I went to New Delhi to experience the vibrancy I’ve found lacking in Jerusalem, and to see where I’d fall on the “India: You either love it or hate it” binary. But mostly, I went for the food.
I can report the city is the most vibrant I’ve ever seen, in ways both good and bad. The colors (those pinks and yellows!); the filth; the spices; the pollution; the serene flowering parks; the hair-raising traffic, the random monkeys climbing up buildings; the grand monuments and mausoleums; the poverty and beggars; the religions – and all of it on display, simultaneously, every single time you step out the door.
After five days and five nights of what will go down as our most energizing trip yet, I think I’m sold. I sort of love India.
As for the food: Delhi did not disappoint. It’s a vegetarian’s dream, but also paradise for anyone who likes food that, while often heavy, is never short on flavor. And lucky for us, neither Mr. Jerusal-Em nor I succumbed to the much-feared “Delhi Belly” and thank goodness because a day spent sick and not eating this city’s amazing fare would have seriously depressed me. Here are my top food experiences from our vacation.
Ate in a Local Home
After a chaotic first day in India (lost my passport on the airplane and almost had to leave India the moment I arrived) I was very much looking forward to a more relaxed second day. We booked a food experience through the social eating company Traveling Spoon, which pairs travelers with locals to learn about food, the local culture and to share a meal.
From the moment we walked into Prerna’s serene and immaculate family home – beautifully decorated with Indian art and traditional furniture – we were at ease. Prerna is a Punjabi who runs an architecture firm with her husband. In her spare time, she cooks up amazing meals. We sipped fresh juice and talked food with our host (who wore a gorgeous hand-embroidered salwar kameez) and her delightful and elegant mother (in yards of sophisticated silk) and then had a wonderful few hours eating dishes like puri-puri (little crispy balls with spiced chick peas and potatoes and then filled with a sweet cilantro/tamarind/mint water); thoran (a light South Indian dish with green beans, crispy white lentils, mustard, cumin seed, cilantro, and coconut); and my favorite, malai kofta (cheese dumplings simmered in a creamy, slightly sweet gravy, which Prerna expertly demonstrated how to make).
Not only did Prerna’s food and hospitality make me feel full and welcomed, but she also provided us with great New Delhi recommendations, practically all of which we followed. Also: I asked her what kitchen supplies a lover of Indian food such as myself should purchase and she recommended a stainless steel spice tin, a pressure cooker (to make perfect lentils and rice), a tempering pan (for frying spices), and set of kortori (metal serving bowls). I bought all these things in a local market for less than $50.
Travel Tip: It pays to meet up with a local early on.
Experienced Old Delhi Through the Eyes (and Taste Buds) of a Local Foodie
The first day we arrived (shortly after the passport fiasco), Mr. Jerusal-Em and I decided it was a good idea to venture to Old Delhi. Perhaps I pictured a charming sleepy, leafy old part of town where we’d stroll and get a feel for the city. I soon learned “stroll” isn’t what you do in Old Delhi: You dart, you jump, you squirm, you sweat. You are overwhelmed. Or at least I was. I’ve never been in such a crush of people in my life. Dirt caked my feet from the ankles down; I was glad I hadn’t had time to get a pedicure. I tried to snap pictures of what I was experiencing: The clothes, from dirty rags to bright silks; the cows pulling all sorts of oversized goods; the mangy stray dogs; the rickshaws; the tuk-tuks, the spices; the frying dough. But I was too worried about being knocked over to look through my viewfinder for long. “This is the inner circle of Hell!” I screamed.
Yet, we went back. I knew there was delicious food to be had in Old Delhi, but it was simply too overwhelming to find it on our own. So a few days later, we met Anubhav Sapra, founder of and the sole guide for Delhi Food Walks, outside of a teeming metro station for the start of an enthralling four-hour food tour of the market known as the Chandni Chowk.
This food tour is not for the faint of heart. Anubhav was totally unfazed by the incessant foot, tuk-tuk, motorbike, and car traffic that makes a non-local feel like they could get crushed and killed at any second. But after a while that utter frenzy became part of the fun. Twice we loaded into tuk-tuks for harrowing drives through all that madness to our next delicious stop. And there were some really great stops. I balanced a plate with an aloo tiki (a fried patty with yummy sauces) while throngs of people pushed past and a monkey poked through a trash can. We were assaulted by the heat of a vat of frying oil as I devoured a super spicy samosa. The group went to town on bowls of glistening, perfectly grilled butter chicken at a restaurant called Asalama (I watched with some envy, I’ll admit; it smelled incredible). I drank a cooling and creamy rose-flavored lassi, ate paneer in a mouth-wateringly rich tomato sauce at legendary Karim’s, bought an insane amount of spices in the well-organized Golden Horse Tea shop, and tasted seven different flavors of Indian ice cream called kulfi in a dingy little store that couldn’t have looked further from an ice cream parlour.
In the end, I realized Old Delhi – the place I had, on first blush, referred to as the Inner Circle of Hell – actually offers all sorts of wonderful hidden treats and treasures if you can get past the total sensory shock and just go with it.
Travelor Tip: Do not even try to navigate Old Delhi on your own. Hire a guide. Sign up for a Delhi Food Walk!
Indulged in the Tasting Menu at Indian Accent
To reach one of India’s top-rated restaurants, Indian Accent, you walk into a Zen-like boutique hotel and down a hallway lined with flower petals and candles floating in water to the white-table clothed but not at all stuffy dining area. It’s totally serene, especially if you’ve spent the morning being driven through congested streets and touring the sites.
The experience started with deliciously clever cocktails (Curry Collins for me and a Masala Martini for the Mister), and included a variety of dishes that took a lighter and more elegant take on classic Indian cuisine without sacrificing any of the spices. I’m still thinking about the beet/peanut butter tikka with wasabi chutney and crispy quinoa; a stuffed paneer dish; and an refined take on one of my faves: saag paneer. Also: The tasting menu is a steal at just about $40, especially when you look up what the newly-opened New York City branch charges for the same menu.
Learned How a Sikh Temple Feeds 30k People Each Day
We visited two Sikh temples (called Gurudwaras) during our time in Delhi, the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, and one located in Old Delhi called the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib. We learned a bit about this fascinating religion, whose followers make up just a small percentage of India’s total population (most Indians are Hindus) but is the fifth largest religion in the world. I’m not a religious person, but what I learned about Sikhism certainly made it sound like a generous religion based largely upon being a good person. Unlike Hinduism, which believes in a caste system, Sikhs believe humans are all equal. Men and women sit together to pray, and there’s a pretty cool communal shoe shine area (we met a retired banker who was shining shoes the day we were there). Community and service are big in Sikhism, which is particularly evidenced by the enormous daily meal called langar that is prepared by volunteers and enjoyed by anyone, of any walk of life, side by side. The Gurudwara Bangla Sahib feeds 30,000 people daily (another temple in India feeds a whopping 100,000 people per day!) I absolutely loved seeing the behind-the-scenes of this sort of operation – men in turbans stirring comically large pots and an assembly line of volunteers flipping naan with a precise rapidity. We didn’t eat at either of the temples, but the food, which was vegetarian was super nutritious, smelled great.
Enjoyed an Elegant Post-Taj Mahal Lunch
Of course any trip to Delhi would be incomplete without taking the three-hour drive to the city of Agra to witness the white marble and semi-precious stone splendor that is the Taj Mahal. And it is a sight to behold. But it was also blazing hot and relentlessly sunny the day we went, so a lunch break in the serene perfection of the Oberoi Amarvilas hotel was decadent and revitalizing. From the hotel’s lobby and gorgeous bar, you can see the Taj. The dining room doesn’t offer the same awesome view, but it’s still worth eating here. The lunch buffet was quite good, but the best thing I ate was perfectly seasoned tandoori paneer brought out from the kitchen. It went stunningly well with the cold, fizzy Kingfisher beer I chugged upon sitting down.
To Delhi, a city that is not for the faint of heart, but is certainly for the the adventurous foodie.
Em in Jerusalem