Dinner in Delhi
Paapdi Chaat with Mint and Tamarind Chutneys
There are many origin stories for chaat, the savory hor d'oeuvres that are a hallmark of “Indian” cuisine. Some say that the emperor Shah Jahan wanted something loaded with spices but light on the stomach, but perhaps the most credible history is that it was used to curtail the spread of cholera in the 16th century. Heavy doses of spices such as tamarind, chile, coriander and mint were said to kill the water-borne bacteria. Within a few years, all of Delhi was consuming the tasty remedy, and that hasn’t changed since. Perhaps no other dish is as quintessential to Delhi as chaat - a snack enjoyed pretty much anytime throughout the day. While there are countless variations, we’ve decided to make our favorite: thin fried paapdi crackers served with potatoes, chickpeas, onions, and tomatoes. But the real stars are all the accoutrements. Mint chutney, tamarind chutney, raita, chaat masala, cilantro and thinly fried vermicelli called sev round out this crunchy, satisfying dish. Contains dairy, soy; gluten free and vegetarian (vegan & dairy free if served without yogurt).
While most of the dishes on this menu are centuries old and steeped in tradition, daal makhani (butter lentils) was invented in the 1940s and has exploded alongside its twin, the mighty butter chicken. Daal Makhani originated in Peshawar (present-day Pakistan) at a restaurant called Mukhey da Dhaba. When owner Mokha Singh passed, Kundan lal Gujral took over and re-named it Moti Mahal. After partition in 1947, Kundan moved the restaurant to Delhi and it became the famous institution it is today. Black urad lentils and roti are a classic Peshawari combination, but Kundan wanted a way to make his lentils (and chicken) last longer. He mixed them in a luscious stew of tomatoes, spices, cream and butter and the rest is delicious history. Contains dairy; vegetarian, gluten free.
Zeera Kalonji Potatoes
Both Zeera Aloo (cumin potatoes) and Kalonji Aloo (nigella potatoes) are classic roadside foods. In the mid-1960s, the Green Revolution in Indian Punjab pushed agricultural production to new highs and transformed India into one of the most powerful agrarian economies of the world. At the same time, a new breed of highway eateries for truck drivers called dhabas began sprouting up all across Northern India. No longer just reserved for truckers, dhabas, with their comforting food and relaxed atmosphere, are our personal favorite way of enjoying this type of cuisine. Here we’ve combined cumin with nigella seeds (which have notes of toasted onion and oregano) and added it to dry-fried potatoes to create a simple and satisfying dish. Vegan, gluten free.
Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol running through a golden mustard field is perhaps one of the most iconic Bollywood scenes of all times (Hot take: DDLJ is the best Bollywood movie ever made - be sure to check out our playlist and do watch it if you have the 3+ hrs. Alternatively, you can wait for COVID to end and go to Maratha Mandir theater in Mumbai, which has been showing the movie continuously since 1995!). Besides being a bucolic setting to Bollywood hits, mustard greens are also a staple in North Indian fare, especially in the winter. The leaves are boiled in milk and then fried up with mustard seeds, turmeric, chilis, garam masala, and a healthy dollop of ghee. Eating your greens has never been so delicious. Contains dairy; vegetarian, gluten free.
Okra is truly one of the world’s great underappreciated foods. Originating in Eritrea and Sudan, the plant made its way to India and China via Arab traders and then to the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade. Okra, or bhindi, has been in the Subcontinent since at least 1200 AD and is deeply entrenched in all Indian cuisines. Typically, okra is fried in a simple tomato-based sauce, but we’ve turned it up a bit. We made a homemade masala with over 18 different spices including dried mango powder, kashmiri chili, and Indian black salt for a spicy, tangy and addictive dish. Vegan, gluten free.
Korma is less so a particular dish but more a method of preparation. In Urdu, korma literally translates to “braise,” but it’s no ordinary braise. A korma takes any meat or vegetable and cooks it slowly in yogurt to create a thick gravy. North Indian kormas are generally less spicy than those of South India (which use coconut milk instead of yogurt) and hold truer to the original Muglai interpretation. Historically, kormas were so popular in the Mughal courts that they were served to Shah Jahan and his guests during the inauguration of the Taj Mahal. It was then transformed into its modern incarnation in Awadh, near present-day Lucknow, which is a region famous for its delicate flavors, elaborate marinades, and slow cooking. Although every household has a different way of making korma and it varies tremendously from region to region, we’ve decided to make a shahi (or royal) korma that is typically served on special occasions. Our lamb version is slow cooked in yogurt, saffron, and a variety of spices and then thickened with ground cashew. Contains cashews, diary; Gluten free.
Roti and Cucumber Raita
The traditional accompaniments to any thali, roti and cucumber raita are an absolutely essential component of a meal in New Delhi. Rotis are made with whole wheat flour and are cooked unleavened, unlike their cousin naan. Yogurt, and dairy in general, is the life-blood of all North Indian cuisine, touching every dish in some way, shape, or form. It is also the primary ingredient for our cucumber raita, a refreshing chutney with mint and cilantro that perfectly balances out the spice of the other dishes. Contains milk; vegetarian, gluten free.
What do Diwali, Holi, Eid ul-Fitr, or any wedding in Delhi all have in common? Almost certainly, carrot halwa will be for dessert. Halwa has its roots in Arabic cooking, with flour, milk, sugar, and nuts forming a gelatinous dessert that likely spread to India during the Mughal times. Around the same time 4,000 miles away, Dutch horticulturalists created an orange carrot to honor William of Orange. Millions of years of red, white, purple, and yellow carrots all but wiped out in a generation with the arrival of the new, sexy orange version. Long-story short, the new and improved carrot made its way into the Punjab where they started boiling it in milk and sugar, topped with nuts and dried fruits. Sikhs introduced it to the Mughal court which then spread it across the Subcontinent. It is especially good served piping hot on a cold night. Contains milk; vegetarian, gluten free.
As with everything “Indian,” the country is enormous and every region has its own alcohol of choice, ranging from a cashew apple distillate called Feni in Goa to rice beer made of tree leaves and grass called Apong in Assam. In our humble opinion though, a cold beer is hands down the best accompaniment to North Indian food (followed by a cold Coke). Although you’d be hard pressed to find the Indian Kingfisher in Ann Arbor, any lager will do (e.g. Corona, Victoria, Asahi or Tsingdao).
Drink of choice for all Desi Uncles, Scotch is the definitive way to end a festive meal in Delhi. A hangover from colonial times, whiskeys in general are so popular that India drinks more of the spirit than any other country in the world! In fact, in 2015 Indians drank 1.5 billion liters of the stuff, which is more than a liter / person. So pick your favorite brand and enjoy it neat or on the rocks!
In a country often described and defined by its aromas, Delhi in particular stands out. I had the good fortune to spend quite a bit of time in the Indian capital over the years, having worked for a company with an office in Gurgaon, and I am immediately transported back at the first whiff of a tadka. Anytime Bryan’s wife Dure makes chai and I’m no longer in their living room working on our next menu, but standing by a tea cart at 2 am, sipping tea in the crisp morning air (we worked the night shift as it aligned with U.S. hours). One waft of sandalwood incense and I’m back in Old Delhi, navigating my way through the maze of ancient buildings searching for the best Seekh Kebabs.
India is so incredibly diverse, with such a wide array of cultures, languages and cuisines, that extrapolating Delhi as a microcosm of India would be terribly wrong. The food from Delhi is generally what was exported around the world as “Indian” food, but in reality it is primarily Mughlai cuisine with a heavy handed touch of Punjabi influences. The Mughals, turkic invaders descended from Genghis Khan, brought ingredients and techniques from Persia and Central Asia, such as nuts, dried fruits, and tandoors for grilling meats and breads. The Mughals were serious gourmets - the first emperor Babar set up a courier system running deep into Samarkand to ensure a steady supply of melons and grapes in Delhi and proceeded to build royal fruit farms in the heart of the city. To this day, some of the best biryanis, haleem and kababs are found in the maze of Old Delhi and trace their roots to the royal courts.
The year 1947 saw one of the deadliest migrations of modern history which displaced many Hindu Punjabis living on the wrong side of the arbitrarily drawn border. They proceeded to emigrate to Delhi, setting up cultural enclaves and propagating their ghee-laden, dairy-filled, vegetable-forward cuisine (check out our prior post on Punjab). Generally a touch spicier than traditional Mughlai cuisine, it merged with the latter to form the city’s current culinary aesthetic. Butter chicken, anyone?
Delhi is a magnet - everyone is drawn to it and for good reason. Even over the course of my time in the city, I saw a change in the restaurant-scape. More and more kathi rolls and dhosas are easily available in the city due to the large migration of Bengalis and Southern Indians coming to the capital for job opportunities. I can still smell all the distinctive achaars (pickles) from various provinces and remember the different ways my co-workers suggested I prepare chaat based on where they’re from. The food of Delhi will undoubtedly change in the coming times, but its current iteration is what we widely understand as Indian food globally.
Featured Recipe: Zeera Kalonji Potatoes
Serves 4 as a side
3 tablespoons of canola oil
1.5 teaspoons whole cumin seeds (zeera)
1.5 teaspoons nigella seeds (kalonji)
1 medium onion, sliced
2 green chilies cut in rounds
1 teaspoon ginger-garlic paste (or ½ teaspoon ginger and ½ teaspoon garlic)
3 large potatoes or 6 small potatoes, cut into 4ths and then sliced thinly
½ teaspoon red chili powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup freshly chopped cilantro
In a large skillet, heat the oil and then add the whole cumin seeds and nigella seeds until they begin to sizzle and pop
Add the onions and green chilies and cook until the onions are soft and golden. Then add the ginger-garlic paste
Add the potatoes and mix it well. Then add the salt and red chilies and cook on medium-low for 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender and easily pierced with a fork. Make sure to mix every few minutes to keep anything from sticking and burning
Add the chopped cilantro and serve