Street pleasures

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on March 02, 2018 Published on March 02, 2018

Someone whom I haven’t met for 20 years takes me out to lunch In Delhi. He looks startlingly the same, as if the years have barely glanced in his direction before racing away, leaving him untouched. He’s an international traveller, visiting the city for just a couple of days before returning to London.

We go to Indian Accent at The Lodhi Hotel on Lodi Road. I’ve been to this restaurant before, when it was at The Manor. The food’s wonderful but the thing I particularly enjoy is the sheer fun they bring to the table. I look forward to each course in the way that I might watch a Monty Python show. Edible humour! The best kind.

We both order the chef’s tasting menu. It begins with ‘Five Waters’ puchkas (or pani puris ). What makes these special? They’re TINY! The size of apricot pits. They perch atop equally petite glasses, arranged in a wedge of wood. Each glass contains a thimbleful of differently coloured “water”: green coriander and mint, deep maroon dried ginger and jaggery, golden beige pineapple yoghurt, pink pomegranate and white garlic-infused buttermilk.

The waitstaff introduce each item in the menu, but begin the performance — it really is a sort of performance — by telling us that the theme for the menu is Indian street food. I protest that the puchkas are so tiny there’s no way they’ll hold the water we’ve got to pour into them — but lo! They do. When our waiter comes to clear our plates away, he scolds us for not spilling a little, in the high and messy tradition of pani puri enjoyment!

Each successive item is similarly themed to the Indian street experience. There’s a small crisp cornet, wrapped in a twist of (fake) newsprint, containing a spicy mouthful of duck. Daulat ki chaat is presented with a stack of make-believe currency notes. The dessert items arrive on a doll-sized charpoy. And my favourite is the anar ‘n’ churan — flavoured palate cleanser — a sorbet in the shape of kulfi-on-a-stick, served inside a stainless steel pressure cooker smaller than an egg! On a previous occasion, I remember the sorbet being presented inside a miniature coal-fired iron, of the kind that press-wallahs can be seen using in the shade of neem trees in residential colonies around Delhi.

The courses are mostly a bite or two each, but they build up. We had chosen the non-vegetarian option: chicken with turmeric rice for me, and tamarind crab with coconut curry for my host. There are dinky little stuffed naans, each one the size of a demi-tasse saucer, as accompaniment. By the time the scoop of fig ‘n’ whiskey ice-cream arrives there’s practically no place left inside me for it.

The friend and I talk about books, movies and ideas for reforming the world. We end the afternoon replete in mind and body, with a bouquet of taste-experiences that will last a long and happy time in memory.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on March 02, 2018
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