I'd been whining about not having the time to experience any food breakthroughs on this trip to India. My whines have been answered. I had three big food breakthroughs barely a day or so after I wrote the last post. God, you’re reading my blog aren’t you?
Breakthrough #1, my prayer to connect with local food bloggers in Delhi – a city that I’ve already visited three times this year – was answered. My hosts in Delhi are truly the most caring in the world and have schlepped the insatiable crotchety ogre in me across town to be fed at institutions like Karim’s and Bengali market. But my greedy heart still hungered to find local foodies to go wild with in the city. In my true blogger-stalking style, I dredged up a bunch of bloggers in the city, shot them sweet pseudo-desperate emails (hi…I’m a blogger visiting from Dubai. I love your blog. Will you eat with me?), hoping at least one would bite. The one who did was the super helpful and responsive Pamela at eatanddust.com, who promptly set me loose on the trail behind FED: Food Enthusiasts of Delhi. BINGO.
I was clicking away in no time, reading up about this adventurous and totally gluttonous group of foodies that was ‘raiding’ all the best eateries and shacks in town. I had to meet this group, I had to squish myself in amongst them, I HAD TO EAT THROUGH THIS CITY WITH THEM. Minutes after Pam replied, I had already an email thread going with FED founder and mastermind, Shashank. Only to find out that I had just missed one of their awesome weekend food raids the day before, the exact day I was hatching eggs in my hotel room wishing I had fellow foodie friends in the city. Drat.
The upside of Breakthrough #1, other than now becoming the outlet for my unrestrained fellow foodie love, is that it incited me to formulate Breakthrough #2. Going against every valuable piece of advice from my super caring and rightfully protective hosts about not venturing out into the city alone, I decided to make a solo trip down to Old City. To the famous bazaars of Chandi Chowk and Jama Masjid that FED had just covered on Saturday, and that I’d only briefly scuttled through for my sister’s wedding shopping a couple of days ago. But in the madness called wedding shopping, I barely had a chance to stop and smell the jalebis.
Now mind you, Delhi is not the safest of Indian cities, especially not after sunset I hear, and even less so for a whimsical foodie with a Canon slung around her neck, poking her reckless finger into every street stall ladling out something golden brown crispy from its life-sized kadai.
But I was going to do it. I would to take this city into my own well-weathered and scarred hands, and wring out centuries of flavor and spices unto the plates before me. I would knock shoulders with the locals, do the 360 degree sweeping glance every few minutes or so to make sure no one was robbing me. Or ramming me with wooden poles as they were erecting their shop canopies [Been there, done that. Scar on forehead as proof.] It wouldn’t be easy, but the thrill of the adventure was what I longed for. And I WOULD do it. Through the congested labyrinth of alleyways that snake around Chandni Chowk, it was going to be me. Just Me.
...and a fancy chauffeured car with a driver who’d been instructed to stick by me at all times, lest I fall backward into a ditch trying to photograph a pomegranate shell. [Now there, don’t poo-poo me. The crime stories one hears in Delhi has transformed even me, the steely-nerved food hunter, into quite the whimpering scaredy cat.]
I was in half a mind to beg the white-suited Jamal, my driver-escort for the evening, to slip into some less escort-like street clothes. In hindsight, I really should have – the rickshaw lad probably charged me four times the price he’d charge a regular when he saw sparkling white Jamal drive me up to Gate 3 of Chandni Chowk in his sparkling white car. But no matter, Jamal was well-travelled and chatty company who agreed to split paranthas with me from the legendary Paranthe Walli Galli, that narrow L-shaped alleyway frying up some of the most creative stuffed parantha combinations in the world. Not just the potato or paneer kinds, but banana, bitter gourd, okra, carrot, mint, almond…
If Jamal had a bigger appetite, and I wasn’t that promiscuous eater trying to hit up a variety of different stalls, we’d have done real justice to Pandit Babu Ram Dev Dayal’s 122 year old shack and crammed in way more than just two traditional paranthas – paneer and the mixed. But the simple paneer one hit the spot.
Craters of supremely crunchy charred bits that shrivelled up to reveal sweet crumbled paneer cheese underneath. The mixed one, which was supposed to console me for the fact that I couldn’t try every other parantha all at once on this trip, was a mix of everything and a taste of particularly nothing. I’d skip it next time and try something more imaginative, like the Besan Aloo Dal parantha (gram flour, potato, lentil), which I could overhear an Indian guide dissecting for his tourist group on the table next to me.
Which brings me to Breakthrough #3: the Indian guide on the table next to me. Turns out, the lad gave up his high-flying corporate life and decided to start up his own little venture – Delhi Food Adventure. With no offense to Jamal, this was the moment when some kind soul on the streets should have thumped my head with a parantha baylan [aka rolling pin] for not having looked into food-specific tours of the city online. This dude would probably take his touristy crew through some of the best, most locally favored eats of Chandni Chowk. And there were enough of them to demolish an entire street stall menu. Double drat.
Anyhoo, I was so excited about the concept of his food tours [I nearly fell across my paranthas trying to eavesdrop onto their table] that I finally introduced myself to him and demanded his contact information for my next trip to the city. So this Breakthrough is not over my friends. I repeat: It Is Not Ovaa.
Next up on the agenda was the famous allu kulla chaat at Bishan Swaroop – described online as “boiled potato that's scooped out and filled with chickpeas and garnished with spices and lemon.” Poetry I say, SHEER POETRY. This tiny stall is literally tinier than a cubicle, stacked with fruits and one single tawa to crisp up chopped up potatoes.
At first, I photographed the sizzling potato chunks and then walked right on without even realizing this was the holder of my potato chickpea goodness. And when I did realize and walk back, they’d run out of their allu kulla chaat. DratdratDRAT. Enough drats to fill a drat farm.
The menu was in written in hindi. Me no comprendo. My only option was to peek over the chaat maker’s shoulder to assess my alternatives. His dark veined chaat experienced hands were dousing chopped fruits with black pepper, cumin and lemon, flicking up the handmade leafed bowl so that everything could somersault about and mix up with true artisan precision.
Me want. And for forty rupees, me got. Sweet watermelons, apples, bananas, papayas and pears, all in this tangy, chatpatta* mix. The best part was not the fruit, but the chunks of tawa-fried potato. Crispy skin on the outside, soft hot mush on the inside, all soaked up in fruity peppery juices.
*chatpatta is not part of that outlandish gibberish that I’ve been known to cook up during my verbally starved moments of blogging. It’s a legit word in India, one that has a meaning not far from how it sounds when you say it, how your tongue would smack up against your palette in sheer joy if fed something sweet, sour peppery, tangy and utterly delicious.
Street food requires bottled water to ensure adequate tum damage control, and of course, I’d left my bottled water in sparkling white car. D…t. Well look who I found steps later as I was thirsting for something to extinguish the peppery chaat heat...
A guy churning lassi by hand. With a face towel on his head.
Hand-churned lassi in earthen pots. Thick, foamy, sweet, with smooth heavy peaks of cream crowning the top. If heaven has streams of milk and honey, boy I hope the milk ones have been hand-churned.
Everything I'd tucked into my belly till this point could all be considered snacky, light…nothing over-the-top rich and heavy, so I really should have been good to go for another hour of food exploring. But maybe it was the heaty chaat, the twenty minute rule that makes a bag of chips suddenly feel like a sack of potatoes, or whoever knows what, but my stomach started closing in on me. I was having a pansy tummy moment at the most inconvenient time possible.
NO BELLAAAY, STAY OPEN, THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING!
But a few clenching gnaws later, it was shut. I was full, and shamefully so. Anything I took past that point would have to be carried home. LAME BELLAY.
Well willing belly or not, I knew that my journey wasn’t going to be aborted. I’d only explored a smidgen of one section of Chandni Chowk – the roads with primarily wholesalers of all sorts, businessmen who could either be Hindu or Muslim, chaat stalls and mostly veggie eats. Waiting for me on the other side was a whole unexplored, primarily Muslim zone, right by Gate 1 of Jama Masjid. Not only would this part have the best of meaty eats, but it would be frying, tossing, baking up everything imaginable that anyone would need to grace the holy Ramadan fasts that are in full swing right now. Kababs, deep-fried sizzling chicken, pots of salan, and sugary wheels of noodles that Jamal called Lhasa, dipped into milk for the last meal before sunrise and the day’s fast.
I stared longingly at every stall I passed, being shoved aside by oncoming rickshaws and impolite elbows, eating with my eyes and reserving the last bits of a rebellious tummy for the one and only: Karim’s.
I’ve raved about my visit to this institution before in another part of town, but this was the original. This is where it all started. And there wasn’t just one building, there were multiple signs and adjoining dining spaces, all served up from the same grills, steel pots, and tandoors sprawled at the centre of the Karim’s compound.
I packed up some shirmal bread and a tiny buttery seekh kabab, only to be unwrapped in my hotel room when my belly opened back up and begged for food again an hour later.
I really should compose a poem about my undying love for Karim’s shirmal. But I suck at poetry. And if I tried, you’d run away from my blog and never come back. So no poetry. Just this silent milky sweet cardamom-laced longing for a buttery bread that’s buried deep within the alleys of Chandni Chowk.
Looking back at my mini food adventure, I am starting to sense a meta-breakthrough [Brace yourself. This is going to be deep.]
Most major cities of the world have most likely spawned FED-like, active foodie, and often even food blogger, networks. And even if there’s no network, there’s bound to be a lone food lover out there eating something interesting somewhere in the city, loving it so much that he’ll scrawl out an ode to that eaterie up on the internet, passionate enough that he’ll be willing to share it with a stranger. And hopefully he’s not a psycho who’s put up a food blog with the sole intent of luring innocent facestuffers like myself out for a kabab. If you reach out, you’d be surprised what you’d get back in return. You don’t even have to meet a stranger – all it takes is an email, a blog URL, a reference to a past event, a simple word from a resident foodie who's proud of what his city serves up, that can inspire you to go beyond the plastic tourist brochure and explore the city through the eyes of a local. So drop your inhibitions, and for God’s sake don’t eat at the nearest international five star chain. Just reach out…and you shalt be fed.
Wanna see my complete album of Chandni Chowk photos? Com'on over.