Food personality Andrew Zimmern was recently in Delhi - to eat, eat and eat! He ate a lot, at a lot of different places - glittering dining destinations in posh New Delhi restaurants, traditional eateries in the dingy alley ways of Old Delhi, roadside stalls and confectionery and even sacred temple offerings in a Gurdwara. He tasted everything - the hot, the sweet and the tangy. With able guidance from food aficionados, Zimmern sampled cuisines from many parts of India- from soup to nut to ... tree bark. And he ate and ate and ate. (I sure hope he was packing a generous supply of Pepto-Bismol)
Zimmern has enthusiastically chronicled his experience of eating (pigging?) out in Delhi at his blog Bizarre Foods. Some excerpts:
Delhi is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world going back at least 2500 years. The ruins of 7 cities have been discovered here, and it is said that Delhi’s food is often descended from that of the mediaeval lashkars garrisoned around the forts of the capital. But today, Shahjahanabad, or Old Delhi is home to an army of office-goers and shopkeepers who trade in everything from spices to bridal trousseaux to electrical fittings. If you venture to untangle the streets that twist and turn from dark alleys into busy boulevards, you are likely to find an inevitable surprise lurking around the corner, at least that’s what my new pal Hemanshu Kumar, a college Economics professor who is also the titular head of Eating Out in Delhi, a local club always in search of the most interesting and most bizarre food in town. Today, The Professor and I went on a search for the nearly extinct and increasingly overlooked traditional foods that can only be found on a dedicated filed trip. We found spiced milk froth, tiny Nihari stands, and anything else that popped up, like fruity sandwiches that reside in a shop behind large iron gates on Chawri Bazaar Road--- made from pomegranate (anaar) or apples and paneer (Indian cottage cheese made from curdled milk) lathered in orange marmalade, then dusted with secret masala and anaar seeds all on white bread.
I am particularly pleased that Zimmern didn't depart Delhi by sampling just the customary north Indian fare of saffron rice, nan bread, creamy gravies and meat kebabs. He wisely checked out the food in a new Bengali restaurant in Delhi (a must for me next time I am there). I have said here before that Bengali cuisine, the food that was cooked in my parents' home, is a distinct cooking style dominated by fish (including sea food), rice, vegetables and a dazzling array of desserts. It is not served in most Indian restaurants. Bengalis eat meat too but consume it in lesser quantities than fish. (In our home, we ate meat every Sunday and on holidays). The food flavors are varied and subtle and the sauces lighter in body than in north Indian preparations - one size does not fit all. Along with the ubiquitous Indian spice mixes of onion, garlic, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon and clove, which are used judiciously, Bengali cooks artfully mix and match ginger roots, bay leaves, hot green chili, fresh coconuts, poppy, mustard and nigella seeds in their culinary creations. Also, alongside the more common vegetables and fruits, Bengalis are known to transform a whole host of unusual roots, leaves and even tree barks into mouthwatering dishes. In his post Zimmern mentions the delightful experience of eating bananas .... or rather, the whole banana tree, at New Delhi's fancy and gastronomically ambitious Bengali restaurant, Oh! Calcutta.
I visited with Joy Banerjee the genius chef of Oh! Calcutta--a modern, upscale Bengali restaurant in South Delhi. He is an expert in Bengali food, and something of a celebrity in India for specializing in the old family recipes of a bygone area. Bengal's culinary traditions are based on the rich selection of grains, sea food, spices (a custom blend of nigella, black mustard, fenugreek, fennel, and cumin seeds), and produce, mostly bananas. It was one of the best eating experiences of my trip. The banana is extremely popular in Bengali cuisine mostly because it is convenient. Abundant throughout Bengal/West Bengal due to the humid heat and fertile soil, every part of it the plant, from flower to trunk is edible. After watching the complex preparation of each banana specialty that includes peeling the banana tree trunk, exposing the heart of a foot long blossom, and stuffing the leaves, I feasted on Bengali dishes like sautéed tree trunks, fish bathed in mustard oil and wrapped in banana leaves and Mocher Ghonda* (sic)— the dish made with foot long banana flowers.
Editor's Note: * that should read Mochar Ghonto. Not that it matters - only a Bengali would know the difference. I should also note that although Zimmern's food / travel blog does list some rather unusual food items from different parts of the world, nothing that he partook of in Delhi qualifies as "bizarre," in my opinion. Exotic may be, for a non-Indian but not bizarre by any culinary standards.
The link to Zimmern's article was sent to me by Hemanshu Kumar, the economics prof and foodie blogger who is mentioned in the post by the author and whose own blog Eating Out in Delhi (EOID) is on our blogroll.