Most capital cities always boast of a nation’s greatest prides. Whether it be the lights and the fashion reflected in Paris, how technology and tradition peacefully coexist in Tokyo or the endless skyscrapers which are home to one of the financial capitals of the world - The Big Apple. Growing up in western Sydney, I have always been accustomed to the conveniences of city life such as variety, diversity and rapidity.
I spent close to two years living in a large suburb called Noida - just on the outskirts of Delhi. Many a weekend was spent taking the over-populated, but very clean and well-connected metro into town and exploring all corners of Delhi. Much like any large city, each quarter had something different to offer; from high end shopping in the white colonial buildings of Connaught Place (CP, as it is is affectionately abbreviated) to exploring historical sites like an ancient step-well situated just ten minutes from the city centre. Much like India itself, its capital too boasts a world of contrasts and contradictions which are often irreconcilable.
Being both a foodie and also a history buff, it was no surprise that my favourite region to explore in Delhi was its old quarters, especially Chandni Chowk. With its crowded, narrow lanes and cobblestone-like pathways packed with persistent vendors, impatient cycle rickshaw drivers and streams of pedestrians hunting for bargains. It is akin to Diagon Alley of the Harry Potter world, only far more assaulting on the senses.
I have often felt that one’s experience with food is enhanced by those with whom it is enjoyed. Good company is as powerful an ingredient as any condiment or spice. Which is why perhaps any one of you may go to these recommended places in search of that fulfilling bite, but return disappointed. If it wasn’t for the company of my dear friends smacking their lips, licking their fingers and polishing their plates as laughter rung round the table, these meals could never have tasted so good.
With the above in mind, I present to you some of my favourite eats of Delhi, most of which feature the best of Mughlai cuisine.*
Snack time - Mutton Shami Kebabs from Wengers (Connaught Place)
If you happen to be dead tired from doing the rounds in CP (literally, for CP is a space designed as two concentric circles which always had me disoriented and thinking ‘did I just walk past this paanwala? [vendor who sells tobacco]), a good way to re-energise is to head into the iconic colonial-style bakery Wengers and grab yo’self a mutton shami kebab (or two or three). This bakery was run by a Swedish couple just before the British were kicked out after India’s independence and catered to the European tastebud with treats like sponge cakes and margarine pastries. Wengers used to have a restaurant and even a ballroom back in the day, but it now focuses on catering, in addition to its baked items. Thankfully, the bakery has decided to cater to Indian tastebuds and do savoury snacks like samosas and puffs. I absolutely loved their mutton shami kebab, which is flavoursome, spicy (I had to eat it with tomato sauce - shame, I know) and oh-so-delicious that just one is not enough.
Meal time - Tandoori- Baked/Fried Fish from Ganesh (Karol Bagh)
This place looks like your typical hole-in-the-wall kind of restaurant (it is actually a food stall, because there is barely any seating) but you know it does good food by the multitudes of hungry humans flocking to it day after day. The menu is simple, and the speciality is the deep-fried fish and the tandoori fish, both of which pack a punch in flavour.The fish is always fresh and cooked to perfection with crispy coating. Ganesh is said to get through an impressive 100kg of fish a day (it’s a significant amount given how tiny the place is) and when they run out, they simply call it a day and shut shop, leaving disappointed customers no choice but to return the next day.
Meal time - Tunday Kebab & Romali Roti - Tunday Kebabi **
Yet another kebab for you to try when you are in the nation’s capital. I can assure you that this kebab might just be the one that ends your quest for the best kebab out there.Tundays is a restaurant chain that originated in Lucknow, a once Moghul city located in the east of Uttar Pradesh. Their dishes are inspired by royal Awadhi cuisine and their signature kebab is said to be marinated in a “concoction over 160 secret spices”. My flatmate and manager at the time, and now good friend, would rave about how tasty these kebabs were, and when I ate one for the first time in his presence, my reaction confirmed his opinion. The kebab is so soft, that it literally dissolves on your tongue; it is almost like a textured paste that holds together because of the hot oil in which it is deep-fried. To do it justice, it need only be served with slices of lemon wedges and slivers of freshly chopped onions (and tomato sauce, if your tolerance to spice is low like yours truly). The thin and soft rumali roti (‘rumali’ translates to handkerchief) is the best bread to go with it because it compliments the texture of the kebab.
Meal time - Mughlai Cuisine from Karims (Near Jama Masjid)
Another place that is frequented by lovers of Mughal cuisine is Karims, located in the crowded alleyways of Old Delhi that surround the majestic mosque Jama Masjid. I can’t recall any one specific dish worth ordering, but I am pretty sure that kebabs, rotis and biryanis were their speciality and I cannot imagine ordering anything else, as they are my favourites. The best part about Karims is its proximity to the mosque and the surrounding lanes, which are filled with photography and shopping opportunities galore. You can spend a whole day exploring the historic quarters, shopping till you drop and eating until you pop!
Dessert time - Hot Chocolate Fudge Sundae from Nirula’s (Connaught Place) ^
Okay, finally something that does not involve a kebab (at least you know now how much I love a good kebab). The HCF Sundae (with extra chocolate sauce and peanuts, of course) was undoubtedly one of my favourite sweet treats during my Delhi days. Nirulas, also located in the famous Connaught Place, markets itself as India’s oldest fast-food restaurant and sells western favourites like ice creams, burgers and pizzas. With the typical relaxed and friendly diner-like atmosphere, it is easy to lose track of time if in good company. I was introduced to the HCF by a friend and it soon become one of those desserts we would enjoy on a weekend, usually after stuffing our faces at one of the restaurants in town. The chocolate sauce is thick and fudgy, the ice cream dense and creamy and the addition of nuts gives texture to the dessert. The combination of these three elements is just what a hot chocolate fudge sundae should be, and nothing more.
*The Mughals (how ‘Mongols’ is pronounced in India) invaded India and built a dynasty that ruled across many parts of India (extending to Pakistan, Bangladesh Afghanistan, for over 200 years.
** located in the following areas of NCR: Malviya Nagar, Lajpat Nagar, Indirapuram, New Friends Colony
^ They have franchises throughout Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon as well as in other parts of India