A Quick Gourmet Ride through Delhi
By Ras H. Siddiqui

A visit to Delhi is incomplete without visiting at least some of its famed eateries. Food and history are something that both Delhi and Lahore have in common, but since Pakistanis or Pakistani-Americans do not often get to visit India's capital city, it would be proper to start this "gourmet" tour from there. And having lived on some "Dilli cuisine" myself while growing up in Karachi, a sense of curiosity as to its origins became mandatory.

But before proceeding here, the reader needs to know that this writing just grazes the surface of Delhi food and that the vegetarian route is not what is being described in this writing (in spite of consuming some very fine varieties of vegetarian cooking during the trip). So let us move on to non-vegetarian India, or specifically the area around Delhi and Aligarh where the families of some of us "UP Muslim types" originate. The Dhaba or roadside eatery near Bulandshahr encountered while riding in a car from Delhi to Aligarh, was a driver's stop and my first exposure to bazaari Indian food.

I hesitantly asked for a tandoori roti (2 Rupees) with my tea and was pleasantly reminded of the same taste that I had left behind in Pakistan several years ago. Having family in India can also be a minus (just kidding) since they feed you extremely well (the taste of family foods is similar on both sides of the border) leaving you with little room left to eat out. And as we drove directly into the pre-marriage rituals of relative and (it seems like) ate for four full days till the valima was over (back in Delhi), I must say that the food in India was off to a great start. Chicken salan, chicken tandoori, mutton kormas, all were quite good. The nans, rotis, puris and kulchas were all excellent.

And the Indian version of whipped French coffee that came along throughout the trip was certainly a plus. No beef was served even in the Muslim households visited, and obviously not in the restaurants outside. But this was about wedding and home food. The question arose: where was the real stuff? I was in Delhi, the past capital of the Mughal Empire and the epicenter of their cuisine. So where was the best nihari, siri-paya, seekh kabab's etc? To find this out all one needs to do is to ask any young Muslim males around and watch them smile (just like in Karachi and Lahore) as they share with you the secrets of where the REAL food is. And if there is an occasion where male bonding takes place, it is over a huge plate of dripping nihari and hot nan. And for that I was asked to wait twice. For the best Delhi cuisine, the words "Jama Masjid" and "Karim Hotel" kept coming up. We arrived at the area around Jama Masjid at around 6:30 PM on a cool Delhi December evening. If there was ever a reminder of old Lahore or Burns Road in Karachi, it was this area.

A mini-Pakistan was very much alive and well here, or should one add that maybe it is the mini-Delhis in Pakistan that come to mind? In either case, you have to walk here through numerous aromas, not all related to food till you arrive at a very congested area of shops in the shadow of the Jama Masjid. Stores selling a variety of goods, and restaurants serving original Muglai food, all appeared quite full. And as you go through the main street and veer to the left, a small and simple establishment called "Haji Shabbarati Nihari Walay" (established 1957) can easily be overlooked except by those that have eaten here before. The taste of "Shabbarati's Nihari" is comparable to the best that old Karachi and Lahore have to offer on a good day. The accompanying "bheja" was simply superb and the nans came piping hot.

The stress here was on flavor and not just the hot pepper heat which one does encounter often when venturing out to some nihari establishments. And the company could not have been better since our party of 6 ranged from ages 10 to 50, all connoisseurs eating this well prepared water buffalo meat! After you overeat here and praise God for Haji Shabbarati Sahib's expertise, you just have to go for a long walk to get some dessert. And quite an interesting walk it is to Chandni Chowk, through some of Delhi's oldest businesses. When we got to Chandni Chowk, the first stop was Ghantewala's (got a couple of kilograms of mithai for Pakistan) and then wandered over to Haldiram's and Annapoorna (which was closed). Dessert eventually was rasgullas at Haldiram's Restaurant upstairs, a final touch to a very satisfying evening. The next day was my last one in Delhi and India on this trip. In the late morning we visited the imposing Lal Qila or Red Fort which seemed very drab in comparison to the Amber Fort in Jaipur. But all was not lost.

We still had a chance to shop at Delhi Haat, an outlet for regional handicrafts and clothing and to congregate at "Karim Hotel" for lunch at an area called ""Nizamuddin" that I had heard a lot about. Nizamuddin is the other old Muslim area of Delhi. Here, near the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, lie the remains of Amir Khusrau and the man known as the finest Urdu language poet that has ever lived, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. And since man does not live by history and poetry alone, we made our way to "Dastarkhwan-e-karim" or "Karim Hotel" as it is known, offering the finest Indian-Muslim cuisine in a semi-formal environment. Karim's is well known for its "rumali roti" (thin as a handkerchief), a variety of nan's saalans and tikka-kebabs. Pakistanis will like its menu because it reflects most of the good Karachi and Lahori cuisine.

Food here is carefully prepared and presented with style. The ambiance is quite a few notches ahead of the Jama Masjid area (where Karim's is also located). When we were done with the Murgh Afghani and the Dil Pasand Seekh Kabab, it was almost time to head for the airport to catch the PIA flight to Lahore. But not before we tried the "Kheer Benazir" for dessert, one which would offer quite a bit of competition to the kheers found in neighboring Pakistan. In closing, if General Musharraf has been to Karim's on one of his India trips and still has no dish named after him here, then one can only ask how another famous Pakistani and Karim's kheer get to share the same name?

Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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