Delhi, Mumbai and Jaipur

Delhi: The Real Street Food

Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

Take a tour of Old Delhi and discover the classic, traditional tastes of street food — from jalebi to curries

A deft hand clutches a bag filled with fermented dough, drawing fast circles that firm up when they hit the bubbling ghee. The air smells buttery and sweet. Sitting cross-legged behind a giant pot, a man makes a row of five or six coils, pushes them away and starts swirling again. The concentric circles soon become a toffee brown, then they’re scooped out and drenched in a hot, saffron-scented syrup.

This is the Old Famous Jalebi Wala, serving jalebis to the denizens of Old Delhi for more than 130 years. Standing amid the chaos of Chandni Chowk (one of the city’s oldest and busiest streets), with a soundtrack of ceaselessly beeping car horns, I bite through a crunchy coating into swirls of soft dough and it becomes apparent why jalebi are one of India’s most popular monsoon foods. Above my head, wires criss-cross and hang in dangerous tangles, monkeys run along building ledges and down here on the street immaculately dressed schoolkids sit crammed by the dozen as their rickshaw driver pedals furiously. I pick my way through the beautiful bedlam, seeking out street food in narrow lanes. At Ved Prakash, the lemon soda seller pops the marble stoppers in thick green bottles and hands me his famous nimbu pani, a salty sweet fizz.

Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib is a Sikh temple where, in its community kitchen, women roll breads and other volunteers tend vast vats of vegetarian curries. Here, all are welcome, through the Sikh tradition of langar, eating together for free, cross-legged on the floor of a large hall, without distinction of faith or caste. Even in the monsoon season, the heat of the Delhi day is taxing, so a rickshaw specially padded to soothe the impact of uneven streets is most welcome as I whirlwind around, trying chaat (street snacks) and sweetmeats from roadside carts, stalls and shopfronts.

I’ve joined a guided street food tour with India City Walks, but it’s possible, if less easy, to do it yourself. In Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi, Scottish journalist Pamela Timms details her love affair with the street foods and the book is a good guide for those who hanker for authentic places with suitable standards of hygiene.

My tour takes in Karim’s, a dhabba (eatery) selling kebabs and rich curries with roots in Mughal cuisine, as well as Haji Mohammed Hussain Chicken and Fish Fry in Matia Mahal where the eponymous proprietor has been frying for 22 years. “The secret is that my spices are ground by hand,” he says. “But what exactly these spices are is my secret.” At Shahi Andaaz The Paan Shop, I’m handed a parcel of betel leaves stuffed with ground dates, rosewater, green cardamom, gulkand (a sweet preserve made from rose petals) and the softly-scented, subtly-spiced bundle is an ambrosial surprise.

The green, wide boulevards of New Delhi are a contrast to the bedlam of the old city, and over a beer at a private members’ club in the India International Centre, food writer Rahul Verma explains how Indian food is changing. “We’re getting exposed to new cuisine and we have a lot of ingredients that we never got before our economy opened. It was almost a socialist society,” he says. “Now people can get white truffle and Wagyu beef — though this only reflects the eating habits of 0.5% of society or even less than that. Some people can’t afford the food they could afford 25 years ago. Lentils are so expensive now; they used to be 20 rupees and now they’re 180, but they’re a main source of protein for most poor people.”

The city’s wealthier gourmands often head to Friends Colony, an affluent residential suburb of South Delhi, where, at Indian Accent, chef Manish Mehrotra is an acclaimed creator of new Indian food. The tasting menu changes with the seasons — mine has teeny blue cheese naan with coconut and cashew chutney (that’s your fusion right there), and a glorious duck khurchan (leftover scraps in Hindi) in a cornetto cone.

“This is global Indian food. All our dishes have an Indian accent, part of the soul of the dish is Indian,” says Mehrotra, as he places a platter of ghee-roast mutton boti (kebab), four types of chutney and roomali pancakes on my table. Truly a delight is a dessert called Daulat Ki Chaat, meaning savoury wealth, a sweetened saffron-flavoured milk foam that feels like sweet air in the mouth and is scattered with a crushed praline made from rose petals, jaggery (unrefined sugar) and almonds. A street food dish, it is only made outdoors in winter since it collapses the moment it comes into sunlight.

At Varq, in the Taj Mahal Hotel, the food is also contemporary Indian. Varqi crab is a layered dish of filo, crab and tandoori prawn. Chef Ashish Ugal explains that the layering comes from the north (think biryanis), and the subtly-spiced crab from the south.

But as modern Indian cuisine gallops on, the classic tastes of Old Delhi are still there — you just need to know where to find them.

Mumbai: From Parsi to Peshawri

Explore the Irani eateries and Parsi cafes of this diverse city, and you'll discover that Mumbai is a culinary mecca but Bombay is an emotion, one that’s truly embodied in its food

It’s 7am as we move through a door under a peeling sign painted: ‘B. Merwan & Co. High-class bakers and confectioners, provision stores’. At the counter, a throng of men jostle for attention from assistants deftly packing up cakes and buns in white paper. We squeeze by and grab the very last table, easing out a sigh of relief. We’ve come for mawa cakes and if you don’t turn up at this bakery in South Mumbai before 7.30am, you’re unlikely to get any at all. 

Soft, buttery and scented with green cardamom, they take their name from the caramelised, sweet clumps that form when milk is long boiled in a flat, open pan. At just 10 rupees each, it’s hard not to eat at least half a dozen. As I bite into these little warm pillows, I see why there’s a queue by the door and why people travel across this megalopolis for mawa fresh from the oven.

With its bentwood chairs, mirrored walls and fans swirling on high ceilings, the style of B. Merwan, which is more than a century old, is typical of the old Irani cafes of Mumbai, created by Zoroastrians who fled persecution from Persia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Signature dishes include beri pulaobun maska (buttery buns) and sweet chai laced with cardamom. Also known as Parsi cafes, they’re inspiration for the Dishoom chain across London, not just the menu but its style. 

Before I left for Mumbai, I met up with Naved Nasir, executive chef of Dishoom, who gave me a little map of all his favourite Irani eateries, saying there was no other city in the world where he’d rather eat. “It’s like a mecca,” he says. “It’s a melting pot of all Indian cultures because a lot of people have migrated to Mumbai.”

At Britannia & Co — Naved’s favourite — I try beri pulao, a kind of chicken biryani with tart barberries, cashews and caramelised onions, and sali boti, a mutton curry sweetened with jaggery but made sour with vinegar, and topped with tiny fried potato straws. Boman Kohinoor, the restaurant’s 94-year-old owner, says that they’ve been lucky. “In 1950, I took count of the Parsi restaurants, there were 400 of them. Today, when I count there are hardly 40 left,” he says. 

Real-estate prices in Mumbai are higher than in Manhattan or Tokyo and so the new generation of Parsis often prefer to cash in than work long days in family restaurants. But some treasures remain. Yazdani Bakery & Restaurant was also opened in the 1950s and is famous for brun maska, a bread roll with butter that Naved eulogised about: “It’s a slightly sweetened dough laid with a thick slab of butter that you dip into a cup of chai. This transforms it into a different dish entirely.” 

Owner Parvez Irani explains that it’s important that his crispy rolls remain cheap. “When the price of flour went up, my father said, ‘This must go into people’s stomach, not our pocket. This is poor man’s food; they mustn’t feel the pinch’,” he says. ‘Our customers are the chosen ones. The world cannot go without bread.’”

My guide, Harshvardhan Tanwar (Harsh for short), shows me his Bombay. “Mumbai is a city, Bombay is an emotion,” he says. We visit the docks at dawn and watch women haggle for baskets of Bombay duck, which is, in fact, a lizardfish. We meet the city’s dabbawallas, a network of men who pick up Mumbaikar’s lunch boxes from home and deliver them to their offices. “They’re illiterate, how the hell they look at addresses, I don’t know,” says Harsh. “They have their codes and know exactly where each box needs to be. Only one in every six million tiffins goes to the wrong place. They’re logistical supermen.”

We eat kheema pav (minced lamb curry on a bread roll) at Olympia Coffee House, another old Parsi cafe and try what Harsh calls the Bombay slider, vada pav, a spiced potato patty stuffed into a bun at Ladu Samrat. “The Portuguese brought pav to India, and the dough was kneaded with the leg,” says Harsh. “India was the worst place for food until the mughals and the Portuguese came. They brought tomatoes, cashews, potatoes. Every time we have a heart attack in our country we blame the Portuguese. Five hundred years ago, we didn’t have any chillies growing here and now we just own it.” 

As the textile industry of Bombay grew, migrant workers came to the city to work in the mills and brought their tastes with them, giving rise to an incredibly diverse street food culture. At dusk we head to Mohammed Ali Road and hop between stalls eating kebabs, flaky roti and chaat, but my favourite is the hand-churned ice cream at Taj, where sitafal, the creamy custard apple is sublime. 

Peshawri, in the ITC Maratha, has changed nothing on the menu for 35 years. This is the frontier cuisine of the North West — historically, of pre-independence India which included parts of Afghanistan — cooked in a tandoor or clay oven. The signature dahl bukhara, a silky black lentil dish, is rendered unctuous by having been cooked for 24 hours. An enormous naan bread is brought to the table and chef Mayank Kulshreshtha tells me that I must stand it up to check the quality. He laughs, “It should be standing up straight to salute the person who’s going to eat it.”

My Mumbai journey ends at The Bombay Canteen, housed in a converted mill building, where young executive chef Thomas Zacharias, whose immersion in food began in his grandmother’s kitchen, brings his own version of bhel puri (spicy rice dish) and a pork vindaloo taco. “There’s a lot of local produce that’s used at home but never found in restaurants. We wanted to celebrate the things we grew up with. We change our menu seasonally, and as a concept in India, it’s pretty alien,” he says. 

Mumbai is, as Naved Nasir says, truly a culinary mecca. And Bombay is, as Harsh told me, an emotion, one that’s truly embodied in its food.

Audrey’s guide in Mumbai was Harshvardhan Singh Tanwar of No Footprints, Mumbai

Jaipur Food: Namkeen & more

From a cooking lesson to a visit to Chandpole Bazar, this is a royal cuisine filled with meats and spices

It may go by the name of the Pink City, but really the colours of Jaipur are amber, burnished red and deep ochre. Locals laugh now at the silliness of painting the city pink in 1876 in honour of the visit of Prince Albert, but they cherish the romance that the moniker bestows. Intricately detailed merchants’ houses are adorned with cupolas and trabeated arches and crenellated walls decorated with filigrees. Step under those in Chandpole Bazar and you’ll find spice and vegetable sellers vending wares that speak of this city’s history as a seat of Rajasthani princes, of a royal cuisine. 

Though it’s the country’s 10th largest city, Jaipur is less frenetic than many of its Indian counterparts. There are still auto rickshaws and car horns, thronging markets and beggars, but there’s also a calmer ambience that comes with its present day still being deeply caught up in its past. When this old centre was built (construction started in 1727), the roads were 108ft wide and drafted onto a grid system, and its buildings could be no higher than 54ft — half the width of the road — so that each person had equal access to sunlight. 

These Rajput rulers, descended from Mughal invaders, preferred a different kind of cooking than seen elsewhere in India, not least because they liked to eat meat (many Indians are vegetarian). Intense heat and a paucity of fresh vegetables dictate the plates here, and they embrace North Indian dishes such as korma (mild curry) and rogan (aromatic lamb) and nihari gosh (slow-cooked meat stew). 

I’m invited for a cooking lesson at Sankotra Haveli, one of the oldest city centre palaces and private residence for more than 270 years. In spite of being just off Johari Bazaar, thick limestone walls render it peaceful inside and clever internal terraces and courtyards allow air to flow. Ratna and Damynti teach me to make goat meat kebabs, a Rajasthani chicken dish with spices, coconut and curd, and a paneer cheese and tomato masala. Bharati Singh, who married into the family but is also Rajputi, tells me, “What we eat in hotels and what we eat in the home are totally different.”

At Samode Haveli, another elaborate house that’s now a boutique hotel, executive chef Rajeev Sharma is making jungli maas (or lal maas, both meaning red meat). He slow-cooks chicken in ghee in a brass handi (pot) and is using whole Rajasthani chillis and little else but garlic, cumin and bouquet garni. “I’m using the old Indian method, I don’t believe in using the oven. I use an atta (flour) dough ring to seal the pot and lid and this works like a pressure cooker,” he says. “You don’t add anything now and this meat will speak its own language. Having too many spices, you don’t get the flavour of the particular dish. It should have a distinct taste to it.”

Namkeen — crunchy, savoury snacks — are an addiction in Jaipur and I join the arms-jostling queue at Rawat Mishtan Bhandar to wait for kachori, a deep-fried flaky pastry filled with spiced moong dal (mung beans), or pyaaz(onion). Glass cabinets are stacked with dozens of different kinds, as well as fat, pastel-coloured confectionery — as much of a treasure in Jaipur as its famous jewellery, no doubt because the maharajas and their court had particularly sweet teeth.

At a streetside lassiwalla — there are several clustered together but the best is number 312 (Kishanlal Govind Narayan Agarwal) — I clutch a cool, clay cup filled with a sweet, yoghurt drink that Rajasthanis believe abates sunstroke. 

Lakshmi Misthan Bhandar, known as LMB, is another sweet and namkeenemporium (that’s part of a hotel complex), but I’ve come here for the Rajasthani Royal Thaal, billed a ‘unique lifetime experience’. It begins with a thin, peppery papad mangori soup. A thaal (a large silver platter) is filled with small dishes, both sweet and savoury, with little dumplings as well as dal (lentils), vegetables, raita and roti bread followed by mishri mawa, a thickened milk dessert.

The history of Rajasthan is, of course, made manifest in its architecture. My Jaipur base at Samode allows me to visit Amber (also known as Amer) Fort, the majestic hill-top palace and stronghold that was home to the Rajput maharajas until they moved to the newly-built city. A museum is now housed in the City Palace, but it still hosts Maharaja Padmanabh Singh (at school in England) on his visits home.

The opulent lifestyle of the region’s princes and princesses before the reformation and independence of India was truly astonishing. Sitting sipping a cocktail on the terrace of the Rambagh Palace Hotel, watching peacocks strut on the lawn, one can only imagine what it was like to be part of the retinue (or even a servant) of the last fully-fledged maharaja of Jaipur, Sawai Man Singh II, and his cosmopolitan princess Maharani Gayatri Devi. 

These days their salubrious family home is a hotel, a slightly more egalitarian aid to indulging royalty fantasies, and the region’s cuisine helps make that reverie taste just a little more real. 

How to do it: TransIndus offers nine nights from £2,250 per person, twin-share, in standard-grade hotels, or from £2,950 per person, twin-share, in deluxe hotels. The price includes international economy flights, breakfast, all internal travel, transfers and English-speaking guides.