Lucky Peach, our favourite food magazine, is putting out its last issue this month. Although the magazine had a relatively short run of six years, in that short period, it changed food media forever. It showed us that food writing need not necessarily fall under two polar camps — restaurant reviews or personal essays, but could instead straddle everything in between — from rating supermarket ramen varieties to guides on making fruit preserve at home. Most importantly, it gave permission for food writing to be technical (without being inaccessible), irreverent and cheeky. The most iconic pieces in the magazine’s short stint however, were the city guides that informed the reader on the best places to eat, in each particular city.
As a hat-tip to the magazine that changed the world's perception of food writing, The Goya Journal asked some of the most distinguished voices from each major city in India to put together a city guide for the hungry traveller.
As a newcomer to Delhi, I entered the city’s food landscape through the familiar terrain of Shahjahanabad’s kebabchis and chaatwallas; the then-new Italian joints where young couples went out for dates over cheesy pasta and gelatinous cheesecake; and the occasional dip — thanks to my job at a city magazine — into the perfumed depths of a hotel restaurant. Over a decade of eating later, I still love some of the classics, but just as often it’s the transplants, who have taken root in the capital’s occasionally hostile soil, that have earned my admiration. After all, it’s a hallmark of this ‘phoenix city’ that even most of its natives can trace their relationship to Delhi back only about one and a half generations. Even within my time here, stalwarts like the 225-year-old Ghantewala sweets shop in Chandni Chowk have disappeared, and entire neighbourhoods have been transformed into watering holes rimmed with independent restaurants. In a city so changeable, the thrill of discovery remains a constant.
Nagori-halwa and bedmi-sabzi
Also known as Jain saab’s sweet shop, this stall on a corner of Ansari Road in Daryaganj is as unassuming as the street dogs curled up on the sidewalk around it. Two tall plastic tables and a sink sprout from the dust in front of a counter piled with ladoos. Jain saab sits, implacable, behind this; next to him a large karahi bubbles with hot oil. The principle reason to visit this spot though is not for its sweets, but for gut-stuffing nourishment before or after a jaunt through the nearby Daryaganj Sunday book bazaar. Go early for nagori — a semolina based puri larger and softer than a gol guppa — with halwa and spicy chickpeas. Then there’s the heartier bedmi, puffed bread with the crunch of urad daal, served with a hot potato curry and a sweeter pumpkin one. This quintessential Delhi meal ensures a satisfying Sunday, even if all you find at the book bazaar are technical engineering manuals.
Getting there: https://goo.gl/maps/54aQLtFLsMr
It may seem a boring choice, but the versatile, fresh flatbreads available in Delhi’s various Afghan enclaves are among my favourite capital city food staples: I’ve topped them with butter and honey for breakfast, and vegetables and melted cheese for dinner. Small bakeries selling these breads flourish in Hauz Rani and Lajpat Nagar — in between chemists catering to medical tourists, and dhabas, with names like Mazar and Kabul, that serve gooey eggplant stew and charred roasted meat. They occupy no more space than needed for a large tandoor and a low table in front. A couple of men shovel bread in and out of the oven, while another sits cross-legged on the table outside, with a pile of golden discs before him. Purely for proximity, my go-to bakers are located in Bhogal market. Here, Afghanis rub shoulders with Kashmiris and Punjabis, as well as a sprinkling of Eastern European and African residents. In the past year, one baker has mushroomed into three or four, and the simple round or oblong naans sold have multiplied, in various sizes and decorative imprints, dotted with nigella, poppy or sesame seeds. They’ve also started selling fried dough dessert breads called khajooreh for their date-like shape. In the winter, the almost stodgy, cardamom-scented roht is perfect with a hot cup of tea.
Getting there: https://goo.gl/maps/6sQwrMVbas32
Bun thit nuong
Though a relatively new restaurant, Little Saigon is the latest in a line of eateries started by enterprising expats, some of whom came to Delhi for reasons completely unrelated to food. There was the tiny Russian Bline in Anand Niketan; expansive, carpet-filled Uzbek restaurant Karavan in Lado Sarai; and Turkish doner joint Anatolia, in Lajpat Nagar’s Central Market. Each of these has since shut shop, but I hope Hana Ho’s Little Saigon will endure. Ho came to Delhi from Vietnam to work in the Taj hotel’s Blue Ginger restaurant, but the food at her own eatery is home style, with an emphasis on simplicity and freshness. Bouquets of mint and basil accompany most dishes — perfect for enervating Delhi summers. So is the sweet and citrusy calamansi juice, nuac tac gung. The daily specials are always a good bet, but first timers should order the bun thit nuong: a plate of cold rice noodles, sliced tomato and grilled pork, to be enfolded in crisp lettuce leaves and dipped into a sauce. The pork meatball variation — “Vietnamese Wrap and Roll” — is especially delicious, if available. Make a reservation before going though, because the tiny space fills up fast.
Getting there: https://goo.gl/maps/fWh1axRstoQ2
Triveni Tea Terrace
A latticed landing of concrete and bamboo, the Triveni Tea Terrace is a throwback to a time when prime ministers allotted top slabs of land to artists, and when artists spent hours chatting over chai and samosas. An important fixture on the Mandi House area’s cultural map, Triveni Kala Sangam houses the café, as well as classrooms and performance spaces for musicians, dancers, and singers. The complex was built in the late 1950s by Joseph Stein, whose name is synonymous with Nehruvian Delhi’s institutional architecture, and the café combines the best aspects of his indoor-outdoor design with a slightly updated menu, thanks to the newest management. The old favourites are still there: mutton curry, keema paratha, sandwiches and pakoras. Newer additions in the same spirit include gunpowder ragi idli and beetroot halwa. The bun kebab combines the best of the old and new: a soft, fat, shammi kebab with sliced onion and tomato, sandwiched between a big, green-coloured bun, tinted by the spinach that goes into its dough.
Getting there: https://goo.gl/maps/UX5SDy8RDfT2
Kashmiri Wazwan Trami
Happily, this fine establishment’s name throws off a lot of people who might otherwise show up for the cheap drinks and relaxed atmosphere (both good reasons to frequent the place, also centrally located for South Delhi). As a result, Road Romeo is usually far less crowded than 4S, the Chinjabi dive across the Defence Colony Market, and has slowly become a spillover venue of sorts. But to call it that would be unfair, for this Romeo is a charmer in the kitchen as well as at the bar. The restaurant specializes in Hyderabadi and Kashmiri food, and its crowning menu item is a the trami, a mound of rice piled with goshtaba and rista, yakhni gosht, rogan josh and more – enough for four or five people to share. Though you just might want an extra order of the tabakh maaz — slow-cooked mutton ribs, with the perfect proportion of tender flesh, melting fat, and caramelised skin.
Getting there: https://goo.gl/maps/REpAxChaGKP2
Radio Goya goes behind the scenes on the city guides, to get the low down on what didn't make it to print. To listen to Sonal Shah, skip to 6:25.