A culinary journey through the streets of Delhi

The cuisine of any place tells its story. It is an encyclopedia to its past, a guide to its present and a crystal ball to its future.

And Delhi’s tales are told,  very eloquently, by its street food.

From the ingredients used, the utensils employed, and the cooking methods practiced; to the jostling with strangers, the sharing of plates, the negotiation of freebies, and the comfortable co-presence of people from different economic strata – Listen, and there are several insights to be gleaned about the city’s history and sociology.

But intellectual pursuits aside, a visit to Delhi is not complete without sampling its street-side fare, for one simple reason – it is ABSOLUTELY scrumptious!

Join me on a journey through my list of must-try street-eats from my hometown.

And may I add, that you might have had these items before… but trust me when I say – you haven’t had them, till you’ve had them in Delhi.

#1: Bedhmi Aaloo

Let’s start with breakfast, shall we?

A fiery aaloo (potato) curry with the distinctive flavour of dhania seeds and fenugreek, scooped up in a piece of bedhmi – a soft, deep fried wheat flour bread, stuffed with a spicy daal (lentil); makes for a sublime start to a nippy winter morning (right after the masala chai of, course).

For an extra dose of spice, some achaar (pickle) can be added on the side. Personally, I prefer not having my sinuses completely cleared, so I’d vote for washing it down with a creamy lassi (a sweet yogurt beverage).

#2: Nagori with aaloo and halwa

Another Old Delhi breakfast favourite, but sadly, lesser known and hardly present outside its streets, is halwa-nagori.

Nagoris are small and round, crispy and crumbly puffed puris– made by deep frying suji (semolina) dough flavoured with ajwain (carom seeds). These are served along withwith aaloo subzi (see above) and suji halwa – a super-sweet dessert made of semolina roasted in ghee.

Pair them in the same bite, and you’ll be convinced (as I am) that savoury and sweet are meant to be lifelong friends.

#3-5: Chhole- Bature, Chhole-Kulche, Chhole-Kachori

After a pre-dominance of carbs and fats, proteins will make a meaningful appearance at our lunch. Chhole – a stewed, mildly spicy chickpea curry is a versatile dish that teams up beautifully with a variety of faithful sides – Batura a fluffy, deep-fried bread made from leavened refined flour and kulcha, its less-sinful flatbread sibling made by roasting in a tandoor or on a tawa.

Bature are best had piping hot – when you puncture the thin top crust, a whiff of steam should fog up your glasses. The damp bread that awaits you in your take-away package will just not taste the same (though it’s still pretty darn good). Kulche, on the other hand, do much better with packing and re-heating. If you are feeling particularly brave, you could add some raw onions and green chillis to each bite.

One particular street vendor (and now, also his estranged brother) serves up a lesser known pairing – chhole sitting atop a crunchy kachori, a dense pastry made by deep frying spiced refined flour. His incredible concoction – seasoned just right with a sweet tamarind chutney and garnished with onions – keeps scores of customers queuing up, even under a blazing summer sun.

#6: Aaloo Samosa

As 4pm draws closer, my stomach usually sends out signals demanding samosas (that’s about when my favourite halwai shop starts frying them. No luck getting your hands on them either before or after, so an additional meal must be had) with my chai. These are triangular-shaped, savoury snacks are made with a refined-flour covering which is filled with a spicy mixture and then deep fried.

Though many swear by the bite-sized matar (pea) samosas that are a winter specialty, for me the ultimate versions are the fist-sized ones stuffed with cumin-spiced aaloos (potatoes). Whichever one you want, the skin should not be thick or doughy, must have crispy edges, and a satisfyingly umami bite.

#7: Jalebi

In my world, a teatime samosa, just has to be followed up with hot, sweet jalebis, extra calories be damned.

These treats are made of fermented batter, which is deep fried into squiggly circles and then soaked in sugar syrup.  There are many a lengthy debates on the appropriate thickness of the “best” jalebis. Thick or thin, however, the way to recognize the supreme versions will be a crunchy bite accompanied by sour undertones that complement the intensely sweet flavour.

#8-10: Gol Gappe, Papri Chaat , Aaloo Tikki

As evening rolls in, we’ll head to chaat stalls (which Dilliiwallas throng to, throughout the day) for a multi-course dinner. It won’t be leisurely; since you have to struggle for counter-space at these hole-in-the-wall joints and greedily devour the treats served on pattas (disposable plates or cups made from dried leaves) before moving on for the next offering; but it certainly will be satisfying.

Whatever the season, my trips to Delhi are never quite complete without gol gappas or pani ke batashe (as they are also known, in the city). May I submit, (in my humble and totally unbiased opinion) that pani puri of Mumbai and puchka of Kolkata are different, and not a patch on the real McCoy, that is found in Delhi.  And the secret, (in my not-so-humble opinion) lies in the use, and the recipe, of the saunth – a tangy, sweet and spicy sauce made with tamarind and jaggery  – which officially puts the LICK in Chaat*.

The starting point is a crispy round puri made with deep fried suji dough (which lends it a taste and texture completely different from the ones made of wheat dough, that are also used by some vendors). A hole is punctured in it, and is filled with a mixture of crumbled boiled potatoes and steamed chickpeas, followed by saunth. Finally it is dipped into a barrel full of spicy, mint & coriander water and placed on your plate – to be had in a single mouthful of crispy-soft-spicy-sweet-cool-gooey-watery deliciousness.  I dare you to stop at just one.

Following that, a plate of papri chaat would be a worthy second course. An assortment of papris  – thin discs of deep fried (surprise, surprise!) refined flour dough, bhallas – spongy balls of deep fried (you should know this by now!) lentil batter and boiled aaloos; doused in sweet yogurt; laced with saunth and hari chutney (made of mint and coriander); topped with sliced taro and sprinkled with chaat masala (a mixture of dry, powdered spices). The yogurt and chutney combination should simultaneously cool down and set fire to your mouth.

Next up will be sizzling aaloo tikkis – spicy patties made of minced potatoes and stuffed with chana daal (made from black chickpeas), which are shallow fried on a hot tawa, and served along with saunth, hari chutney and other garnishes – soulfood for a cold, wintery evening.

#11-12: Kulfi-falooda, rabri-falooda

To tackle the runny nose that is a by-product of all that chaat-imbibing, a cold, fragrant dessert is sure to hit the spot. Enter kulfi-falooda – a dense creamy “ice cream” topped with soft vermicelli noodles (falooda) dipped in rose syrup. Try these clear noodles by themselves and you’ll wonder why they even exist. Ladle them on to some kesar (saffron) kulfi, and somehow 10 plus 0 becomes 100.

Alternately, have them with rabri – A thick, rich dessert made from milk, sugar, saffron and cardamom. Plenty of crushed ice is mixed with rabri and falooda in a glass and served up as a cool, refreshing dessert drink.

A blissful conclusion to an indulgent day.

So tell me, have you tried any of these? And what are your favourite foods from your hometown?

Chaat in Hindi literally means lick.

Photo Credit: Chhole Bature – https://www.flickr.com/photos/gagandeepsapra/5270482725/ via Wikimedia

P.S. Satiated? I really hope, you said no, cos there is lots more on offer. We haven’t reached the non-vegetarian fare yet! Watch this space…