Eating Urban India
I love good food. Italian, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Mexican, North African, Spanish, Californian, the list goes on and on. The one commonality is flavour. I need flavour, a depth of flavours and a seamless balance of flavours, in order to elicit the emotional response I crave when exploring culinary offerings around the world.
But the cuisine I crave the most is Indian food. Yes, I grew up with it, and I always liked it, but I probably took it for granted when I was younger because my mom is such a great cook. As I got older, I appreciated the flavours and techniques more, but it wasn’t until I moved away for university that I realized how much I love the cuisine.
Of course, there is no substitute for experiencing a country’s cuisine than while you are there. I’ve travelled to India many times, but my last visits were before I was in the food and wine industry. I still like to go to the same types of restaurants, street vendors and hole-in-the-wall joints, but on a recent trip, I was interested to see how the food, wine and restaurant culture has evolved over the past seventeen years in light of India’s booming economy, enormous wealth, huge middle class, and strong ties to the western world.
Finding your way in a country of 1.2 billion people and in cities (Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi), each of whose populations is half that of Canada’s, can be overwhelming. Fortunately I still have numerous cousins, uncles, aunts and extended family members who were more than willing to lead the way. A trip to India should be on everyone’s bucket list. Here are some of the not-to-miss food experiences in three of the country’s largest cities. (I’ll explore India’s emerging wine culture in a future column.)
Mumbai is the financial and entertainment centre of India. I was a little disappointed with how the city looked (dirty and unfinished), particularly in light of the apparent development since my last visit and the enormous amount of wealth in the city. Fortunately, the food did not disappoint.
Trishna (Sai Baba Marg, in the Kala Ghoda neighbourhood) is an amazing seafood restaurant. Tandoori pomfret, butter-pepper-garlic crab, and masala prawns were all finger-licking delicious as the seafood was prepared perfectly with layers of tantalizing flavours.
Down the street from Trishna is the funky café-styled Paratha Mantra, which serves a variety of stuffed parathas (pan-fried whole-wheat flatbread). The traditional aloo (potato), gobi (cauliflower), and mooli (daikon) shared the menu with more trendy fillings such as mozzarella-olive-jalapeno, kidney beans and serano pepper, mushroom-cheese and many others. There is a wide selection of other vegetarian dishes and the place was packed with a younger crowd.
Chinese food is very popular in India. Vong Wong (Express Towers, Nariman Point) is an upscale Chinese restaurant with a selection of Thai, dim sum, Chinese and continental items. The food was very good, but it took some time to navigate the multiple menus left at the table. Ensure to dress warmly as the restaurant is kept at a temperature fit for a meat locker.
Located near the Gateway of India and the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is the elegant Indigo Restaurant (4 Mandlik Road, Colaba). Described as “modern European,” the restaurant would easily fit in any metropolitan city in the world. The menu is filled with creative dishes such as chilled leek and green apple soup, roasted beet carpaccio with caramelized pears and feta, fresh oysters on the half shell with cucumber and lime granita, cornmeal fettuccine with straw mushrooms and bok choy, Buffalo tenderloin with braised oxtail and tandoor-roasted pumpkin, and on and on. Everything sounded so delicious I had a hard time deciding, but my lamb shank was one of the best I’ve ever had.
Delhi is the diplomatic centre of India. The airport is ultra-modern and the streets are wide, although traffic is a complete nightmare (as it was in Mumbai and everywhere else in India, but Delhi seemed to take the chaos to another level).
The first stop in Delhi has to be Haldiram (many locations, but go to the Connaught Place location). Haldiram is a snack-food-and-sweets haven serving everything from papri chaat (fried disks of whole wheat dough topped with diced potatoes, chickpeas, yogurt, spices and tamarind and mint chutneys) to dosa (crepe-like, plain or stuffed with potato, onion or paneer and served with lentil soup-like sambar and coconut chutney). The pani puri (fried whole wheat disks that puff up and become hollow; fill them with potato, chickpeas, yogurt, chutney and dip in jeera [cumin] water) are a must, as are the numerous Indian sweets. You could spend days exploring Indian cuisine without leaving Haldiram.
Delhi has many great restaurants, but two really stood out. Drums of Heaven (Nilgiri Shopping Complex) may be the best Chinese food in the country with dishes such as prawn satay with peanut sauce and kaffir lime leaves and crisp lamb topped with sesame. And Bukhara (in the ITC Maurya Hotel), whose chefs have perfected the art of marinating and cooking in a tandoor, kill it with their succulent kebabs, leg of lamb and black lentils.
If Mumbai is the financial and entertainment centre and Delhi is the diplomatic centre, then Kolkata is the heart of India. The city seems to have changed little since I last visited it in 1976, but I mean that in the best possible way. Yes, the city is run down (landing at the airport brought to mind the Seinfeld episode with George’s reluctance to use the loo), it is dirty and smelly with an abundance of stray dogs, homelessness is all too evident, and it is representative of almost every stereotype used to describe the issues facing the country. But the people of Kolkata are the warmest, most hospitable and sincere people you could meet and the food is heart-warming.
The Astor Hotel is great for kebabs and late-night dancing at its Plush nightclub. Flavours of China Bar-B-Q Restaurant (Park Street) serves delicious Chinese food and Kewpie’s (Elgin Lane) serves incredible Bengali dishes such as shrimp in coconut, fish in mustard sauce cooked in banana leaf, stewed mutton, eggplant in yellow curry, and lentils. But a visit to “Cal” is not complete without going for Nizam rolls and dinner at Sanjha Chulha Dhaba (Bypass).
Going to Nizam’s is the ultimate hole-in-the-wall street eating experience. Standing outside the takeout window in the littered side street, with the stray dogs hoping for any scraps that may hit the ground (because there are no garbage cans in sight), and with the fan venting grease on to the waiting customers is not for the precious. But these pan-fried flatbreads rolled with a variety of fillings are so good, they will make the surroundings more than worth it (the surroundings actually add to the experience). Egg and double chicken roll … amazing; potato and egg roll … amazing; paneer and potato with extra serano chilli … amazing. They are all amazing, and the place is timeless. The best food you will have for less than $2.
The only place that comes close to Nizam’s is Sanjha Chulha Dhaba. A dhaba is a casual roadside eatery, but Sanjha Chulha’s flavours take this food to another level. This is real food … simple, delicious, and unpretentious. Fish and chicken kebabs are so tender they melt in your mouth, pudina paneer (homemade ricotta cheese with mint) is divine as are the yellow lentils, mutton biryani, and assortment of rotis, naans, and parathas. Dinner at Sanjha Chulha’s at a table with twenty of my relatives — young and old, everyone laughing, yelling across the room and raving about the food — will always rank as one of my best meals ever.