When in India, it pays to have an expert to take the guesswork out of where and what to eat and to avoid sickness.
You can avoid illness by following a few simple rules: don’t drink the water, naturally; be fanatical about hand hygiene (wash, rinse with bottled water, and then use hand sanitiser); avoid utensils and eat with your hands, as most of the locals do; and eat little and often, rather than gorging.
The street food is safe, too, if you eat only what you have watched being cooked: ignore the already-cooked delicacies that the flies have started on, and point to the latest to emerge from the ghee or the pot.
But even the canny, hungry visitor can be daunted by the prospect of choosing a place to eat, indoors or out, from the thousands on offer, and may end up settling for bland, tourist-friendly and distinctly Westernised restaurants.
A long queue is a good sign, as it is of anything, anywhere. But in Old Delhi, Anubhav Sapra takes the guesswork out of eating. He developed Delhi Food Walks from a blog he began in 2010 and now takes hundreds of people a year through different city precincts to experience the best of the street-level gastronomic culture. His enterprise is also flourishing in three other cities, Amritsar, Jaipur and Kolkata.
Given the price of a square meal in India – $3 meals are easy to find and you get something pretty fancy for $10 – his $80-a-head price tag may seem stiff. But it’s his knowledge you pay for: think of the food as a bonus.
And what food. At the cutely named Aslam Chicken Corner, they rescue the reputation of that Big Mac of Indian food, butter chicken, with juicy and ringingly fiery grilled thighs swimming in butter, which you swamp with cooling yogurt and pick up with paper-thin pieces of rumali (aptly, it means handkerchief) roti. It will ruin your neighbourhood curryhouse’s takeaways for you.
We meet Sapra in Chandni Chowk, Delhi’s busiest market area and a foodie heaven. He has come prepared with sanitiser and bottles of water and he wastes no time leading us into the crowded and labyrinthine alleys.
Most places he takes us serve one or, at most, two items: specialist perfection is rated more highly than breadth of choice. At our first stop, where they offer only dahi bhalla (fried lentil balls) and aloo tikki (deliciously spicy potato fritters with coriander chutney), the milling crowd is 10-deep, but he’s a familiar face to all the proprietors and we’re waved to the head of the line.
In a shop that opened in 1872, we are introduced to four varieties of the stuffed bread called paratha, with mint, lemon, cottage cheese and cauliflower; jalebi, a toffee sweet that resembles a spaghetti frittata, comes from a streetside kitchen where they’ve made nothing else since 1884.
Vegetarians are spoilt for choice in India (few Hindus eat meat), but in the Muslim part of Old Delhi, the carnivore’s treat is a selection of kebabs at 104-year-old Karim’s, and the evening ends on a sweet note with phirni, a rice pudding as smooth as crème brûlée, topped with pistachios and served in a clay cup that makes a fine souvenir.
Sapra sees his mission as preserving his country’s cultural history, which is expressed most vibrantly and accessibly through its food. “These places embody the spirit of Delhi and use recipes handed down through generations,” he says. They give you a glimpse of the India that can be hard for the visitor to find.
This article was first published in the June 2, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.