I start and end my day in Delhi in Counnaght Place. At 8 am I meet Delhi food blogger Gupreet Singh Tikku, aka Mister Tikku. His signature tomato red turban is a handy beacon as we join the masses of morning commuters to catch a train to Chandni Chowk, the ultimate introduction to Delhi street food.
Chandni Chowk dates back to the Mughal era. Many of the vendors in the seemingly endless market can claim to be the fifth, sixth, or seventh generation to man the family shop. Mister Tikku takes me to one such august establishment, Chaina Ram, established in 1901 and famous for its gujiya, a must-have sweet during the Holi festival of colors.
Chaina Ram is not an establishment to sit on its laurels. The puri is being fried to golden perfection in pure ghee right at the entrance to the shop, where passersby can gauge the quality of the food for themselves without having to consult a guide book.
Mister Tikku orders both puri and kachori for breakfast.
We continue on to Gole Hatti, which means round shop. It is the place for chole chawal, a Punjabi stew of rice and chick peas served in a clay pot. We also sample dahi vada made with cheese and black lentils.
That evening, we return to Counnaught Place to visit Farzi Café, which I would never have found without a guide as the entrance to the restaurant is inside a clothing store.
The restaurant was large and brimming with energy, the décor dramatic. The menu was whimsical and promised, truthfully, that “every dish has its own history and a story to tell.” Mister Tikku explained that the restaurant’s popularity is due to a menu that features the staples of every Indian’s childhood – kachori, bhel, and idlis – served with a contemporary flare. And a generous dose of theatrics, I might add.
The show starts with a mishti dahi shot, dramatically served in a swirl of (dry ice) mist. In front of your eyes, the Bottle Ka Gin is covered with a bell jar and infused with wood chip smoke, from old Jack Daniels casks, I’m told. No ordinary smoke, this.
The contemporary flare includes the use of molecular gastronomy’s darling – foam. The Mini Raj Kachori, for example, is topped with cilantro chutney foam.
We walk the few blocks to Unplugged Courtyard, which has recently introduced South African braai to Delhi. We pass through a charming leafy courtyard, trees strung with fairy lights, to ascend to the rooftop deck where the coals of the braai glow red-hot. Clear covered containers hold the meats and fish, submerged in their marinades of various hues. Tumeric yellow. Cilantro green. Chili pink. “Grab a meat candy @unpluggedcourtyard” reads an ad on the restaurant’s Instagram feed. It’s true that I feel like a kid in a candy shop as I try to choose. I settle on the fish in a cilantro marinade and watch it sizzle on the grill. The fish is moist and tangy with spices. Our friends in Cape Town would approve. Mister Tikku goes for the popular, decidedly Asian, Ganna chicken, which is grilled on a sugar cane skewer until a caramelized outer layer seals in the juicy chicken.
Having seen Mister Tikku be equally rapturous over a simple, but perfectly prepared clay pot of chole chawal as over molecular cilantro chutney foam, I asked what he would prepare if he were serving dinner to friends at home.
The menu was simple, yet richly decadent. Dal makhni, a Punjabi dish of black lentils cooked in ghee and swirled with thick cream. Butter chicken, or shahi paneer, if the guests are veg. Whether chicken or the Indian pressed cottage cheese, paneer, either would be cooked in spicy tomato sauce with cream. Perhaps a rice dish, such as mutton biryani.
He’d round out the meal with butter naan or paratha to scoop up the sauces, fresh cucumber, tomato, onion and radishes, which could be served in whole pieces or chopped together in a salad with lemon juice, and boondi raita, a cool yogurt sprinkled with pieces of fried graham flour.
The traditional serving utensil for dal is the kalchi. Halfway between a spoon and a ladle, the kalchi was originally made from copper. Today stainless steel is more common.