It was a perpetual conundrum which would beseech me for a palatable answer as to why my “Mumbaised” friends from up North would ever so often belittle the so-called North Indian snacks available in Mumbai with an upturned nose – whether snooty or unsympathetic, I had no inkling then – and would subsequently disappear behind a hazy curtain of nostalgia recounting tales of their gastronomic quests from back home! This enigma was forefront in my ruminations as I undertook this epicurean journey to Delhi and yes, I did have a remarkably satisfactory answer even before the end of my trip!
As you get off the metro at Chandni Chowk there is no forewarning of the immense sea of humanity you have to wade through in the bustling markets vending jewellery, saris, stationary and essential oils in this heart of Old Delhi. Emerging onto the main road, you turn the corner and come face to face with Natraj Dahi Bhalla Corner. This simple no-frills eatery sells delectable Dahi Bhallas and Aloo Tikki Chaat. The tikkis fried to golden perfection have a stuffing of spiced savoury dal and are served with a tangy, sweet imli chutney and fresh mint chutney. The soft dahi bhallas are drowned in sweet, chilled dahi with a splash of imli chutney and sprinkle of jeera powder – a perfect combination.
Straight down the road, the Red Fort can be seen not too far away, glistening in the mid-morning sun . But to be on the foodie trail you need to step off into a non-descript alley self-proclaimed as Paranthe Wali Gali. All the shops selling paranthas here are owned by the same family and offer about 28 varieties of paranthas. As you enter the lane, the heady aroma of desi ghee wafting in the air hits you instantly and the sight of golden paranthas frying away in giant kadhais sets your palate buzzing in anticipation. While the paranthas themselves are not that captivating – anything deep-fried in desi ghee would have to taste this good – it is the accompaniments that draw attention. A thali laden with unlimited portions of methi aloo, kaddu ki sabji, aloo matar, kele soonth ki chutney and pickled carrot and white radish accompanies the paranthas, each having a distinct subtle taste complimenting the paranthas. The Aloo, and Besan Aloo Dal Special paranthas are highly recommended.
Heading south towards Nai Sarak, you encounter numerous street vendors offering the sublime Daulat ki Chaat. This light as a feather, winter special dessert is made of the froth that arises from the churnings of a milk and cream mixture, topped with slivers of almonds and powdered cardamom, and served with a sprinkling of icing sugar. It is a truly melt in the mouth, fluffy, foamy, heavenly treat and can beat the best French soufflés hollow!
The narrow lanes, swarming with shoppers, have a glut of vendors selling Shakarkandi ki Chaat – sweet potatoes roasted over coals, diced and served with a sprinkling of chaat masala and a dash of lemon juice, Aloo Chaat – a generous serving of fried diced potatoes tossed in a tangy green chutney and sprinkled with chaat masala, and Chole/Matar Kulche – soft, fluffy kulche slathered with butter and served with a bowl of either mildly spiced chickpeas or white peas gravy, topped with powdered garam masala and sliced onions and white radish.
As you near Chawri Bazar metro station, you can pause at Bazar Sita Ram to eat kulfi at Kuremal Mohan Lal. They offer kulfi in two variants – a regular rabdi cream or an iced sorbet; however, it is the delectable Stuffed Fruit Kulfi that they are really famous for. The whole fruit is hollowed out, the fruit pulp mixed with cream and poured back into the fruit to set as a kulfi!
A visit to Delhi cannot be complete without partaking of the ubiquitous street foods, chowmein and momos. Dolma Tsering is credited with starting the first momo stall in the Central Market of Lajpat Nagar 2 and Dolma Aunty Momos to date serves veg, paneer and chicken momos to robust crowds on the busy streets of Lajpat Nagar. The steaming hot, veg momos have a stuffing of finely grated cauliflower, onions and garlic and are served with a generous helping of a spicy, red, garlic-chilli sauce.
If you walk deeper still into the market, you will be rewarded for your efforts with the most delicious Ram Ladoo. These airy, spongy, mildly spiced, deep fried savoury dumplings made of a batter of moong dal and chana dal, are served with a side of batter-coated and deep fried green chillies, sliced onions, white radish and spicy mint chutney.
Delhi University students have it going really well for them. Within walking distance of some of the best college campuses in Delhi, lies Kamla Nagar Market where two outlets serve some of the most outstanding snacks. Gopal Sweets Corner is famed for its sumptuous Bedmi Puri served with either chole or a spicy aloo sabji, Khasta Kachori stuffed with a dash of urad dal and served with an aloo and badi sabji, Paneer Bread Pakoda which has a thick slab of soft malai paneer sandwiched between two slices of chutneyed bread, and Samosa.
If you are made to queue for a good half hour at Chache Di Hatti, it will be still worth the wait. Serving hoards of college goers, Chache Di Hatti specialises in only one item, Chole Bhature! A special chole, made with their own homemade chole masala (which is available to buy too!) is served alongside delightfully soft aloo bhature with a side of homemade pickles, sliced onions and a tangy green chutney. A sparkling sweet lemon soda with rock salt is sold bang opposite the outlet probably as a strategy to help aid digestion and keep the students from dozing off during lectures after such a hearty breakfast!
Moving off the track slightly, I had the wonderful opportunity to have my customary Masala Dosa at Saravana Bhavan in Connaught Place. I have always maintained that Saravana Bhavan serves the numero uno masala dosa in the country with its moist potato sabji, tangy sambar and trio of chutneys; at least I thought so till now! Ladies and gentlemen, a serious and formidable contender to the crown has now been discovered at the M Block Market of Greater Kailash 2 in the kitchens of Carnatic Café! While this place has some really promising Southern speciality items on its menu, the masala dosa is pure bliss. A thick, crisp, evenly browned, golden dosa with a starchy, minced potato sabji served on the side with a flavourful sambar and three superb chutneys – each a delight in itself. A stark difference that stands out, and which you will notice in the photographs, is that while the chutneys at Saravana Bhavan are of a somewhat liquid consistency, the chutneys at Carnatic Café are thick and do not exude any liquid, and hence capable of being served on a flat platter! A revelation, Carnatic Café; way to go!
While headed back to the airport, do break journey at Dwarka Mor to binge at Grover Sweets, just outside the metro station. A generous portion of Rajma Chawal or Chur Chur Naan with Shahi Paneer or Dal Makhni – the piping hot Naan crushed and served with a cube of melting butter – will ensure that you sleep like a content baby on the flight back and have foodie dreams right till your destination.
While this journey only but skimmed the surface of the foodie world that Delhi has to offer, I did find my answer. It is undoubtedly a unique blend of spices, fresh ingredients, distinctive recipes and desi ghee alongside the oodles of love and warmth that the ravenous bellies of the masses exude for the food that lend an aura of delight to the flavours of epicurean Delhi. Delhiites, take a bow; you have fostered a tradition of gourmand pleasures; nurture it carefully because we will visit again…
– Narendra Nayak © 2018