Delhi features in the top list for travellers whether they are from India or overseas. In this post, we taste Delhi food through the palette of travellers to Delhi. Our collaborators on this post tell us about fun Delhi food memories that they cherish and have carried with them back from Delhi.
Delhi – food capital of India
As a child you may have learnt about the capitals of countries. And that Delhi is the capital of India. Much later, you realise that the word “capital” has different dimensions. In fact, there are many other capitals in India apart from the national capital or the state capitals. For instance, Mumbai is the financial capital of India; Kolkata is the cultural capital of India. In the same vein, concurrent to being the political capital, legend has it that the food capital of India is Delhi.
We have a special connect with Kolkata. You may have known by now, one of us hails from the “City of Joy”. And when he came to Delhi, he was bubbling with food excitement and food trivia about Delhi. He had heard about the fine-dining restaurants of Connaught Place, the cafes of Khan Market, the pubs of Hauz Khas and the celebrated Purani Dilli food of course. He wanted to try everything at the same time. The consequence was not always happy. And it did not help resolve Bedabrata. He was still going around in circles with his questions – “what food is Delhi famous for?“; “what is special about New Delhi food?” so on and so forth.
Truth be told, this is not an easy enquiry. Of late, we in Delhi are bombarded with foreign cuisine that is not Chinese. While we were still figuring out our very own litti-chokha or dal-bati-churma; we now need to decode Thai, Japanese, Lebanon, Burmese, Korean..urghh! It would only be fair that we cut some slack to Bedabrata for his confusion of Delhi food.
In this article, we try to demystify Delhi Food. To this end, we briefly present our understanding of the subject. Then we look at Delhi Food through the tastes of travellers to Delhi. Our collaborators on this post tell us about Delhi food memories that they cherish and have carried with them back from Delhi.
What exactly is Delhi food?
In all the food frenzy, it would be confusing for a guest in Delhi to discover what is Delhi food? Delhi is almost a vintage city that has undergone and experienced the administration of many dynasties. Delhi became the capital of the Mughal Empire in the later part of their rule. Thereafter, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor was exiled from Delhi. On 12th December, 1911, Delhi became the capital of India.
The administrative changes that Delhi experienced had far-reaching impact. Each empire brought along their political notions as well as lifestyle and culture to Delhi, Further, given the political significance of Delhi as the capital, people from all over the country came, traded and settled here. The partition of India in 1947 left an indelible impact. Refugees from Pakistan and then East Pakistan, present day Bangladesh came and formed colonies. In the course of such events, Delhi became a settlement of Punjabi people.
All these communities brought their food practices to Delhi. Some of the food cultures got dissolved in the Delhi melting pot. And some survived and left an impact on the Delhi’s food wall, in its original form or a modified avatar.
So much so, Delhi and Benares were the first cities in India to over street food, or dining out options. In all other places, eating at a kitchen away from home would be sacrilege! And this sacrilege would be routinely committed with joy by travellers to Delhi.
So, we believe the crux of Delhi food is a joyous eclecticism. It could be Mughlai, or Punjabi or an English breakfast or a street-smart take on that – the fried burger! Delhi food offers myriad choices, all being its own. Just take your pick to the table!
My very first Indian street food experience
Contributed by Samantha Shea of Intentional Detours
My very first Indian street food experiences took place in one of New Delhi’s most iconic markets- Chandni Chowk. Prior to heading into the cacophony of sights, sounds and smells, I compiled a list of places (and foods) I had hoped to try. At the top of this list was paratha- as it had come up often in my many foodie searches.
Though there were many copycats, my partner and I finally found the paratha shop we had been looking for: a famous shop that had been frying up the tasty dish for literal centuries. The first bite made it clear that expectations were not only met, but well exceeded. The paratha was fried to perfection, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and accompanied by the most delicious of chutneys: mango and banana, my absolute favourite fruits.
I had tried paratha at Indian restaurants back home, but they were nothing like what I tasted at the Paranthe Wali Gali. As a bread connoisseur, I certainly enjoyed the main attraction, but the accompaniments were what really made the meal unique. While I spent another 3 months in India after that first delicious day, no other paratha even came close. Some long-time restaurants might be overrated, some might be privy to luck, and some are just so delicious that it just makes sense that they survive for generations. And this paratha shop? Most definitely the latter!
My Delhi Food Exploration Day
Explored by Nishu Barolia from Tanned Travel Girl
After eating all the spicy food from the streets of Chandni Chowk, someone suggested trying the Kuremal Ice Cream made from real fruits and all-natural ingredients. Sounded like a perfect ending to my Delhi Food exploration Day. I reached the store which was quite small. They had many fruit-based and milk-based options and I felt like trying it all. On the owner’s suggestion, I tried the Black Grape one and it was so delicious that I could not stop myself from trying another one, Mango (again from the suggestion). Both the ice creams were delicious and the cost was just 1 USD (INR 100) each. By chit chatting with the owner of the place, I also got to know that this iconic ice cream parlour dates back to the pre-independence era of India (1908) and has been successfully run by three generations in the family for over a century. I was surprised at how the family is continuing their ice cream legacy.
Old Delhi streets are known for the spicy street food of India and ending the spicy meal with fruity or nutty ice cream is never a bad idea. Name any fruit and you will find frozen ice-cream for the fruit in this place. Enjoy your favourite one!
That mountain of sweetness that blew my mind
Contributed by Bedabrata Chakraborty
This is another one from the lanes of Old Delhi. I missed Old Delhi during my first trip. So when I visited Delhi again one smoky November in the year 2000, I headed to Chandni Chowk. I was pottering around in the enchanting labyrinths of this area trying to grasp all the new tastes and smells and inevitably comparing notes with Kolkata. A host of food carts dot this zone. I saw fruits, peanuts and khatai and tried some. Dariba Kalan had some unique goods to offer. This lane is lined with shops selling old silver and antiques and is a photographer’s delight. There were few carts on the street that carried something I had never seen before. These were like white fluffy mountain on an aluminium tray. The mountain was topped with edible silver foil or vark. After some time I could not contain my curiosity and approached a cart. The vendor said, the item was Daulat ki Chaat – a dessert made with milk foam. Desserts excite me and I bought some. A scoop was placed in a small paper bowl and topped with some milk crunch and coarse cane-sugar or bura.
I took out a spoon and put that in my mouth. It melted immediately leaving a lingering taste. Mildly sweet and fragrant of saffron, I had no words to describe the dish. Was it cream? Was it ice-cream? Was it like a softy? Nothing could describe Daulat ki Chaat. I felt that my life was incomplete before having this item. On tasting Daulat ki Chaat, my food life attained majority.
Till date, whenever I have someone visiting me in Delhi during winters (this dish is available between November and March), I take them to Chandni Chowk and introduce them to Daulat ki Chaat. This way I get to have it and experience that food-orgasm all over again.
Memories of Delhi Street Food
Contributed by Shoma Abhayankar of Astonishing India
My fondest memories of childhood are my growing up years in Ghaziabad. The eight years were special not only because I met my (now) husband and we became childhood sweethearts but also because of frequent Delhi trips. And there were enough visits to Delhi; for spare car parts, for sale at Khadi Gram Udyog showroom or annual Trade Fair or our birthday celebrations, for bulk buying of notebooks from Nai Sarak or just like that.
While a trip to Delhi mostly ended with dinner at Nirula’s Pizza and ice-cream at Connaught Circle, we would eat local street food in the day at any nearby place where that particular trip took us. It has been ages now that I have roamed the streets of Delhi and had street food. I don’t remember the taste of the food now but the memories linger strong enough to make me still yearn for Delhi food.
Once the four of us; me, my younger sister and parents were in a locality close to Jama Masjid for a well-cooked spice oozing mutton roast from Karim’s dhaba, when a riot broke out. I distinctly remember my father making us sit covered with a bed-sheet in the leg space of our Fiat car. But being about 12 years old I did not really understand the fear that gripped my parents so I associate food from Karim with the speed that my father drove at to escape from the area and we sisters found it adventurous hiding in the back seat of car.
If I go down the memory lane, there are many such anecdotes associated with food from Delhi; chaat and golgappe at Chandni Chowk, sweets from Bengali Market, parathe from Parathe wali Galli or chhole kulcha from pushcarts near Palika bazaar.
I completed my high school from Ghaziabad and we moved to another district another place…never to return to Ghaziabad again. In all these years I have had North Indian street food from various places and states but never have any city and its food evoked as much nostalgia as Delhi.
Though Delhi is not a place I would like to live in but it will still hold a special place in my heart.
My first brush with non-vegetarian
Contributed by Under Diamond Sky
Yes, I gave up my food virginity in Delhi.
It was my first time in Delhi and I was still in utter awe. The seductive character of the city had started working its charm. I felt free…just like when one reaches adulthood. I was in the mood to try new things – to break the rules. That was when a friend took me to Nizamuddin Dargah. The sight – sound – smell of the quaint Dargah left me very heady. It was the first time I was in such a place that was not so clean, yet so alluring! Writing about it now is giving me goosebumps!
When we walked out of the Dargah and then through the gullies, back to the main road, my friend wanted to have kebabs at Aap Ki Khatir which was adjacent to where he had parked. My friend assured, they had paneer items too. We sat in the car and someone came to the window to take our order. My friend ordered chicken kakori kebab rolled in roomali roti for her and a paneer roll for me. It took forever to get our orders. My paneer roll was spicier than what I had before but way more rich. I was however distracted by what my friend was having. The mild aroma of ghee-spice fusion wafted in the car. My friend offered me a taste and I was thankful that I tried. The kebab inside the roll almost melted in the mouth and slid down the food pipe! The nose, meanwhile was trying to reconcile with the sweet flavours of cinnamon and nutmeg. The texture was slightly chewy, but just enough to give you a lingering taste. Chicken was not so bad I thought! We went back to Aap Ki Khatir another time during my stay and this time I stuck just to kakori kebab roll!
It seems like a tale of yore. I am not in touch with my friend and I am told, this place was shut during a sealing drive in Delhi. Yet, kakori kebab rolls at Nizamuddin is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Delhi food. It was a rite of passage that happened through food.
American style dining experience
Contributed by Dipankar Ghosh
I had heard about the vibrant theatre scene in Delhi and wanted to watch a play during a trip. I mentioned this to my colleagues and they took me to India Habitat Centre. After the play, we went to The All American Diner which was inside the complex. This was way a decade ago and American style restaurants were not common in India. Although a small place, the American theme decor with vintage plates on the walls set the right mood.
The restaurant was full, probably because it was evening so we had to sit at the bar and ordered some drinks. In some time, a booth was vacated and we were seated. We ordered soups, burgers, white-sauce pasta and pancakes for dessert. All these dishes tasted very different from what I had before.
In line with the Texas spirit, a brawl was taking place with seats at the other end of the restaurant and before we could realise what was happening, a man over turned a dining table, with a glass table-top and then, suddenly realising he had gone bit far and could be in trouble, ran away with his woman companion. Everybody, including the restaurant guys was so stunned that nobody chased him. I could not believe what was happening. This was also a first for me. Morbid at it may sound, this completed by experience.
Hence, whenever I think about my Delhi food experience, notwithstanding Karim’s and Nathu’s, The American Diner comes to my mind.
While collating this article, we were revisiting the question – what is Delhi food? Going by our traveller friends – it could be anything from paratha, to Mughlai to an American breakfast. Delhi is a food hub. Old varieties get modified and new varieties keep getting to its repertoire. We recently tried Assamese and Bengali meals thanks to two amazing home chefs (Check our experiences via these videos below). These are looked upon as “regional food”. Yet, when we had it in Delhi, the cuisines felt so at home. So, it is an evolving food scene in Delhi. The only description of Delhi food is something that expresses the zest of joie de vivre of life.
Embed Bengali home chef Moushumi
Embed Sneha Saikia assamese food video
P.S. – A big thank-you to all our dear contributors! Your valuable inputs have not only enriched our platform but also left us drooling.