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Like many capital cities, Delhi is defined by consequent tussles for power, but it doesn’t belong to anyone in particular. Food in the city is evidence of this; different regions and communities have come to make the city their own, by sneaking in snacks, street food, and dishes from all over the subcontinent While Delhi has many stalwart foods—the staple duo kebabs and roti; breakfast of poori aloo (hollow, deep-fried flatbreads served with a potato curry)—the city is also known by people outside it for its tendency towards excess and constant re-invention. In the city, foods undergo unpredictable upheavals—Tibetan dumplings are stuffed inside tandoors; kebabs are used as fillings for sandwiches, naan becomes a base for pizza. Even as food is everywhere, a primary facet of food is also to entertain, and boredom is always kept at bay. It is therefore even more unfortunate that the capital becomes diluted to its old cliches and colonial stereotypes; and so much of the city’s food is so often ignored. While eating in Delhi can take a lifetime, this list is a hint at the multitude of appetites and spectrums of taste that the Indian capital holds within it.
MAKE IT QUICK
Bengali Market in Central Delhi is well-loved for being one of the best spots in Delhi to get a snack. The market is a collection of iconic restaurants that serve up quick, non-fussy food, all nestled around a small roundabout in the city’s center. There’s much to pick from—chholay bhature at Nathu’s (a curry of chickpeas with deep-fried flatbread) or samosas at Bengali Sweet House, which are always fresh from hot oil. There are also various types of chaat—typical Indian street food—that is a quick and fruitful snack. There’s also Nathu’s Pastry Shop, which has a very large selection of British-Indian pastry goods. Consider a “patty” which is the north-Indian word for puff pastries with different kinds of fillings—potatoes, mushrooms, herby chicken. The seekh-kebab patty (the best one) is a typical Delhi whim, in which a hot kebab is rolled into flaky, buttery pastry and paired with chai. Or if it’s scorching summer—a nimboo-pani (sweet-salty lemonade) and a lassi from either Nathu’s or Bengali Sweet House are a good bet.
SEE AND BE SEEN
Perch Wine and Coffee Bar
Perch is a breezy, wooden-table affair that is tasteful but comfortable; chic but welcoming. It is housed in Khan market, a plush, central locality in British style Delhi, once home to leftist bookshops, and today bejewelled with flashy bars and French pastry shops, but still loved by the people of Delhi across generations. Perch takes their cocktails very seriously. The tickled pink, a vodka drink made with fig cordial is perfect for all Delhi weather, and the coffee-sangria that many customers pair with dessert at Perch has quickly become synonymous with a self-care routine among regulars. The restaurant also does great small plates—arancini, miso-grilled chicken, a hearty dish of scotch eggs. And they usually have a selection of the newest Indian alcohol to sample. Indian gin, for example, is much preferred by the city’s clientele. The genre consists of young, imaginative brands that make spicier, tastier versions of the spirit, taking it back from its colonial heritage. Perch is contemporary, but still has classic, old world charm; and is the kind of place the city’s cultural elite are known to drop a secret to curious neighbouring tables now and then.
HOLD THE MEAT
To eat a variety of cuisines from across India in a beautiful setting in Delhi’s Handicrafts Museum is the most celebrated achievement of Cafe Lota, an atmospheric café well-loved by capital-dwellers for lunch. While the restaurant has plenty of great meat-based foods, its vegetarian menu is more expansive than most. Among Café Lota’s dishes are the sabudana popcorn (fritters made with sago, or tapioca that come with a green chutney made from chilies and coriander) and the kathal biryani ( a vegetarian take on the South-Asian rice-based feast in which meat is replaced with jackfruit). Café Lota is great for family meals, since the museum is full of space for children to walk around in or play; and their drinks–an Indian-style cold coffee and an aam panna (a refresher made from sour, raw mangoes) are novel, fun elevations on the formulaic renditions of Indian foods found in the West. The café is also beautiful, which makes for good picture-taking. And there’s a craft shop adjacent to it, which sells trinkets, art, and clothes by artisans all over the country.
IF IT AIN’T BROKE
Old Delhi, or Delhi 6 is also called Shahjhanabad after the Mughal king Shahjahan, who built parts of Delhi but is better-known for being the mind behind the Taj Mahal. The old city is popular to visit both with tourists and locals; and aside from old monuments, markets and bookshops that hint at Delhi’s ancient past; Delhi 6 is an unmatched neighbourhood when it comes to sampling the city’s best food. Al-Jawahar, one of the oldest restaurants in the old city, has been around since India’s independence; and often gets ignored for its more famous neighbour, Karim’s. But the restaurant serves up some of the best typical Delhi fare—Kebabs (a variety of meat softened, and spiced, and grilled on skewers) Khmeri rotis (thick, yeasty flatbreads), and kormas (slow-cooked meat stews) are always delicious and reliable at the restaurant. Al Jawahar is a 5 minute walk from Jama Masjid, one of India’s most splendid, expansive mosques. A meal at Al-Jawahar is best ignited with a plate of their mutton (goat meat) seekh kebabs, which are always succulent and perfect; and ended with a phirni, a sweet-rice pudding set in clay pots with hints of saffron and cardamom.
UNDER THE RADAR
Dzukou Tribal Kitchen
Naga Cuisine—from the hill-dwelling indigenous communities in India’s Northeast—has quickly been gaining fandare in India’s big cities. This transition hasn’t been smooth, as Naga people (who are spread over dozens of tribes) have had a difficult time bringing their cuisine to urban centers–it is often looked down at by mainlanders for being pungent and meat-based. It is both those things, and also extremely delicious. Characteristic feats of Naga Cuisine—spicy grilled pork ribs, pork curries with bamboo-shoot, black rice pudding, herby smoky kidney beans cooked with pumpkin—are all extremely accomplished at the South-Delhi restaurant Dzukou. The small family-run spot makes their curries with so much flavour that every time eating them feels like the first. A Dzukou special is also their herb-tossed fried chicken served with a raja-mircha (ghost chilli-pepper) sauce, a great side to the traditional rice beer—a tangy, smooth concoction that goes down easier than one initially thinks.
Andhra Bhavan Canteen
The food at Andhra Bhavan is always fresh, and even though the Canteen is busy, owing to its reputation, it runs efficiently—bringing delicious home-cooked food from the region to a clientele in the capital, far away from the thali’s origins. Though the restaurant is well-loved for its mutton (goat meat) fry and chicken-biryani, the fact that the vegetarian thali is fulfilling in itself often makes the restaurant a good spot for large groups with a couple of vegetarian friends. The thali follows a regular format—of unlimited servings of rice, lentil-based dishes, vegetable curries, a couple of chutneys, sambhar (a lentil-based stew), and rasam (a tamarind and tomato based-stew).. A meal at Andhra Bhavan can be endless, but a vegetarian thali is priced under 200 INR (around 4 USD); and meat supplements range from 200 INR to 250 INR (4-5 USD).
START ME UP
While North-Indian breakfasts are great, the South-Indian breakfast of a dosa always emerges triumphant wherever it goes A dosa is a savoury crepe usually made of rice-flour, eaten alongside chutneys of coconut, tomato and sometimes sambhar—a lentil-based stew. Carnatic Cafe, with several branches in Delhi, is a restaurant modeled after a traditional Bangalore-dosa spot, boasting an array of dosas to choose from. The restaurant’s Malleshwaram 18th Cross Dosa—a thick, soft dosa made in white butter and smeared with a powdery, peanut-based chutney is a crowd favorite. And the Bombat–a dosa spread with a garlicky cinnamon chutney is a singular rendition, a good kind of experiment that opens up the palate to new things. Carnatic Cafe also does great everyday dosas—a masala dosa (with potato fillings); and a ragi dosa (which is made from buckwheat flour). Dosas are gluten-free and light on the stomach; despite being absolute feasts.
ONE FOR THE FEED
Fab Cafe by the lake
Fab Cafe by the Lake is located inside the Sunder Nursery gardens—which are restored Persianite Mughal gardens built around 16th century tombs. Delhi’s Mughal Gardens always warrant a visit for their syncretic architecture and use of the geometric landscaping style to exhibit flowers and native trees. Fab Cafe lies by one of the small lakes in the gardens, and is perfect for a coffee and piece of cake after a stroll. In the backdrop are some of Delhi’s oldest and heritage-bound green spaces; a variety of rose-beds, and native trees like fig and gulmohar. The cafe itself is extremely picturesque, as is the food. Get the masala chai ice-cream, or a tikka-slider (an Indian-style wrap).
On the Street
A Walk in the Old City; or Shahjahanabad
Even as locals go to war about the best street food in the city, for visitors, a quick stop by the Old City promises both good taste and historical relevance. “Chaat”–Indian street food–is said to have been popularised by Delhi’s Mughal kings; the word comes from the Urdu and Hindi word to “lick” as people would be so enticed by these preparations that plates would be licked clean. The narrow streets of the old city have the best chaat spots, in-place for decades and even centuries. Head to Natraj for Dahi Bhalle—lentil-based dumplings draped in yoghurt, mint and anise and garnished with house-special spices. Or to Old Famous Jalebi Wala for the stringy, saffron-hued sweets that are eaten for breakfast or with chai. Jung Bahadur Kachori Wala also has great Delhi-style kachoris (hollow fried bread with stuffings of potatoes and dal) served with a coriander chutney. The best way to eat in the old city is to hop off at one of its lanes and meander around; but these spots will be a good guide in the densely packed neighbourhood.
Upscale restaurants in Delhi have come and gone, but none have rivalled Indian Accent, started by Chef Manish Mehrotra in 2009. The restaurant’s take on Indian foods for fine-dining has been hallmarked as a rare achievement–there are pulled-pork phulka tacos, in which the quotidien household roti—the “phulka”—is used as a base. And there is blue-cheese naan, in which the grilled flatbread is given a trademark spin. There is also soft-shell crab with tomato chutney; the wasabi and cucumber raita, and shammi kebabs (flat, round stove-top kebabs) that are made with duck meat instead of the traditional goat—all of which regulars at the big-ticket, fashionable restaurant swear by. This is the kind of restaurant that comes recommended by other chefs.