Gali Kababian, Jama Masjid, Delhi
Some forms of beauty mature and attain their fullness, paradoxically, when their enabling forces are already ebbing in the last rays of the sun. The pigeons fluttering over a Shahjahanabad sundown offer guard of honour, as do the mendicants en route. As a liveable middle-class experience, we celebrate what was one of the greatest empires in the world, with all its flaws, precisely along an axis where it was breathing its last, catching all the colours of the sunset. It should not offend any poetic mind to wonder whether the complexity of emotion one can see in Mir, Ghalib or Momin is not present, in culinary form, in what the last, melancholic emperor’s khansama was cooking up. In the slyly piquant ishtu, for instance. Or the complex tones of the mutton burra. Think of the spare Afghani variants, then judge this for its sheer absorptive genius. And if one were to dare to gradually stretch the poetic imagination and dream of a gastronomical mushaira, a memorable raan would lead to a mehfil—the Tandoori Bakra, a meal for 15. For any new arrival to Delhi, a trip down that lane left of Jama Masjid, past countless street kababeries, is like a civilisational passport, to a realisation that empire might well start with a bristling show of muscle, but always ends in a form of fleshly succulence. Still a peacock, but tempered in native spices.
Videography: Tribhuvan Tiwari; Editing: Suraj Wadhwa
United Coffee House
Connaught Place, New Delhi
Someone once called New Delhi a city of golchakkars. Truly, for both the old Dillizen and generations of settlers who have pitched tent here, it’s a comic-Faustian pact with urbanity sealed within a web of lines and circles. And its very cardial nucleus is Inner Circle, Connaught Place. Jaywalking around Russell’s faux-Palladian colonnades, almost tripping over Gujarat adivasi mirror-work wall hangings on the pavements, generally soaking in the winter sun, is somehow being quintessentially ‘New’ Delhi. And summers? You simply have to get off that blinding yellow light! This old hub is perfectly placed for that. After the eyes adjust to the light, you realise the older, classier décor has given way to shaadi baroque (and pop ghazals). But a chicken liver on toast and some cold hops juice still sets you up to go back and face the city. That’s why its very name brings a salve to the soul.
In a longue duree frame, it’s conceivable that the sheer civilisational perfection of a goshtaba will come back and ask that question of history. Why, for instance, was the cultural route never even considered to try and clear out a bit of space for shared humanity…it probably would have worked under the direst of circumstances. Rishta, goshtaba, tabak maaz, and all the other resonant names…the culinary culture of Kashmir offers a primary expression of a kind of sophistication most of the ‘mainland’ would have recognised in other registers and accents. In its essence, if not in its specific, delectable instantiation—which is quite unique. As things stand, this haunt just off Lal Chowk, standing silent sentinel to years of collective human disagreements, has been the most iconic spot where unanimity would have emerged just about every evening among its clientele, regardless of whether they were from Maisuma, Mithila, Mansoorah or Mayiladuthurai. And organically at that—rather than having to be forged. The question at stake could be the degree of saffron desirable in cuisine. Whether in rice, along with rogan josh and kababs, or if you’re just looking to soak your soul in some kahwa.
It was with a collective sense of a calamity foretold—a genuine civilisational regret—that news was received of the archetypal Lucknow kababery being buffeted about by all the hullabaloo around illegal abattoirs and the politics of meat. This is the one that goes by the name of the One-Armed (Tunday), an association that so offended Gen Musharraf once but brings a smile of fragrant conviviality to the rest of us bred on pacifist gestures. Identifying the vital source of cultural difference here is easy. There are those who like their meat truculent and angry, for the joining of flesh to flesh to be turned into an act of war. Then there are those marinated in that other balmy spirit. The meat of the galauti kabab is an allegory for Lucknow: yielding softly to the touch, offering no resistance, and encompassing the would-be aggressor in a communion of memories.
India Gate, New Delhi
Federalism and food! Two persuasive constitutional reasons can be advanced for why this bustling canteen attached to a state guest house, nestled down by a leafy Lutyens roundabout, should make any list of iconic restaurants. One is, well, political. The eating-out experience in Indian cities is still a work in progress in terms of representation. Everything from Vietnamese to Mexican will pop up on Zomato or Swiggy, but the vast palette of regional accents in Indian food scarcely makes it to the high table. Reason #2 is strictly palatal. The thali, with that dal-and-ghee entrée and an array of musky Deccani flavours, is an authentic tour de force through Telugu country. The mutton fry is manly enough to make a Rayalaseema mafioso moustache grow on you! And they serve southern style, refilling your cartridges again and again, till you have died of pleasure.
Defence Colony, New Delhi
Sagar restaurant is perhaps the prime reason the north Indian thinks the Madrasi eats only idly and dosa. It is certainly the reason why the north Indian thinks sambar is to be drunk from the katori. There probably was idly-dosa even before Sagar, but it Mcdonalised it to such an extent that it soon became the gold standard for south Indian cuisine in Delhi. It would be decades before the average Delhite could fathom that people from down south were not all vegetarians, drinking sambar morning and evening. That Sagar was not even so Tamil but more Karnataka was lost on most patrons. Soon the city was crawling with Sagar (now Sagar Ratna) and they chased you even if you were driving to Agra or Jaipur. Today, the chain is present in most cities from Ranchi to Bhopal and is expanding rapidly. What can be said about the fare at Sagar? There is an assembly-line feel to anything you eat, but like a Bajaj or a Luna, it always works, with rarely any room for complaint. Apart from the basic menu of idly, vada, masala dosa, rava dosa, uttapam plus various rices like lemon, tamarind, tomato, and the south Indian thali, the chain has been trying out new spreads like the recent chettinad special (no, no, only vegetarian). But Sagar has built its reputation by being the constant in this changing world.
Video by Sanjay Rawat; Edited by Rupesh Malviya
Kadrabad, Modi Nagar, Uttar Pradesh
It’s not a rare experience for a biker, squinting against the blinding summer sun on that last 200-km dustbowl stretch from the base of the Shivaliks to Delhi, to start seeing things. Hapur turns into Nishapur, and Meerut into the Mexican border; sugarcane tractors become prehistoric sabretooths; and your own willpower turns first to water, then into Thunderbolt. A fairly pardonable offence then, in such circumstances, to not be able to tell one Jain Shikanji outlet from the other. And there are scores now, proliferating all the way from Gwaldham up there to Modinagar on Delhi’s wild, molasses-scented frontiers, which is its natural habitat. One among those is the genuine article, where a chilled, life-giving concoction of lime, ginger, mint, ice and what have you awaits the wayfarer. Years of popularity have seen the establishment grow into a proper air-conditioned pit-stop, with a variety of small khana. The Indian genius for xeroxing—where the product is replicated, and the name too turns into a free generic thing—has also seen tributes to the original crowd the pathways to the hills, offering their versions of sanjeevani herbal juice.
About 25 years ago, when Chor Bizarre opened in a Delhi which most Bombayites still called a ‘cluster of villages’, with a weird name, in Daryaganj and not in Connaught Place, the ‘it’ business district then, and to top it all, serving Kashmiri wazwan, most people didn’t quite get it. But the restaurant has endured, opened more branches, including one in London, with its eclectic mix of dishes in kitschy, almost gaudy setting, with vintage cars and Gabbar Singh cutouts. The eclecticism included dishes from Punjab, Lucknow, Delhi but the main loot was authentic Kashmiri, many times beating more famous restaurants in Srinagar—the Goshtaba, silken and subtly spiced beaten meat balls in a complex yoghurt gravy, Tabak Maaz, the deep fried perfectly marinated lamb chops, the robust Rogan Josh, the Tamatar Chaman, smooth pieces of cottage cheese in a saunth-saunf masala, Nadru Yakhni, the trademark lotus stem dish and of course, the incredibly minimalist Haak.
Pandara Road, New Delhi
You’re driving late in central Delhi on a cold winter night, your vehicle passes the ghostly NGMA, turns into the desolate Pandara Road and takes Barda Ukil Marg, and you see a pool of light and sound of merrymaking emanating from the Pandara Market. Gulati is the first restaurant on the left, (others like Pindi, Havemor are next door) and chances are you will have to wait your turn outside. Some say the butter chicken and dal makhni are better here than in Bukhara. Incredibly, in the middle of all the makhan, chicken and malai, Gualti does a delectable vegetable biryani.
Bharawan Da Dhaba
Town Hall, Amritsar
The process of eat, pray, love in Amritsar extends to the market adjoining the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in the holy city. Founded in 1912, a fourth-generation Vij now serves the age-old recipes though imitations have spawned off nearby, many of them claiming to have cooks trained at Bharawan. The narrow entry gives way to a large hall, always packed full of pilgrims and tourists. There isn’t much to the décor but the eatery is sparkling clean. In butter chicken country, the vegetarian Bharawan gets the most hardcore carnivore to merrily dip bits of the crisp-yet-soft lachha parantha into the dal makhani, chhole, saag paneer, kadhi and sarson ka saag.
Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar
Johri Bazar, Jaipur
After a morning of getting in and out of the narrow bylanes of Johri Bazar looking for odds and ends, people end up in the cavernous hall of LMB, as most call it, for their sugar fix. You can’t worry about your waistline as you order paneer makhni or nargisi kofta with butter naan. The chaats are fantastic and unstoppable. The aloo puri or mooli paratha for breakfast is good for the next twenty four hours. The service can be indifferent, the salad and papad may arrive after the deserts, but it suits most Jaipuris as nobody is ever in a tearing hurry.
Gypsy Dining Hall
The name doesn’t instill much confidence for a Rajasthani thali place, the signboard too is too funky to be taken seriously, but the Gypsy Thali is one of the best in Jodhpur. The waiters, in crisp kurtas, are careful not to load your plate with too much stuff and politely ask every time how much should they serve. There are notices all over the restaurant not to waste food. Each preparation in their Rajasthani and Gujarati thali stands out and it is entirely up to you how heavy you want to make your lunch or dinner.
Indira Chowk, Moradabad
Just round the corner at Moradabad’s Indira Chowk and a few paces down the Jama Masjid, Gulshan-e-Karim is a deceptively plain-looking eatery. But, just as you don’t judge a book by its cover, you would do well not to dismiss Gulshan-e-Karim. It is this eatery that has made Moradabadi biryani an eponymous culinary icon. Its story began three decades ago, when it began by simply selling what were quotidian, everyday recipes of western UP Muslim households. Biryani as cooked in places such as Moradabad and Rampur is lighter and subtler than its Hyderabadi cousin, which is spicy and hot. The Moradabadi variant has a flowery, botanical flavour, mainly because of the essences released from the slow cooking of star anise, the dried star-shaped fruit of illicium verum, a tropical evergreen tree. What was just biryani – the western UP variety that is – popularly came to be known as “Moradabadi biryani” because of Gulshan-e-Karim’s expert cooking and popularity. It’s ‘world famous’ in Moradabad and Delhi too. Ask anybody with roots in western UP.
Om Shiva Garden
As tourists walk through the winding bylanes of the Pushkar bazaar, crammed with shops selling everything from camel leather bags, silver trinkets, local stationary to Bob Marley tees and harem pants, eateries of all kinds beckon them. Boys in front of falafel shops shout out their wares, signboards lure with wood fired pizzas, sweet shops serve lethally delicious malpuas or there are the daal-baati-churma restaurants. Most offer great dishes at reasonable prices but Om Shiva Garden Restaurant has the added professional quality to it. The tiny entrance leads to a spacious garden dotted with tables where you can cool off for hours. Many guests just sip a fruit juice or a cappuccino, reading a book or browsing the net on their laptops. The north Indian staples like shahi paneer, koftas and daal are finely prepared and the Garden does the mushroom pizza well.
Dining Hall Nathdwara, Rajasthan
You go past Eklingji and a few more promontories overlooking moss-covered Mewari ponds down the highway from the regal shapes of Udaipur. There’s a road sign indicating the presence of Rana Pratap’s last stand nearby—that time of the day, you realise it translates to Turmeric Valley in English. Food is on your mind. Finally, after a few more sips of Bisleri, you turn left into the old town of Nathdwara. It’s a tight, compact affair, with the famed Krishna temple occupying pride of place. This is south Rajasthan, and so natural lebensraum for Gujarati pilgrims, who arrive by the droves. And so, naturally, a fuss-free, authentic Gujarati eatery beckons you. It’s everything it should be—an unceasing array of little katoris with subtle tonal variations, coming at you till you are sated and close to Vaishnav heaven. A brief rest is advised before you hit those long, dusty highways.
Shyamala Hills, Bhopal
In Jehan Numa Palace, one of the best loved luxury hotels in Bhopal, wedding dates are adjusted according to five star’s availability to host them. Inside the hotel is Shahnama, the restaurant showcasing the cuisine unique to Bhopal—it’s like the Mughlai food restaurants in Lucknow or Delhi and yet quite distinct. It is less oily, spiced mildly and lighter on the system, with curd as foundation for many dishes. Even the regular chicken tikka, for instance, has a strong hint of cardamom rather than chllies and garam masala. The dungar gosht kebab is succulent, smoky and sensational. Amazingly, their fried fish in a rawa crust, like it is done in Karwar or Mangalore, is very popular. So is the Amritsari machli and pomfret smeared with a chilly-curd paste and roasted. The Bhopali yakhni pulao, rice cooked in gravy of lamb trotters, is light and fragrant. Both for the Bhopalis and the visitors, a meal at Shahnama is unforgettable.
Malcha Marg, Delhi
Contemporary geopolitics may bring harsh, caustic notes to the tongue, but the word ‘Chinese’ also marks off another experiential territory for a lot of Indians. Here something is made native—with the foreignness retained minimally. To bring out this more agreeable sense, one must ask, ‘Chinese tonight?’ Variations of that would have been spoken probably millions of times, in most Indian languages and answering to all kinds of mental stimuli. For, ‘Chinese’ also marks off a whole genus. The individual referents can span a whole biodiversity of species: from campus chowmein vans, Chinjabi, Calcutta’s Tangra odours or the ‘Gobi Manjurian’ of the south. In Delhi, this address on the prim and propah Malcha Marg has been an old comfort zone. The thing to do here is, of course, to dive headlong into a chimney soup, and pretend to be a champion Melanesian who can scoop up 103 crustaceans from the ocean.
MI Road, Jaipur
Niros is to Jaipur what United Coffee House or Mocambo are to Delhi and Calcutta—the restaurant your parents...perhaps even grandparents, went for their first date. Back in the 60s, it was the only respectable restaurant serving Chinese. Even today their chicken in Sichuan sauce and crispy lamb honey are the favourites. Then there are the typical continental dishes—chicken a la kiev, cheese shaslik, mutton cutlets. It draws many foreign tourists though they mostly stick to the Mughlai fare. Most evening there’s a waiting of at least half-an-hour but if it’s breezy, it doesn’t seem that long as you can wander around the Panch Batti circle or check out what’s playing at Raj Mandir.