A taste of Delhi life

19:13, Nov 05 2012
tdn spice stand
Bowls of spices on display in a Delhi market

In India we are engulfed by colour, food and humanity.

Through train and bus windows, out the sides of auto rickshaw, through the doors of hotels there is too much happening. You have this often in India.

It's like the feeling of being inside an electronics store where half a dozen big screens play a kaleidoscope of movies. Where to look?

We spent a week in India in early October.

Eating was always going to be a priority. New dishes, new flavours, new things to buy and bring home - we wanted all that. But eating in India is a scary prospect.

I go for the injections before leaving New Plymouth and spend nearly $300 on needles filled with drugs to prevent myriad diseases and infections. I get the kindly nurse talk on not drinking local water and watching what I eat. Delhi belly is a possibility - at the very least there will be loose bowel movements.


There will also be rubbish - piles of it - and poor people. In my childhood I'd pictured India as the poorest place on earth because I'd studied Mother Teresa at school. I think I imagined it as one gigantic orphanage headed up by bespectacled nuns, all clones of the great pioneering Mother.

Rubbish, poor sanitation and smells might combine to produce nasty food. But then it depends - lumpy, colourless mashed spuds are pretty nasty.

On day one, three hours after touching down at Delhi airport, we dive in.

Breakfast is at Saravana Bhavan, a South Indian restaurant several doors down the road from McDonald's in an area called Connaught Place. It's the commercial hub of Delhi, with wide streets, shops, restaurants and hotels.

I have a mini tiffin, a tray on which small bowls of food nestle around an oversized pancake called a Masala Dosa.

In one dish is rava kesari, a sweet dish prepared with semolina; in another is rava kichadi, a blander but not unpleasant food with a savoury taste. There's a yoghurt-type dish and idli sambar - a gravy with lentils and veges in it that is served with a rice cake. We also order poori, a fried Indian bread with a distinctive puffed up shape. It's a feast - a flavoursome, balanced feast. Each dish startlingly different from the tea, toast and muesli I usually consume.

It costs 300 rupees, or nearly NZ$7.

Later the same day while trailing through a bazaar in Old Delhi we visit a Sikh temple called Sheeshganj Gurudwara. Colour and food blend like they do everywhere in India. In the temple we - men and women - wrap orange scarves around our heads.

Our guide for the week, Prajeed, leads us through the temple. We sit cross-legged and pensive. Then we are led away to watch food preparation. A mountain of it is made every day in the temple. Any person can eat here, free of charge. In one large hall-like space people squat on the ground, eating with their hands. In other smaller rooms leading off the main space, more people squat and cook. Women roll dough for the thin chapatti, others cook the flat bread on cast iron surfaces. It's muggy, steaming and collegial. As tourists, we're invited to sit and roll the dough. They grin at our earnest efforts and shrug shoulders if we seem to be in the way.

In a smaller space a man clad in orange gown and turban, stirs a sludge-like mixture in a monster wok. The heat is intense and he stirs in large, sweeping motions. His concoction is sweet and mushy. We taste it as we leave the temple. Attendants at the exit scoop out portions for each templegoer. It is sickly and oily, a delicacy too rich for our tummies.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner have a pleasing similarity about them. Hot food, many dishes, rices, spices - broken up by the different drinks.

At breakfast we drink black coffee or tea. At lunch it is non-alcoholic fizz and coffee. At dinner it's Kingfisher beer. In between, we try the chai, which is a milky, spicy drink served in small glasses. It's usually made by putting tea leaves, milk and water in a pan and boiling up with lots of sugar as well as ginger and cardamoms. At each meal there's also water.

I know from previous travels and from the kindly nurse talk that it's not a good idea to drink tap water. We buy two-litre bottles of water ranging in price from 20 to 42 rupee. Each of us consumes several bottles a day.

We feel safe, but there are pitfalls. Only buy certain brands, says Prajeed. Make sure the seal on the lid is not broken. When you've finished drinking, squash the bottles flat to ensure entrepreneurial types don't refill the water and sell it to the next innocent tourist.

Disposing of the plastic bottles challenges tidy, environmentally conscious Kiwis. Streetside rubbish bins don't exist. Piles of rubbish do. Visualising the piles of plastic you are leaving behind after going through a couple of bottles is horrifying. The guidebook says tourists alone generate millions of non-biodegradable landfill waste each year.

But it's prudent to leave judgments aside when Indian rubbish is contemplated.

Spend some time staring and you realise that the piles are often tidily swept to one side. They exist but some control is maintained. Children and adults will sweep the patch of ground outside their store or home with a broom that looks like a pile of sticks tied together. Initially it appears a fruitless task but when you pass the same patch a little while later you see their patch free of debris and a tidy pile stacked nearby.

Pigs dig snouts into the stacks of waste, cows wander through and sometimes sit atop them, and people move them to one side. Perhaps parts of the waste break down.

Take cowpats, the brown piles we see drying in the heat.

"Everything related to the cow is a good thing for us," Prajeed tells us as we drive through rural areas. So there's waste but it's not wasted. Once dry, the cow dung is sometimes used to fuel fires or build shelters. It can also produce biogas to generate electricity and heat because it's rich in methane.

In India you want not only to eat the food but also to buy the dishes the food is prepared in.

In some parts, the bazaars gleam because piles and piles of metal dishes are stacked or hung from shop fronts. Copper and stainless steel serving dishes, utensils, cutlery boxes, lunchboxes, platters. Tiny shop after tiny shop sells similar goods. Price is determined by the weight of the product, but there are good deals. The copper backed bowls cost between $3 and $4 each; the balti dishes hauled home in the backpack are a little more. They're flat- bottomed and shaped like a wok but smaller and with chunkier handles.

We return after six days in India with not a hint of Delhi belly - not even the loose bowel movements. Probably we have been relatively cautious, opting for restaurant meals over street fare. We were a little cocooned in our air conditioned hotels and eateries but not divorced from the mass of India.

It sweeps past you, going about its business.

The country is an adventure. So is the food and it should be tried with sensible gusto.



2 cups poha (a flat style rice)

1 potato

1 onion

2 green chillies

1 tsp chana dal (optional)

1 tsp rad dal (optional)

1/4 tsp mustard seeds

1 sprig curry leaves

2 tsp peanuts

4 Tbsp oil

1 pinch turmeric powder

1 lemon

Few coriander leaves

Salt to taste

Soak the poha in water. Wash and drain all the water.

Add some salt, turmeric powder. Keep aside.

Peel and cut the potatoes into small cubes. Chop the onions, chillies, coriander leaves.

Heat oil and put chana dal, urad dal, mustard seeds, peanuts, curry leaves and fry until they crackle.

Add potatoes, saute for a few minutes, and then add chopped onions, chillies.

Cook till they are done. Add the poha, coriander leaves and stir.

Keep it on slow flame for 5-7 minutes.

Let it cool for some time and then add lemon juice.

Recipe from indianfoodforever.com

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