New Delhi’s sophistication has grown to the point where it now not only has the slick monthly magazine First City (along the lines of Portland Monthly, only with lots of event listings) but also Time Out Delhi, now in its second year. Since the first thing I do when I visit NYC is to grab a Time Out and go through the listings, I was entertained to see that I can now do the same thing in Delhi. The Time Out is quite thin, however, and only comes out every two weeks.
Anjali and I have spent five years fantasizing about the food at certain restaurants in Delhi since our last visit, and two of our favorite restaurants have let us down upon our return. On our last trip we ate at a South Indian restaurant called Sagar nearly every day. We thought it was amazing, and only discovered it because it was in the neighborhood where we were staying with Anjali’s cousin. Now it is in all the travel guides, but we thought it was nowhere near as good as we remembered it, even though there was a line down the block to get in. (And this is a three floor restaurant!) The paneer pakoras and lachha parantha (which arent’t South Indian, but were some of our favorite dishes at the restaurant anyway) were not amazing like we remembered, but merely servicable. They still had the gunpowder hot sauce we would always order on the side, but it tasted grainy. The tomato and coconut mint chutneys were still great. We also went back to the Italian restaurant Flavors. Italian food is quite common in cosmopolitan India, and we loved this place because they made Italian food with an Indian level of spiciness, which is how I like to make my Italian food at home. Flavors, too, has now made it into the guide books, but while it was solidly enjoyable, it was not amazing. According to Anjali’s cousin Cherida, both of these places have gone downhill. Sad to report that those were our thoughts as well.
Cherida and her sister Sheena and their partners did introduce us to a great chain called Not Just Paranthas, which has the longest menu imaginable, filled with scrumptious sounding variations on the Indian flat bread, as well as a million other tasty things you can put in your mouth. I ate and ate, and then kept eating. If I could open a franchise in Portland I would be RICH! Stuffed paranthas, pocket paranthas, pizza paranthas, shredded paranthas. I took the endless menu as a souvenir. The location we went to was next to a Subway and a Domino’s. Domino’s here is a sit-down restaurant, with plenty of tables and chairs, even though they deliver as well. McDonald’s also delivers in India. They call it “McDelivery.” They have little red McDonald’s logo scooters with a storage compartment in the back that drive around delivering people’s McDonald’s orders.
When we went to Not Just Paranthas it was 11pm on a Sunday night. In Portland you would have a hard time finding a restaurant open at 11pm on a Sunday. Or any other day, for that matter. In Delhi 11pm is at least as late as you would expect a restaurant to be open. Many stay open until 1am or later, and especially on a Sunday, which is a big night to go out. Many people work a six-day work week and are too tired to go out Saturday night, so Sunday is the big dinner night. We had to wait in line to get into Not Just Paranthas (or NJP as they call it) at 11pm.
Our hosts introduced us to the world’s best lassis at a little stand in a shopping area called Lajput Nagar. They are served in tall metal cups, and you stand and swig them in front of the stand. They are so rich that there is a two-inch layer of thick, foamy cream on top that quickly found its way all over my moustache. So rich. So good.
At the Qutb Minar complex (google it) there were so many Indian tourists when we went, that I didn’t feel out of place walking around taking photos since I was surrounded by hundreds of Indians doing the same thing. We were also surrounded by busloads of schoolgirls and schoolboys in uniforms on class trips. Anjali thinks uniformed Indian schoolgirls are the cutest, so of course she asked to take some group photos. At tourist spots in India you can always expect to be approached by “guides” who want some money, and which you always ignore and walk past, but inside the complex I was approached by one of the uniformed security guards who wanted to know it I wanted a guide. This was not official, the guy either wanted to make money under the table, or would get a commission for recommending his friend. Spooky when the security is in on it.
Any place tourists need or want to be, you will encounter a million liars. They will do everything they can to misdirect you, in order to get some money off you. At the New Delhi train station (hub of the world’s largest rail system), or anywhere in the vicinity, you will be approached by one person after another who speaks English and feigns helpfulness, all trying to convince you that they are trying to lead you safely to the official government tourist office to help you get your tickets. There is an official tourist office where you don’t have to wait in the standard long lines, but they will lead you to another office in the complex which is really a travel agent’s office where you will get jacked on tickets that aren’t even always valid. All around the station are offices with huge signs saying variations on “official,” “government,” “tourist information,” all trying to look as legit as possible, and all there to separate you from your money. You have to hunt inside and upstairs at the train station before you find the real office. The sad thing is that these rip-off places couldn’t exist if they weren’t fooling at least some people and making off with their money. Outside of the train station we met a classic auto rickshaw driver who would give us a “deal” on our fare if we only did him the small favor of visiting his brother’s shop. Yeah, right, buddy! He was a well-kept Panjabi with an immaculate powder blue turban and the most striking light-colored eyes, and when we offered a high price to take us where we really wanted to go, he said, “No,” and scooted off, because he could obviously make a lot more money scamming tourists if he stayed around the tourist-clogged area near the train station. I’m sure those eyes have charmed many a naive foreign woman out of her money.
There are so many scams and scammers in India, that knowing what to expect, and having some experience with it, I find it is possible to be amused by it all. Of course some scams are quite frightening, and not at all amusing, but most scammers are pretty transparent and just want to make a few bucks. Just keep this in mind: if anyone ever approaches you in public, especially in a tourist area, and says “Hi,” or acts friendly, just keep on walking. They are just trying to separate you from your money. Or put their arm around your partner, which has also happened to us.
I went to Old Delhi with Anjali and our hosts Susan and Michael a few nights ago. It had been a long time since Anjali had been, as during our last trip, her cousins convinced us not to go there. This was my first trip to Old Delhi. Old Delhi is the old Muslim city, as opposed to New Delhi, which was constructed by the British. It has a reputation for crowds, chaos, thieves, and danger, or at least middle class Delhi-ites might have you believe. When our hosts suggested we go visit at night I was shocked as I had been led to believe that you would only want to go in the middle of the day and keep a tight grip on your valuables and watch your back the whole time. We spent hours wandering crowded, bustling, narrow, twisty lanes filled with street stands and stalls and locals, not tourists. It was a great experience. There were some beggars, but far less than in other places we have been. There were many poor people sitting in the lanes around food stalls getting free meals, as Friday night is when this happens according to the local Muslim tradition. We weren’t allowed into the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, as it was after dark, and we are not Muslim. There was a strong army presence there, and I think that it was related to a fear of reprisal for the Mumbai attacks. When there is violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists in India, there is often an eye-for-an-eye response from Hindu extremists. After seeing the outside of the mosque we went to the famous restaurant Karim’s nearby. You have to walk down an alley, and it is not clearly marked, so no matter how famous it is, I’m not sure how we ever would have found it. Their specialties are slow-cooked meat dishes, but we only do fish, so we had a good char-grilled fish, dal makhani, and amazing salted butter naan. Later on we walked to a stall with the “world’s best” jalebi, otherwise known as fried, soft, sweet pretzels dipped in thick sugar syrup, which managed to run all over my shirt and pants. Amazingly sweet sugar bomb. I couldn’t even finish mine.
I’m really glad we got a chance to see this area of the city.
We took the Metro to Old Delhi, which is Delhi’s relatively new subway system. It first opened in 2002, but it is expanding constantly, and this was our first trip on it. It is incredibly clean, shiny, and immaculate, far more immaculate than any other subway system I have seen in the world. Other than all the Indians using it, I would never think I was in Delhi if you dropped me in it. Even the shiniest buildings in Delhi are surrounded by dust and decrepitude, yet down in the Metro you are surrounded by sleek and modern and spotlessness, with no context. You have to get in an infinite line to use it, as you have to walk through a metal detector, and every bag must be searched. The poor guard that patted me down on the way back from Old Delhi got his hands covered in jalebi sugar syrup, much to his consternation. We experienced some good old crush of bodies, but it wasn’t as bad as my experience on the Mexico City subway earlier this year.