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Delhi: India’s capital of flavour

Delhi: India’s capital of flavour

by Great British Chefs 05 November 2018

Home to the country’s best street food, India’s capital city is a bustling metropolis that’s known for its eclectic culinary offering. Discover its most iconic dishes and how the communities that call the city home have shaped its cuisine.

It’s hard to get your head around just how big Delhi is. Home to nearly 20 million people in both the city and its surrounding territory, it has acted as a capital city for most of its history (which dates back to at least the sixth century BC). Today, it’s a thriving, multicultural hub with a slightly more international feel than the rest of India – something that’s reflected in its worldly cuisine (the sheer number of Tibetan momo dumpling stalls is testament to that).

To understand Delhi’s food scene, however, you have to look at the city’s lengthy history. Originally Hindu, it was conquered by Muslim invaders in the early thirteenth century and then again by the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century. It then fell under British rule in the late nineteenth century, before finally winning independence in 1947 along with the rest of the country.

The Mughals had the most profound influence on the food of Delhi (and indeed most of north India). They brought their own dishes and cooking techniques with them, making meat a much more prominent part of the local diet along with richer, more indulgent ingredients such as ghee and saffron. Delhi’s multicultural, eclectic cuisine came much later, however, when India and Pakistan were separated into two countries in 1947. This resulted in a huge influx of refugees from across the Indian subcontinent arriving at the city, as well as a whole host of new flavours and ingredients.

All these external influences have come together to create a unique cuisine in Delhi. Street food is hugely popular amongst the busy and constantly on-the-move locals, while rich dishes originating from Mughal rule and flavours from all over the world can be found in its many restaurants. Read on for a better idea of what’s on offer in this incredible city.

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The city of Delhi is a busy, bustling place that at times can feel chaotic – but that's all part of its charm
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The area's rich and long history means it's home to some of the world's most famous buildings, including the UNESCO-protected Red Fort

Spices and aromatics

Because it is a vast urban space, you won’t find the picturesque spice gardens of Kerala or serene leafy herb plantations in Delhi. Instead, it’s the busy markets of the city that foodies go to when on the hunt for spices. The biggest is Khari Baoli, a street lined with stalls selling every kind of Indian spice, herb and dry ingredient you could think of.

There aren’t necessarily any spices or aromatics specifically linked to Delhi, as it’s a place where you can get a bit of everything, but as a north Indian city expect to taste lots of dishes flavoured with garam masala and cumin, curries soured with amchur (dried mango powder) and aromatics such as fenugreek and coriander leaves. As a general rule, the food found in northern India and Delhi is deeper, earthier and more savoury than the lighter, fresher flavours associated with the south. Saying that, there are plenty of restaurants serving southern Indian dishes across the capital, so there’s plenty of variety to be had.

Vegetables, grains and breads

By far one of the best ways to experience the different flavours and dishes that have made Delhi a world-class culinary destination is to eat from the many street food stalls found throughout Old Delhi. Many of the most popular dishes are vegetarian, making the most of pulses, paneer cheese and fresh vegetables. Chaat – which simply means ‘savoury snack’ – is arguably the most popular, comprised of various foods topped with a variety of sauces, chutneys, herbs and a chaat masala spice blend served in a small bowl. Chaat isn't always vegetable-based, but many of the most popular varieties include some form of deep-fried dough and/or potatoes. There’s also gol gappa (known as panipuri in other parts of the country), a plate of thin crisp shells made from deep-fried bread which are then filled with a combination of potatoes, chickpeas, tamarind chutney and a thin flavourful sauce.

Northern India is known for its breads, and Delhi is where you'll find incredible examples of paratha, a fried flatbread originally from Punjab full of light, airy layers thanks to the way it’s made (similar to the lamination technique for puff pastry). Paratha are often served plain alongside a meal, but they’re also a popular street food when stuffed. The most common fillings are spiced mashed potatoes, lentils or curried vegetables. Paranthe Wali Gali (‘the alley that serves parathas’) is a famous street in Delhi packed with food vendors that are particularly famous for their parathas.

Fish and seafood

Being in north India means the coastline is a long, long way away from Delhi, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never come across a fish or seafood dish in the city. The large Punjabi population means there are plenty of restaurants catering to their love for fish, and being such a multicultural city means there’s a large demand for international seafood dishes – most notably Britain’s own fish and chips!

While saltwater species of fish and shellfish are shipped into the city from India’s coastline, freshwater fish from India’s many rivers are caught and cooked too. Carp, tor tor and tilapia are just as popular as cod. Fish tikka – a simple dish of spice-marinated fish cooked in a tandoor – is a common sight on restaurant menus, as are various Kerala-style fish ‘frys’, which see whole fish or cuts of larger species dusted in spices, coated in batter and fried quickly at high temperatures until crisp.

Meat

When the Mughal Empire reached its zenith in the seventeenth century, the emperor Shah Jahan made what is now known as Old Delhi its capital. All of northern India’s food has been heavily influenced by the Mughals, and their love of luxurious, aromatic meat dishes rich with ghee is still prevalent throughout the region today. And while Lucknow might be the home of Awadhi cuisine (famously influenced by Mughal cooking techniques), Delhi is where you’ll find some incredible chicken and lamb dishes with Mughal roots.

While chaat dishes are commonplace on the street food stands of the city, the most enchanting aromas and sounds come from the stalls selling kebabs. Seekh kebabs are popular, as are shami kebabs – a patty of minced meat (originally beef but often mutton in Delhi) and chickpeas that’s heavily spiced and fried.

Away from the streets you’ll find plenty of restaurants serving Mughal dishes such as biryanis, creamy pasandas flavoured with almonds, silky kormas and mussallam, which sees a whole chicken pot-roasted in a creamy tomato sauce (the Mughals were big fans of creamy, luxurious dishes, as you can probably tell!). Many of these dishes are found across northern India and Pakistan, but some of the best examples can be found in the restaurant kitchens of Delhi.

A more modern dish from Delhi that people in the West are very familiar with is butter chicken (known as murgh makhani in India). In the 1950s a Punjab chef called Kundan Lal Gurjal moved to Delhi and opened a restaurant in the city called Moti Mahal, specialising in meats cooked in a tandoor. The dish was apparently invented after the chef made a sauce from a leftover spiced yoghurt marinade, butter and tomatoes, which he then used to stew and add moisture to the grilled pieces of chicken. The result was an instant hit, with word spreading throughout Delhi and eventually the rest of the world until it became one of the most iconic Indian dishes in history. Another dish made famous by Moti Mahal is dal makhani – a rich dal of black lentils and kidney beans.

Desserts

There are countless bakeries and sweet shops all over Delhi, serving both traditional Indian delicacies and dishes from elsewhere in the world. Everything from cupcakes and cheesecakes to chocolates and patisserie can be found in the capital, but for something more authentic and Indian, keep an eye out for jalebi. Thought to have been introduced to India in the fifteenth century by Turkic invaders, the dish sees long strands of batter deep-fried in ghee until crisp before being soaked in a rich, sticky, bright orange syrup (which is sometimes flavoured with saffron). A similar dish is gulab jamun, which consists of small dumplings made from milk solids soaked in a cardamom or rosewater syrup. There’s also kulfi – India’s answer to ice cream – as well as fresh fruit salads (known as fruit chaat) dressed in a sauce flavoured with spices and sugar.

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