Gritty and ugly, elegant and mysterious, monkeys crawling on rooftops overlooking crowded city streets, Sikh temples, red clay mosques, poverty and sickness, beggars in the streets, serene parks, gracious hosts, outrageously good food…Delhi is a city of incredibly diverse character- an international mega city where travelers can be found in great numbers. With a population of over 13 million people it the second largest city in India (after Mumbai) and there are dozens of indigenous ethnic groups and religious cultures from all parts of the country who can be found here. Mix in the ex pats, and a thriving tourist business, and you can see why Delhi is a pretty potent cultural masala. From some of the best restaurants in the world to humble everyday cafes, the Delhi food scene represents the national cuisine.Of course I hit Bukhara, named by Restaurant Magazine as the best restaurant in Asia, it is a favorite of rock stars, presidents and royalty. The place is a must do for any restaurant aficionado or anyone with the need “to be seen” and the food is exquisite, the tandoori is without peer, but I wanted to search the dustier side of Delhi.
So I went to Old Delhi’s Muslim Mughlai cafes, where locals indulge in Nayaab Maghz Masala–mutton brain cooked with curd and curry, Kalije, savory liver and kidneys, Gurda-Kapure–kidneys and testicles, and Nalli Nihari, a spicy stew made with buffalo marrow, feet and skin.
I vsited with Joy Banerjee the genius chef of Oh! Calcutta–a modern, upscale Bengali restaurant in South Delhi. He is an expert in Bengali food, and something of a celebrity in India for specializing in the old family recipes of a bygone area. Bengal’s culinary traditions are based on the rich selection of grains, sea food, spices (a custom blend of nigella, black mustard, fenugreek, fennel, and cumin seeds), and produce, mostly bananas. It was one of the best eating experiences of my trip. The banana is extremely popular in Bengali cuisine mostly because it is convenient. Abundant throughout Bengal/West Bengal due to the humid heat and fertile soil, every part of it the plant, from flower to trunk is edible. After watching the complex preparation of each banana specialty that includes peeling the banana tree trunk, exposing the heart of a foot long blossom, and stuffing the leaves, I feasted on Bengali dishes like sauteed tree trunks, fish bathed in mustard oil and wrapped in banana leaves and Mocher Ghonda– the dish made with foot long banana flowers.
If you really think about it, milk is bizarre. Why humans thrive on that white secretion from the mammary glands of the female cow is curious at best; nonetheless, it is revered, especially in India. India is the largest producer of milk in the world. In addition, milk has long standing symbolism as a purifying and cleansing agent. There’s the “sacred Cow” revered by the Hindu who make up 82% of the population and in a city as diverse as Delhi, where religious values demand adherence to exclusive diets, milk is one of the only items common in Indian homes across the nation. From main dishes to specialty drinks and especially sweets, milk plays a huge role in Indian cooking. But not all Delhiites are comfortable with the suspect processed version you buy at the supermarket. Instead they rely on fresh milk from the cows down the street. Yes, in one of the largest cities in the world, the milkman keeps his own cows in his house and delivers milk daily. They milk the cows into a couple large cans, hang them on the milkman’s bike and off they go. I tagged along and at the last stop on his delivery route; the milkman introduced me to a neighbo. I watched as she blessed her small shrine by bathing it with raw milk to ensure a holy beginning to the day. Then she showed me some of her favorite milk recipes- like Lassi, a frothing whipped yogurt curd drink, a cream sandwich, and meat gravies made with curds. The we went on a tour of her favorite sweet shop where we sampled Kulfi, the Indian ice cream that comes in a variety of flavors like rosewater, pistachio, saffron and vetiver (a native grass), milk starch & rice noodles served with crushed ice, cheese balls in sweetened milk, sugared fruit & sprouts, creamy yogurt with saffron & pistachio nuts, curd and chickpea donuts, pastry balls made with milk & honey in a thick syrup, and crunchy orange-flavored cottage cheese that looks like a spider web. Awesome.
Delhi is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world going back at least 2500 years. The ruins of 7 cities have been discovered here, and it is said that Delhi’s food is often descended from that of the mediaeval lashkars garrisoned around the forts of the capital. But today, Shahjahanabad, or Old Delhi is home to an army of office-goers and shopkeepers who trade in everything from spices to bridal trousseaux to electrical fittings. If you venture to untangle the streets that twist and turn from dark alleys into busy boulevards, you are likely to find an inevitable surprise lurking around the corner, at least that’s what my new pal Hemanshu Kumar, a college Economics professor who is also the titular head of Eating Out in Delhi, a local club always in search of the most interesting and most bizarre food in town. Today, The Professor and I went on a search for the nearly extinct and increasingly overlooked traditional foods that can only be found on a dedicated filed trip. We found spiced milk froth, tiny Nihari stands, and anything else that popped up, like fruity sandwiches that reside in a shop behind large iron gates on Chawri Bazaar Road— made from pomegranate (anaar) or apples and paneer (Indian cottage cheese made from curdled milk) lathered in orange marmalade, then dusted with secret masala and anaar seeds all on white bread.
Food and eating are a very strong element of each and every Indian culture. However, the one thing that brings most people together often becomes what keeps people apart here in India. In other words, culture and religion in India can visibly separate many Indians from each other, especially when it comes to food. Some eat meat. Some won’t even allow meat inside their homes. Some fast as a way to be close to god, others say fasting is the path to weakness and therefore for evil. However, there is a place where all cultures, all religions, all walks of life can sit side by side and share a meal and that is at the Langar of the Guru Dwara or the kitchens of the Sikh temples. Sikh culture promotes non-violence & vegetarianism. They are strong believers in Karma, and attribute Karmic values to everything they do, including the air they breathe, the water they use, the light of the sun and moon they take in, and the food they eat. Sikhs are considered the most egalitarian society in the world. At the langars or kitchens anyone can volunteer to cook, and more importantly anyone can eat for FREE. No one is ever turned away. This is a community service. Serving between 8 and 9,000 visitors daily, with no division between a lunch and dinner hour, it’s always mealtime at the langar. And everyone who enters here understands that this food is an offering from god; therefore, it is a place of community, and for some a spiritual experience. I got to volunteer in the langar preparing the basic staples for the community—Dal, Roti and vegetables–then I dined with about 4000 of my newest friends. Amazing. But still not the most outrageous meal of the trip.
In Kashmir, eating is considered a beautiful and sacred tradition and is an all sensory experience. Kashmiri cuisine is as much about art, style, and ritual as it is about the food. Influenced by a rich history of Persian, Afghan and Central Asian influences, this cuisine is lavish, decadent, and plentiful. There’s also a custom, and perhaps even passion, for hospitality: In Kashmir, it is said that the host should lay out all the food that he has at home before his guest. The guest, on his part, must reciprocate this gesture by doing full justice to the meal. Renowned Kashmiri fashion de
signer Rohit Bal hosted a traditional Wazwan feast consisting of a whopping 36 courses, each course with it’s own tradition and ceremony. Notoriously fun-loving Rohit loves a good party (he is the Isaac Mizrahi of India after all) and there couldn’t be better host for this spirited feast. The Wazwan is a typical feast for special occasions and weddings. The colorful meal is a ritual in itself, the preparation of which is considered an art form. On the menu is fried lotus stems, fried lamb ribs, fenugreek, cottage cheese squares, chilis, sharp radish & walnut chutney, lamb curry cooked in milk, jellied bouillon made from meat and bones, eggplant and apple stew, and rogan josh, a lamb stew made with tree resin, mustard oil basted lamb, cock’s combs, and saffron. I left stuffed and happy, after a 5 hour meal, wandering back to my hotel through the loud and crowded streets, wondering how I ever got myself into this crazy business.