A deft hand clutches a bag filled with fermented dough, drawing fast circles that firm up when they hit the bubbling ghee. The air smells buttery and sweet. Sitting cross-legged behind a giant pot, a man makes a row of five or six coils, pushes them away and starts swirling again. The concentric circles soon become a toffee brown, then they’re scooped out and drenched in a hot, saffron-scented syrup.
This is the Old Famous Jalebi Wala, serving jalebis to the denizens of Old Delhi for more than 130 years. Standing amid the chaos of Chandni Chowk (one of the city’s oldest and busiest streets), with a soundtrack of ceaselessly beeping car horns, I bite through a crunchy coating into swirls of soft dough and it becomes apparent why jalebi are one of India’s most popular monsoon foods. Above my head, wires criss-cross and hang in dangerous tangles, monkeys run along building ledges and down here on the street immaculately dressed schoolkids sit crammed by the dozen as their rickshaw driver pedals furiously. I pick my way through the beautiful bedlam, seeking out street food in narrow lanes. At Ved Prakash, the lemon soda seller pops the marble stoppers in thick green bottles and hands me his famous nimbu pani, a salty sweet fizz.
Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib is a Sikh temple where, in its community kitchen, women roll breads and other volunteers tend vast vats of vegetarian curries. Here, all are welcome, through the Sikh tradition of langar, eating together for free, cross-legged on the floor of a large hall, without distinction of faith or caste. Even in the monsoon season, the heat of the Delhi day is taxing, so a rickshaw specially padded to soothe the impact of uneven streets is most welcome as I whirlwind around, trying chaat (street snacks) and sweetmeats from roadside carts, stalls and shopfronts.
I’ve joined a guided street food tour with India City Walks, but it’s possible, if less easy, to do it yourself. In Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi, Scottish journalist Pamela Timms details her love affair with the street foods and the book is a good guide for those who hanker for authentic places with suitable standards of hygiene.
My tour takes in Karim’s, a dhabba (eatery) selling kebabs and rich curries with roots in Mughal cuisine, as well as Haji Mohammed Hussain Chicken and Fish Fry in Matia Mahal where the eponymous proprietor has been frying for 22 years. “The secret is that my spices are ground by hand,” he says. “But what exactly these spices are is my secret.” At Shahi Andaaz The Paan Shop, I’m handed a parcel of betel leaves stuffed with ground dates, rosewater, green cardamom, gulkand (a sweet preserve made from rose petals) and the softly-scented, subtly-spiced bundle is an ambrosial surprise.
The green, wide boulevards of New Delhi are a contrast to the bedlam of the old city, and over a beer at a private members’ club in the India International Centre, food writer Rahul Verma explains how Indian food is changing. “We’re getting exposed to new cuisine and we have a lot of ingredients that we never got before our economy opened. It was almost a socialist society,” he says. “Now people can get white truffle and Wagyu beef — though this only reflects the eating habits of 0.5% of society or even less than that. Some people can’t afford the food they could afford 25 years ago. Lentils are so expensive now; they used to be 20 rupees and now they’re 180, but they’re a main source of protein for most poor people.”
The city’s wealthier gourmands often head to Friends Colony, an affluent residential suburb of South Delhi, where, at Indian Accent, chef Manish Mehrotra is an acclaimed creator of new Indian food. The tasting menu changes with the seasons — mine has teeny blue cheese naan with coconut and cashew chutney (that’s your fusion right there), and a glorious duck khurchan (leftover scraps in Hindi) in a cornetto cone.
“This is global Indian food. All our dishes have an Indian accent, part of the soul of the dish is Indian,” says Mehrotra, as he places a platter of ghee-roast mutton boti (kebab), four types of chutney and roomali pancakes on my table. Truly a delight is a dessert called Daulat Ki Chaat, meaning savoury wealth, a sweetened saffron-flavoured milk foam that feels like sweet air in the mouth and is scattered with a crushed praline made from rose petals, jaggery (unrefined sugar) and almonds. A street food dish, it is only made outdoors in winter since it collapses the moment it comes into sunlight.
At Varq, in the Taj Mahal Hotel, the food is also contemporary Indian. Varqi crab is a layered dish of filo, crab and tandoori prawn. Chef Ashish Ugal explains that the layering comes from the north (think biryanis), and the subtly-spiced crab from the south.
But as modern Indian cuisine gallops on, the classic tastes of Old Delhi are still there — you just need to know where to find them.
Read more of the India cover story in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)