No Delhi Belly: A Street Food Walking Tour
It was just typical that on a day in which I had to get up early and traverse across the metropolis of Delhi, it was raining a deluge of Biblical proportions. I had signed up for an early-morning breakfast street food walking tour through Old Delhi, with Delhi Food Walks. By the time I met guide and ‘head foodie’, Anubhav Sapra, at the meeting point outside Chawri Bazaar Metro station, I was soaked through. ‘Luckily’ it was also about 30 degrees (with 100% humidity), so I wasn’t cold.
I’d gotten up early because morning is the best time to walk the streets of Old Delhi: it is quieter and less congested. Moreover, I was taking the walk on a Sunday, the day of the week when Dilliwallahs from as far away as Gurgaon travel up to Old Delhi for the breakfast treats that can only be had here. It was worth the soaking.
I quickly learned that Dilliwallahs love to eat chickpeas and fried, puffed bread for breakfast, in all their imaginable permutations. We started at a typical Delhi snack and sweet stand, the kind where you order at the counter and stand at high round tables with no chairs. We then proceeded to the back alleys, which were crowded not with regular everyday commerce, but with people queuing for hole-in-the-wall (or rather, frying-pan-on-a-step) food.
I wouldn’t have thought that the words ‘exquisite’ and ‘chickpeas’ really go together, but the pureed chickpeas served with butter and fresh ginger, and without chili (though that is an option) were extremely delicious.
I’m very familiar with Indian food, but one of the most memorable discoveries of the day was the pureed chickpeas (Chole Kulche) served by Lotan Ji. These two brothers have carried on the 80-year-old family business of serving an exquisite chickpea curry on some steps down an alleyway. I wouldn’t have thought that the words ‘exquisite’ and ‘chickpeas’ really go together, but the pureed chickpeas served with butter and fresh ginger, and without chili (though that is an option) were extremely delicious. Despite being an operation consisting of simply a couple of big woks on a step, Lotan Ji is always busy because they’re known to serve the best Chole Kulche around. They even cater for weddings and events.
I couldn’t tell you how to get there again, though. I’ve been to Old Delhi many times, but one of the reasons I joined this street food walking tour was that becoming familiar with the backstreets of Old Delhi would take years. It’s also good to join a tour so that you’re not afraid of what you’re eating. A lot of people are under the misconception that street food (especially in India) must be dirty, or that you’re taking a risk by trying it. Sure, it can be dirty. But much of the time it isn’t. If you go to busy places that are making food fresh and selling it quickly, the chance of getting any nasty bugs is minimised. Plus, if you go with a local guide, they’re unlikely to take you anywhere dodgy. I have a strong stomach so I know it’s easy for me to say this, but I’ve never had any problems from eating the street food in India.
After a few street-side stops, we had a proper sit-down at an Old Delhi institution, Karim’s. This restaurant is down a lane opposite the west gate of the Jama Masjid. It’s over 100 years old, and now has several branches around Delhi, but the Jama Masjid branch is the original (and apparently best). It’s a Muslim-run place, so meat dishes are its specialty, but they still do a good veg curry and naan.
A lot of people are under the misconception that street food (especially in India) must be dirty. But much of the time it isn’t.
After an hour or so, I was getting really full. Luckily, this food walk wasn’t only about eating everything we laid our eyes on. We took a quick shared auto from outside the Jama Masjid down Chandni Chowk, to the Khari Baoli, the wholesale spice market. I’d long ago read about an alleyway that led to a flight of stairs up to a great rooftop view of the market and the Fatehpuri Mosque next door, but I’d never been able to find it. Another reason to get a guide in Old Delhi! It was Sunday, so the market wasn’t as operational as it would be on other days of the week. But I still got a good view across Old Delhi. The buildings are generally low here, not more than four or five stories high, which means that the spires of Old Delhi’s mosques are on prominent display.
It was about 10am by this time, but obviously time for morning dessert–one rose and almond lassi and one mango lassi, and a collection of sweets stuffed with nuts, condensed milk, spices, sugar and topped with silver leaf… amazing. The busy sweet shop right next to the Fatehpuri Mosque is considered to have the best sweets in all Delhi. In a city of 10 million people, that’s quite a recommendation.
After this, I really was stuffed. We stopped for a small cup of masala chai, and then headed back towards the Red Fort-end of Chandni Chowk, to visit the Gurudwara Sisganj Sahib. Like all Sikh Gurudwaras, the Sisganj Sahib operates a communal kitchen and gives free meals to anyone who turns up (although the poor and homeless must appear not to be abusing any substances). Anyone can also go and volunteer in the kitchen, whether Sikh or not. I was taken into the hot, steamy kitchen and saw the enormous steel and copper pots and the conveyor belts churning out the chapattis. People eat sitting on the carpeted floor of the large dining hall, but I was happy just to appreciate the useful act of religious service that I witnessed.
This post originally appeared on Wilderness Metropolis, a blog about travels in South Asia.