You can probably tell without any caption that this photo was taken in India, in Old Delhi‘s Khari Baoli spice market. The combination of bright colors and southeast Asian architecture is uniquely Indian, just hinting at the history and bustle contained within the walls, as the market is the largest in Asia and has been in operation since the 17th century. Flickr user The Delhi Way gives us a “taste” of what’s inside, even without showing any food or spices, and beautifully frames the scene.
India is the seventh largest country by geographical area and with a population of 1.18 billion people, it’s the second most populous nation in the world. With such an immense concentration of people, unique languages, and religious practice, India has a well known reputation for being a little chaotic at times.
I love this photo for the symbolic dichotomy of chaos; masses of people on the streets and a frightening tangle of wire strung up in between crowded buildings. It’s almost as if the wires are delicately holding the buildings together as the crowd bustles, unaware. The photo was captured by Flickr user Trent Strohm in the crowded lanes of Old Delhi.
Location: Delhi, the city with a history that dates back to 1650 A.D. This is where the Mughal Empire once reigned supreme leaving stunning buildings in its wake, and the British tried to recreate into an organized place of roundabouts and more stunning buildings. Common to every part of the city is the sacred cow that wanders throughout. Food truths: milk crosses cultural boundaries, and there’s nothing quite like a perfect masala.
Episode Rating: 4 Sheep Testicles (out of 4) using Aaron’s system, but trade sheep for goat.
Summary: Oh, rapture! Joy! I thought I missed food in Taiwan until I saw Andrew Zimmern eat his way through Delhi. With the abundance of food options and places to eat, Zimmern and his crew did an admirable job honing in on highlights of the gastronomic variety. If one thinks that Indian food is nothing but yellow curry powder, this episode dispelled that. Another dispelled myth is Delhi belly. I never had it in two years that I recall. If I had it, I’d remember.
First stop, Chandni Chowk market in Old Delhi. This teeming place is as chaotic as it looks on TV.
“Every nook and cranny of this town has someone who is making a tasty treat,” declared Zimmern, who made an impromptu stop by a pan sizzling with fried potatoes. “Anytime I see fried potatoes, I eat them. I’m from Minnesota,” he said, then moaned through his bites, “These are good; these are so good.”
Here’s some other Old Delhi eating pleasures that Zimmern savored: Daulat ki Chatt, a sweet milk dish made from the froth; Nihari, a “hearty and spicy” stew made with buffalo thighs and beef brains that simmers for 5 to 6 hours; a fruit sandwich made with cottage cheese, apple slices, pomegranate seeds that is “delicious,” but hard to eat because the ingredients fall out; and a masala lamb stew that “smells almost chocolaty.”
This segment pointed out is that you can eat street food without getting sick if you’re picky and careful. Zimmern turned away a potato-chickpea dish that was garnished with tamarind tap water. I second the stay away from the tap water advice.
When visiting Old Delhi, a guide can take you to the best eating spots, like Zimmern’s did, and point out the details of the architecture and cultural highlights while helping you navigate the packed windy streets. I recommend it.
To get to the food without the wandering, stop at El Jawarhar Restaurant at the entrance of Chandi Chowk It’s across the street from the largest mosque in Delhi. Zimmern loved everything about this place, and went into great detail about how Muslim food preparation practices, called halal, helps ensure that the meat is fresh and clean. Food descriptors he used: “rich and creamy,” delicious,” “bright hot,”and “that sauce is out of this world.” The lamb scrotum, though, needed “to be cooked a whole lot more to be edible.”
I’ve eaten at El Jawarhar, and found it as good as Zimmern gushed. There are plenty of food choices without the odd ball ingredients–literally.
Next stop New Delhi, the part of Delhi designed by the British. Bukhara, Zimmern’s first eating pleasure highlight, is considered one of the best restaurants in Asia and is popular with the in-crowd–like famous people. Anyone can eat here, though. I did. The food is as superb as Zimmern said, but I have to say, it’s not as expensive as he alluded to. One of the great things about India is you can eat the very best food without spending outlandish prices. Maybe the prices were outlandish and I have amnesia.
Besides eating the glorious food, you can watch the chefs cook it. There’s a large plate glass window in one wall. My dad, who was visiting us, and is as much as a food buff as Zimmern is, went back to the kitchen for a chat. We ate exactly what Zimmern did, plus a couple other dishes. The dal is fantastic and the chicken is the “melt in your mouth” version like Zimmern said. The chef’s explanation of how eating with your hands helps add to the sensory experience of eating food is exactly right.
Besides trotting to restaurants, Zimmern headed to private homes. One he got to on the back of milk vendor’s motorcycle. Here I found out that Zimmern and I have something in common. We both are wild about Saag Paneer. This is a spinach dish with cottage cheese-like cubes. He drank lassi, my daughter’s favorite. It’s a yogurt milk drink blend that comes in a variety of flavors. Zimmern’s was laced with cardamon, rose syrup and pomegranate.
At a Kashmiri fashion designer’s house, Zimmern he had a 32-course meal called a Wazwan, a traditional Kashmiri feast where lamb is the meat of choice and it’s accompanied by a dizzying array of dishes, all served one at a time. Pacing is the key, Zimmern said. “Now, I’m starting to burp. The level of food is rising in me.” This was at 1 a.m. By the end, he was stretched out, leaning against the wall, his hands on his stomach.
He also went to Oh! Calcutta, a modern upscale place where he learned about the various ways bananas are prepared, including the flowers and stems. People I know went here and loved it, I never did since we had our own favorites. If ‘m ever in Delhi again, I’m heading here.
The last stop was the Sikh temple, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib where anyone and everyone can come for a free meal. Zimmern, with a Sikh turban on his head helped make chapatis and stirred dal for the masses. Zimmern marveled how it felt to be in “a sea of humanity but feel close to everyone in the room.” I was one of the masses once and vouch that the food is simple and good.
As Zimmern said of Indian cuisine, it’s a mix of flavors and cooking techniques based on religion and the region of the country the food is from. In Delhi, you really can get it all.
When I was browsing You Tube videos looking for what caught my attention, I came across the trailer for Milk and Opium. This clip captures the mood of a young male musician leaving a small village in India and traveling to the big city looking for success. That story alone interests me. The real reason this video caught my attention, however, is I know the back story about the director. Four years ago, Joel Palombo did a 10 minute conceptual art film, “Ranger Puja,” where a procession of people led by a tuba player carried a huge, and I mean huge, plywood cutout billboard style head and torso of The Lone Ranger to the Yamuna River in Old Delhi, India and floated it as an offering of sorts. The floating of the Lone Ranger was accompanied with floating candles in a Hindu style ritual until the Lone Ranger sank.
Early that morning, I stood on the bridge over the river taking pictures. This was an odd, wonderful kind of experience caused by a person using the arts to infuse two cultures in an unusual way in order to make a statement about spirituality and pop culture. The film’s message is left to the viewer’s interpretation. While Joel was figuring out how to get the Lone Ranger in and out of the water (after it sunk), people were fishing, washing clothes, collecting trash, etc. like they normally do every morning at the banks of this holy river, pollution aside.
Palombo, an American, has taught art at the American School in New Delhi for years and knows India well. Milk and Opium was a film he made while he was on sabbatical. For an interesting read, check out the link labeled “Product” of the Milk and Opium Web Site. Here, Joel explains how the film was made
Since then, it’s been on the international film festival circuit earning awards. He earned the Best New Director Award at the Brooklyn Film Festival in 2006. There have been other awards as well. In April it was at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. Just last weekend Milk and Opium was featured at the Monaco Music Festival. After coming across the trailer, I emailed Joel to ask him about upcoming showings. He said there are some in the future, he’ll let me know. Soon you’ll be able to order Milk and Opium from the website. I’d keep an eye out for more films from Joel. I’d say he isn’t done yet.
For those of you travelers out there, maybe you’ll come across something that appeals to your creative eye. Go for it.