around pedestrians, street vendors, cars and other bikes as if this was a rehearsed dance sequence. It’s mesmerising!

The old quarter of Hanoi reminds me of Pahar Ganj in Old Delhi. Narrow winding streets. Tiny specialist shops, each selling just one product – zips, pineapples, flip flops, hats. Street vendors fanning their wares and asking every passerby whether they want to buy a rolex, a doughnut, a lighter, a handkerchief. Rickshaws milling around. Pavements reserved for parked motorbikes. Cauldrons of food or drink boiling away on the street corner with tiny plastic stools around for passersby to sit down and enjoy a bowl of soup.

The first few hours in Hanoi can be jittery:

1. How do you cross a street where lights never allow for pedestrians to cross?

2. How do you navigate the pavements, every inch of which is covered with parked motorbikes?

3. How do you tell whether the meat floating in your soup is not dog?

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A hat seller

1a. If you close your eyes and crossed the busiest street, you are still likely to be ok because vehicles are always snaking around every obstacle. The Vietnamese must be the most alert drivers. As a pedestrian, you need nerves of steel and courage to just wade into the traffic fearlessly and without dithering.

2a. You don’t walk on the pavements – these are reserved for parking, vendors, street families eating bowls of noodles etc. You walk on the side of the road and observe the same rules as 1a.

3a. You don’t know and you don’t ask.

 

Seeing us on the streets, the locals must have thought “What a load of Hoi Polloi farangs!”.

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