What do you know about India? The Taj Mahal, massive population, Kal Penn (not quite, but props for making the connection), cows are cool, hippies dig Hinduism, samosas and curry. If you’re lucky enough to live in a large metropolis anywhere in the U.S., you most likely have access to and have tasted somewhat authentic Indian food. And, consequently, you’re aware that the Indian palate stretches beyond fluorescent orange chicken and naan.
I grew up in New Delhi with a house full of foodies: my grandparents and parents are all excellent cooks, and never missed an opportunity to throw a dinner party. To this day you are not permitted to leave my parents’ house unless you’ve had four helpings of everything. But for all their homemade creativity, my family always enjoyed eating out. Whether this meant scooping up fresh dal with searing hot rotis at a dhaba (Hindi for a roadside cafe) or sipping egg drop soup in Delhi’s most chi-chi Chinese restaurant, my family welcomed all available food-related adventures.
This post is going to introduce to some traditional (and some not-so-traditional) New Delhi street eats. Big Macs these are not – feast your eyes and on these tantalizing treats!
Curried Lamb’s Brain – Karim’s, New Delhi
Tucked in one of the capital’s Muslim neighborhoods, Karim’s is wedged between old bungalows, phone booths, and cut-rate insurance offices, the roofs of which are all shaded with jumbled cables wired to illegally jack cable and electricity from an obliging nearby pole. The restaurant is the very definition of no-frills: white walls, plastic tables, overhead lights you’d find at Dunder Mifflin. But the food is sensational – when I last ate here, with about 20 people, the kitchen staff couldn’t bring out food fast enough. Roast chickens, moist and fragrant with the scent of cardamom and cloves, were gobbled as quickly as the lamb cutlets, which were oval patties of meaty goodness which had been toasted on a vast dry pan till they crunched delightfully in my mouth. The most delicious dish on the menu, however, is also the most exotic: curried lamb’s brain. Before you reel in disgust, let me tell you that I am no Andrew Zimmern and therefore do not spend my time gallivanting about the Earth in search of llama livers and snake’ stomachs. If you didn’t know better you’d think the dish was just minced meat, cooked in the most wonderful paste of tomatoes, onions, garlic, red chilies, ginger, dry coriander, and a dozen other spices (Karim’s is famous for never revealing their recipes). So if you find yourself roaming in the alleys near Jama Masjid (Delhi’s largest mosque), treat yourself to a meal at Karim’s. And don’t worry about the butter, oil and cholesterol: you’ll sweat it off.
Jalebi – Any Shop in Old Delhi
Despite its historical status as a legendary pastry, jalebi, which is made by pouring batter into rings in a large vat of bubbling hot oil, is still a bit of a curiosity. Better cooks than my parents have tried and failed to recreate the classic taste of these burnished orange crescents, which are dipped in sugar syrup – the real stuff, no high fructose corn syrup here – while hot and served with tea. Every Sunday, my grandfather and I would walk to the local market to pick up a dozen for our family’s afternoon tea. The owner didn’t really have a cash register, or a counter, or really a store: he just sat behind a deep, broad pan under a canopy opposite the general store, and ladled the pastries delicately in the shimmering oil. Before our eyes they’d thicken and harden into beautiful circles, their time in the oil imbuing them with a color reminiscent of sunshine gathering strength. Old Delhi is filled with vendors who serve up the pastries every hour of the day, and the finger-licking goodness of the syrup (and the pastry shards, which are neither brittle nor chewy) should not to be missed.
Chicken Biryani – Defence Colony Flyover, New Delhi
Yes, you read correctly – some of the best biryani (that’s a dish of rice, spiced chicken, potatoes, sometimes boiled eggs, that’s baked till the top develops a gorgeous golden patina) to be had in Delhi is served under a highway. Defence Colony is an old and affluent part of the city, and is still considered one of the most desirable neighborhoods among Delhi’s upper-middle class. It also happens to be home to a major highway, under which stands a lectern, of sorts, that is considered an altar to religious biryani fans. The rice is suffused with saffron, the curried chicken falls away in chewy, flavorful chunks, and the salty tang of boiled eggs is enough to get anyone to line up underneath a city thoroughfare. And if you’re worried about germs, don’t be – street food in New Delhi (and the rest of India) is cooked in front of you, so there’s no chance for anyone to adulterate anything. Everything is also cooked at such high heat that bacteria are killed off and flavor is preserved.