Finding the best street food in Delhi is a journey of discovery – in more ways than one

It’s winter in Delhi, which means that this dusty megapolis in the arid tail-end of the Aravalis, usually just a dust storm away from the sandy wastes of the Thar desert, is at its best. There’s a nip in the air, the afternoon sun is pleasant and balmy, the innumerable parks and carefully tended traffic roundabouts ablaze with greenery and colour.

Perfect weather, in fact, for sampling Delhi’s most famous attraction outside of the Qutub Minar and the Red Fort — its incredible street food. Winter is the ideal time of the year to sample its famous piping hot tikkis, kachoris and samosas, as well as the seasonal specials like gajar (carrot) halwa or the eternal favourite, hot jalebis.

And for those feeling guilty about those deliciously unhealthy calories all this entails, they can always put it down to the quest for knowledge!

“It’s not just street food. In Delhi, there is so much of history and culture mixed up with the food,” says Sourish Bhattacharyya, well known food writer and founder of the Delhi Gourmet Club group on Facebook.

Eating out on the streets in Delhi is not just a culinary experience — it’s a crash course in history, sociology and anthropology all rolled into one, with the added bonus of a close-up look at the quirks and foibles of the incredible diversity of people who make up the national capital.

Delhi is the city of historical landmarks. Everything from Asoka-era iron pillars to Mughal forts to the haunting tombs of the various invaders who held sway over Delhi for shorter or longer periods to the massive Purana Qila (Old Fort) which is said to date back to the time of the Mahabharata can be found here.

And all of them have left the taste of their food behind. Take the “gol gappa,” the tasty balls of fried dough filled with savoury water, tangy chutneys and an assortment of texture differentiators from tiny slices of boiled potatoes or peas to pomegranate seeds. While any vendor on Delhi’s streets will supply you with a plate, in some parts of old Delhi where the Nawabi influence of Lucknow lingers, you will get “batashas” – the same, yet subtly different. And in the newer parts and malls, you can even get the Mumbai version, “pani puri.”

In fact, many food courts in malls have attempted to bring together the highlights of Delhi’s street food, ranging from kabab to kachori. But to get the real thing, you need to travel. And Delhi’s newest landmark, the Metro, is the best — and easiest — way to do the rounds of old and new Delhi, sampling street delights on the way.

All you have to do is hop on to the red line and get off at Chawri Bazar. A stagger and a push (the area is incredibly crowded!) away from the entrance is Ashok Chaat Corner, home to some famous old Delhi-style chaat. You can try the paapri chaat (tiny, crisp disks topped with lashings of sweet and hot chutneys and sweet curd, before heading back on the metro to the next stop — Chandni Chowk, and the heart of Delhi’s eat street.

At the entrance to the Chandni Chowk station, you can try some terrific “dahi bhallas,” before taking the next lane into “Galli Parathe wali”, literally, Paratha Lane, where you can have more varieties of stuffed parathas than you thought existed. Papad paratha, anyone?

Feel like something more meaty? Head for Ustad Moinuddin in Chawri Bazaar, close to the house of the great Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib. Or that Old Delhi landmark, Karim’s, cheek by jowl with the majestic Jama Masjid, for meat that has been cooked more or less the same way for centuries. For dessert, there’s nothing to beat the rabri falooda at Gyani’s, hard by the Fatehpuri Masjid. In the winter, you can also sample the other great Sikh speciality there – makke (maize) rotis and sarson ka saag (mustard leaf). Great food, history lessons and culture in one handy package!

Despite its incredible variety of culinary delights, Delhi’s roadside eateries are facing the heat of competition from upstart rivals. The holy trinity of Delhiwallah’s is now more likely to be masala dosa, Manchurian noodles, and momos, the steamed dumplings from Tibet which have virtually replaced tikki and samosa as the capital’s favoured snack. Nevertheless, no visitor can claim to have ‘done’ Delhi without having done the street food rounds.

And returned with the mandatory bug — that’s why it’s called ‘Delhi Belly’!

(This article was published on December 2, 2012)
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