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Eating Well in Delhi
As a city of migrants, Delhi is filled with opportunities to sample food from all over India. There are, however, several key groups that dominate the city's food culture.
Delhi's oldest food traditions are found in the chaotic lanes of the Old City. There are Muslim kebab sellers who claim to have cooked for the royal courts; the Hindu merchant class's lip-smacking street food, sold off carts and corner shops; and the simple vegetarian fare of the Old City's Jains.
Since India's independence in 1947, an influx of Punjabi migrants has brought that region's earthy flavor to the city. Cooked greens, creamy dals, thick lassis, and hearty breads feature prominently. Local eateries that cater to specific migrant communities are tucked away in markets and colonies, and you can find anything from South Indian vegetarian diners to northeastern spots specializing in spicy pork dishes, as well as a range of Afghani, Korean, and Japanese eateries. Delhi also has a couple of "nouvelle" Indian restaurants, where Indian flavors meet Western-style presentation or gastronomic techniques with striking results.
The walled Old City is a maze of edible treasures. Khari Baoli, the spice market at the end of Chandni Chowk, is a must-visit. Piles of twisted roots and dried fruit sit between sacks of red chilli powder, yellow turmeric, and other spices. Nearby, the wholesale paan market at Naya Bans carries everything necessary for the preparation of the betel-based digestive.
A Punjabi staple, daal makhani (also known as kaali daal, or maa ki daal) is a nearly ubiquitous lentil stew, served by humble villagers and in superluxe hotel restaurants. Black urad beans and red kidney beans are tempered with a fry-up of garlic, ginger, tomato, and spices and ideally slow-cooked overnight on a coal fire. The daal is often finished with generous amounts of butter or cream.
Served with spicy achhaar pickles and yogurt, and topped with a dollop of butter, a paratha is a meal in itself. Whole wheat flour dough is rolled with oil before being panfried to create a flaky flatbread. The dough can be stuffed with anything; some fillings include radish, cauliflower, and sweet milk solids. "Mughlai" parathas include egg and are thicker. In Old Delhi, Gali Paranthe Wali, a lane dedicated to this originally Punjabi bread, has hosted prime ministers—who now peer down at diners from black-and-white photos.
As early as the 16th century, Mughal emporers enjoyed the frozen dessert called kulfi. The Indian version of ice cream, standard kulfi is a mixture of milk solids (khoya) or cream, sugar, and pistachios—which are frozen in a conical metal or clay container sealed with dough. Kulfi is eaten as is, or with starch vermicelli noodles (faloodeh). Besides flavors like pistachio and rose, Old Delhi kulfiwallas make fruit-flavored kulfis, sometimes frozen inside hollowed-out fruit, like mangoes.
Not well known but quintessentially Delhi, the nagori halwa breakfast is found almost exclusively in the Old City. It's a combination of three elements: small crisp breads made of deep-fried wheat and semolina flour; a mushy potato curry packed with fiery and warming spices; and a bit of halwa—a sweet preparation of semolina roasted in ghee and mixed with water. It's best eaten mixed all together for a delicious hot, sweet, and spicy combination.
Delhiites love their kebabs, and there are many options to be found in Delhi, but one nonkebab dish that nonveg residents cherish is nihari, a buffalo (since beef is not eaten) or goat stew cooked overnight in a virtual swimming pool of ghee. More scorching than the city's summer sun, nihari is usually eaten in the morning, especially in the foggy winter months. Legend has it that when Shah Jahan settled Delhi his doctor deemed the Yamuna River's water unfit for consumption; this firecracker of a dish, however, was believed to kill the germs.
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