Maggi and Pierogi
I remember this scene as though it happened today. We have just left a good Mediterranean restaurant where we’d been invited for lunch. Me – heavenly pleased to have a continental meal as it should be – am heading to the car with a big smile printed on my face. I take my seat, while my friend ignites the engine.
– “We should have gone to Punjabi By Nature”, he said.
– “Yeah”, another colleague seconds that from the back seat.
– “But why??” I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
– “‘Cause it was bland. And you couldn’t get messy with the food.”
I had realised by then already, how important the experience of food is in India. Not only the taste, but the whole ritual of savouring it with all your senses, expressed through the living tradition of eating with bare hands. Or eating on the street – the whole ritual (feared by many foreigners and even upper Indian classes) of picking up some snacks from the street vendors (you will find a wonderful guide to the world of street food on the Eat and Dust blog by Pamela Timms).
In fact, the first phrase I had been taught in Hindi, right after ‘Namaste’, was ‘Bhookh lagi hai’. And after learning that, I had been served Maggi, with the explanation, “This is our national food”. Let me tell you why I do think it’s true.
When I moved to Bangalore, I wanted to please my new friends and I told them, that South Indian food is amongst my favourite Indian cuisines (which is true!). Instead of appreciating this compliment, I was bashed, “But what do you mean by South Indian Food? Andhra, Tamilian, Keralan or maybe Karnataka cuisine??”
Just like any other thing in India, it is hard to clearly define what exactly “Indian cuisine” is. It’s rather a set of regional cuisines, barring bigger or smaller similarities. Amongst those, I have plenty of favourites – from south Indian vadas, to Nepali Momos, Keralan fish in coconut gravy… I could get myself killed for Mughal mutton in thick cashew gravy (Badshahi Badam Pasanda) along with sweet Bagarkhani bread from Karims, but Maggi is pretty much the only dish I’ve seen being enjoyed from valleys of Himalayas to beaches of Goa. Alas – dear friends – please do not feel offended, but if I were to choose one dish representing India – Maggi Masala it would be.
Many nations around the globe are obsessed with food, but few are so introvert in this regard as
Indians. Maybe only French people could beat the level of self-indulgence when it comes to cuisine, but in India, it is more conservative. Not only when it comes to ‘firangi khaana’ – Delhi is accepting nearly exclusively Italian (with some adjustments), Chinese (customised via Tibetan refugees, I suppose?) and fast foods. It’s also a community specific conservatism. Think of famous ‘biryani couriers’, transporting Ahmedabadi biryani to those miserable Ahmedabadi boys forced to resettle to barbaric (in terms of biryani preparation) Delhi. Or have a quick peek into Bengali market in Chittaranjan Park, or Tibetan colony in Majnu ka Tila to understand what I’m talking about.
The result is that Delhi is full of foodies (with huge number of food blogs), but most of these are not foodies who search for new flavours. They search rather for a perfect incarnation of their all time favourite, and are ready to travel miles for it. And when they find the right place, they would fight to defend its honour almost like it was a virgin they have sworn to and they were her knights.
No wonder that even now – two years since I first came to India – regular small talk has to begin with one question: “So, how do you like Indian food now” (or, if spotted with a plate full of palak paneer – an exclamation full of appreciation “Oh, so you like Indian food now!”). Right after this, another question has to follow suit. “So, what is Polish food?”.
Answering the second question is not easy. Polish food is predominantly based on meat and potatoes and – maybe except for sausages & vodka – didn’t make it big internationally. Except for saturated with Polish community London or Chicago, finding Polish specials or ingredients abroad isn’t easy. Especially in Delhi, where the whole community is so small it wouldn’t be able to fill up even one bigger restaurant. It’s so to an extent, that even the Polish embassy is struggling to serve Polish dishes on national occasions.
The only place that used to serve our national dish – Pierogi (imagine a bit flatter and softer momo like dumplings with different kinds of stuffing varying from cheese & potatoes, through cabbage and mushrooms to fruits) – was Intermezzo in Defence Colony (above Defence Bakery) – an Italian restaurant owned by a Polish- Indian couple. But even they gave up on it since there was not enough demand. Still yet – if you want – you can call them in advance and ask to prepare it for you. The taste is really genuine!
Another place serving food close to Polish was a tiny Russian restaurant in Anand Niketan. Unfortunately – it has shut recently, leaving those few desperate Poles in town with no options really but cooking (which is also difficult, as ingredients are a bit different than available ones).
But it’s neither Pierogi – which is more of a festive food, nor even beef – which nowadays can be found in several places in Delhi – is what I’m missing the most. I feel truly homesick, when it comes to… breakfast. Polish bread is relatively little chemically pumped as compared to most western bakeries, and hence can get spoiled on the second day, but the crispiness of the skin and the softness and aroma of the flesh are worth making an early morning trip to the bakery for a hot loaf… Just with butter, or with variety of cold cuts (dry sausages in particular), and cheese or with a strawberry or blackberry jam. Mhmm…
Fortunately, this Christmas, I will spend at home, and since our national tradition is that there has to be at least 12 different dishes on the table, I will compensate myself for all the longing.
A Merry Christmas, dear readers!
—————————————————–Foodies tips from DilliNet—————————————————————-
Where to shop for groceries?
Good thing about a market economy is that, the demand is defining supplies. Having said that, one has to know that in Delhi, you can find pretty much anything, just that ‘anything’ has its price. For imported goodies, go to INA Market or Spencer’s. Most expensive selection you will find in Nature’s Basket, but don’t do your daily shopping there. Some of the imported products they store have their decent (and much cheaper) Indian equivalents. They just don’t store them to keep the margins high.
Whenever a conversation amongst foreigners in Delhi goes down to food, sooner or later someone would sigh “…and how I miss beef!” Heads up! Recently, few places serving really good beef steaks or beef burgers have opened around town. For burgers, you can try Cafe Oz or Mrs. Kaurs (Khan Market), but nothing beats Hard Rock Cafe in this category. For steaks – other than five-star hotels, The International Diner (GK1 M block market), or P’tit bar (Moolchand Market), or Lodi Garden Restaurant, amongst others. Furthermore – you can order beef delivered home – check DilliNet for numbers!
Street Food Manual
Street food is the gold of Delhi. Unbelievably cheap – if bought in the right place – makes the best kitchens in town look pale. Safety rules are simple: buy where the crowd is, avoid empty joints; food fresh from hot oil is probably safe, avoid vegetables sparkled with water or chutneys – that’s where the devil hides! I’m not expert to advise particular joints, but follow blogs Eat and Dust or Chef at Large, no know the best places. You may also want to board one of the food walks in Old Delhi with their founders.
Where to eat…
Few places in Delhi enjoy well deserved fame. Karim’s near Jama Masjid – for mutton dishes, and Al Kouser and Khan Chacha for kebabs, Roshan di Kulfi for kulfi falooda, Bukhara for the most exclusive experience of Indian food, Big Chill for Italian food and desserts… Not all of those places match the expectations, but for sure, are safe choices and ‘must dos’ while in Delhi.
… and where not to.
McDonalds is a place which probably should be avoided everywhere in the world, but in India, in particular. If you’re looking for a nice burger, you won’t find it here. The mix, if global recipes with local spices and without beef and pork would be a serious problem for the western palate to take. If you have to go for fast-food, KFC or Subway are better choices. Also avoid any exotic cuisines in restaurants which are not famous for them. Italian food in a Mughlai restaurant? Red Alarm. Mexican food in Delhi – Red Alarm. Sticking to restaurant’s specialties will save you from a lot of disappointments and… will save your pockets as well.
Written for First City Delhi magazine. December 2010