The general consensus amongst my nearest and dearest when I told them I’d be spending two months in Delhi was that I’d pass much of that time hugging a toilet. Their excitement at the prospect of my adventure was almost invariably followed by the line, delivered in a conspiratorial whisper, “Don’t forget your Imodium.” Delhi Belly, the evocative slang term for debilitating food poisoning, has given the city a bad rep, and one that turns out to be thoroughly undeserved.
The problem is that at first glance the grubby megapolis does a good job of hiding her gastronomic talents. I arrived at the height of summer, and my overwhelming first impression was of stepping out of arrivals and being struck by the sun. The heat was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was of that unforgiving intensity that leaves your body immediately slick with sweat under your clothes. I stumbled into a taxi and sat reeling in the back seat. I will always remember that inaugural journey into Delhi that felt more like riding a go-kart than travelling in a chauffeur-driven car. Horns blared as I watched a dust storm through the window, mini tornados of grime swirling across the road, flinging rubbish hither and thither. Travellers often do not linger in Delhi, and this is why. They quickly move on with the impression of having endured a sensory assault that stays with them long after their departure.
This is a great shame, because those who persevere soon realize that the city has so much to offer. As I settled in and became more curious, I began to discover beauty in the most unexpected places. Venturing behind sparkling curtains, up rickety stairs, or down winding side streets, I soon discovered another world within the city. There was stunning, ancient architecture, beautiful art, and friendships extended freely by the people I met. But for me, the most startling aspect of this discovery of Delhi’s better side was coming across an exploding restaurant scene that offers delicious, groundbreaking food.
Delhi’s culinary repertoire is a reflection of the diverse cultures that have met and mixed here for centuries. In my first month in the city, I tasted succulent dishes from the four corners of India, and discovered remarkable food from across the globe. Dim sum, sushi, Tibetan food, Burmese, Italian, French bakeries, chocolateries, American burgers and British afternoon tea are just a few of the options I was surprised to find. One night I found myself sitting in Andhra Pradesh Bhawan, one of the many canteens that offer regional cuisine at bargain prices. For 100 rupees (about $1.50) I was handed a steaming thali loaded with rich yellow daal, vegetable curries, rice, roti, and astoundingly sweet coconut rice pudding. Servers circulated with deep metal cans holding the delicious dishes and ladled out generous portions to anyone who wanted more. The food was dazzling, but what made the experience particularly special was watching the groups of families and friends from all walks of life gathering around the long trestle tables to share it.
It was only when I took a cooking course, however, that I realized how unsurprising it is that Delhi is such a food lover’s dream. My lesson was run by Anchal, founder of Tastesutra, who teaches the recipes she learned from her parents and grandparents. When I met her, she told me that she is on a personal mission to debunk the myths that surround Indian food. First off, she explained the dishes in Indian restaurants are not the ones that families eat every day at home. That is party food, festival food: indulgent, sweet, heavy, creamy. The real deal is much lighter, with delicate flavors spices. Over fragrant salted lassi, she talked about the central role food plays in all aspects of Indian culture. Rather than reaching for medication, for example, lots of Indians treat toothache with clove, or cure a cold by drinking turmeric mixed with water suspension that acts as an antibacterial. From religious festivals to celebrations and social events, food plays a central role. “I’m a 32-year-old married woman,” she laughs, “and when my mother finds out I’m having friends over, the first thing she’ll ask me is what I’m cooking.” Anchal made clear the extent to which food is a lynchpin in Indian society, and I realized that without understanding that you cannot understand India.
A few weeks after my food course, things took a turn for the adventurous when I met Riya, architect and Delhiphile whose zest for life is reflected in her love of food. She took me up to Old Delhi to sample street food, which, even with my newfound confidence, left me with reservations. Old Delhi is like stepping into a time warp, with its ancient winding streets, colours, and sounds. I found myself dodging rickshaws and the crush of people, aromatic spices hitting my nose, swiftly followed by the pungent smell of drains. Amongst all this, street food vendors prepare their wares in narrow holes in the wall, often seated crossed-legged at floor level. We began with hot spinach and onion pakoras cooked in a giant wok of boiling oil that simmered on the kerb as the world walked by. “Food changes every hundred miles you travel in India and every state’s cuisine is unique,” said Riya. “Really there is no such thing as Indian food. Given the diverse geography and mix of cultures, it’s only fair the food here represents all that variety!”
From there we moved on to a little café whose smiling owner discretely produced a dish of succulent melt-in-the-mouth meat cooked in a rich sauce, which turned out to be beef. With the slaughter of cows against the law in most Indian states, the phrase “so good it should be illegal” took on new meaning. Finally, we ended up in Karim’s, the iconic Delhi restaurant set up by the son of a cook to the last Mughal Emperor. As we ordered a bunch of dishes to share, Riya explained that for Indians eating is such a social activity it is unusual to order individual plates. “I don’t ever remember making chai just for myself, for example,” she said, laughing. The star of the meal was the Biryani, a dish Riya told me is popularly believed to have been invented in the Mughal army barracks to provide a nutritious meal for the blood thirsty warriors centuries ago.
Exploring Delhi’s vibrant food scene is a lesson in history, sociology, and culture that surprised me every day. Armed with hand sanitizer, restaurant reviews, and local advice, I discovered an exciting side of the city that has emerged in the last decade and is well worth taking a chance to explore. At the end of my trip, I was left with the overwhelming sense that it is time we stopped dwelling on “Delhi belly” and understood the deliciously exciting ways cosmopolitan India is evolving.
Photo published with copyright permission.
Hannah Mays is a British writer who loves to scribble about travel, culture and ideas. Over the past few years she’s lived in London, Paris, The Congo, Sarajevo, Boston and Delhi, and is consequently permanently ready for a nap (blame the jet lag). Follow her adventures here.