On the Old Delhi Food Trail

When we first arrived in India, we stayed in New Delhi, the planned city the British built in the early twentieth century to be their capital in India. We were near Connaught Place, designed to be the new city’s commercial center.

There was certainly interesting food to be had there, such as a crunchy, spicy, puffed rice street snack called “bel puri” or, as one man at the hotel wrote out for me, “murmure.” I bought some from this young man and another from a twinkly old man in Jaipur who wrapped it in a newspaper cone.

Old Delhi Food Trail

But we wanted a local to show us more, so we signed up for a tour with Delhi Magic and followed the directions to Chawri Bazar Metro stop. Our brief experience on the Metro was quite good. We found our guide Mehtab eventually and set out in a cycle-rickshaw to the Old Delhi spice market, the largest in Asia. You’ve got to give that man credit for pedaling nearly 500 pounds of us through this traffic.

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Our first food stop, after some I’m-getting-hungry noises on my part, was for a rice-based dessert called kheer. Perfect.

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Then we crossed the street, always an adventure here, and entered the grounds of a mosque. Our guide took his white crocheted taqiyah (prayer cap) from his pocket and told us he wanted to pray. When he finished a few minutes later, he took us into the part of the mosque where people were praying (which surprised us) and gave a brief demonstration. Most important in praying, he said, was the intention one brings to it. (The photo here is of the pool where Muslims wash before they pray.)

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He stood, holding his hands, palms forward, at shoulder level, and made a gesture meant to indicate he was leaving all his worries behind. He said, “Allah Akbar” (“God is great”), and folded his right forearm over his left at waist level. At that point, he said, he would normally recite some prayers. Next he knelt down (speaking of how he would now think good thoughts about God), bent forward, and placed his forehead on the stone floor of the mosque. When he returned to a kneeling position, he said he would finish by turning his head to the right and to the left.

From what I read online, this last gesture refers to the angels that sit on one’s shoulders, regarding good deeds (on the right) and bad deeds (on the left). I’m sure this version was severely abbreviated for the tourists’ benefit, but I was touched that he showed us.

He led us through the Old Delhi market, filled with all kinds of spices, ingredients, and prepared foods.

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We stopped in a shop with a proprietor who reminded me of Sherman Alexie, for some reason. Maybe it was his height and his hair. I bought some chai and black tea and wished I could bring home an entire spice shop with me.

When we reached our next stop, after climbing some stairs featured in the movie The Reluctant Fundamentalist, we were above the spice market, in company with birds and four boys playing on the roof. To our left was the mosque where Mehtab had prayed.

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To our right, we looked down into a square that, he said, was once one family’s house. The buildings in the middle look rather entrenched to me, but maybe hundreds of years ago the square was open.

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Roofs are heavily used spaces here. In the square above, they hold black water tanks (for running water) and clotheslines.

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But on the roofs on one side of the mosque’s courtyard, papad and, Mehtab said, grapes were drying.

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We left the roof as it began to grow dark, dodging the men carrying huge bags of just about everything.

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How they managed on this crowded “sidewalk,” I’ll never know. The locals knew to get out of their way, but I felt we were constantly holding them up.

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We headed toward the gurudwara, or Sikh temple, and stopped to have a snack of dahi bhalla (dahi vada), pani poori, and samosas. The vadas, or fried lentil balls, were covered in yogurt and tamarind sauce. I remember them as cold and sweet, a gooey contrast to the delicate poori filled with spicy vegetables and mint-water. You have to hold them so the contents don’t spill onto your shirt. I loved them.

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I had another dessert after that, a coffee-flavored custard in a tiny clay pot that was thrown away afterward. I was all like, “What!? Those are so cool!” But cleaning them out would no doubt cost more than making new pots, and the reused pots would probably make the tourists sick.

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At the gurudwara, Mehtab found a Sikh to guide us swiftly around the main room, where a man was giving a sermon to a roomful of worshippers. He lives near the gurudwara and was about to drop us off but thought better of it and led us to the Metro. I’m not sure we would ever have found it ourselves.

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