New Delhi's cuisine is becoming more adventurous

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010

Until recently, if young Indian professionals in New Delhi had a craving for home-cooked barbecued pork from Southern India's Coorg region or for Bengali pumpkins drizzled in coconut, they had to go to their auntie's house and cajole her into cooking up some lunch.

Not anymore. This year, a new generation of exciting regional restaurants catering to the artists, techies and college students who flock here from India's far-flung states but often find themselves nostalgic for a taste of home, is finally opening in the increasingly cosmopolitan capital.

The new culinary offerings are gentrifying home food, taking it from Indian kitchens and enshrining it in hipster cafes, a development for which my husband and I are grateful. We came to India three years ago as journalists, but we were also eager for a food journey through one of the world's oldest and most elaborate cuisines. We scoured Delhi for some of the country's culinary state secrets: black grape juice and vegetarian comfort food such as wheat dumplings with lentils from Gujarat; Goan-style chicken cafreal spiced with green masala, cinnamon and ginger; rose-flavored yogurt lassi drinks from Rajasthan; and Sikkim's warm dumplings and noodle thukpa soup served with thick Himalayan buckwheat breads.

But we quickly discovered that Northern Indians don't like to experiment with their taste buds. So in Delhi, there's lots of tandoori chicken, garlic naan breads and yellow and black lentil daal, all of which is tasty. But we knew that India had a culinary circus to offer, and we were only seeing one act.

Indian friends confirmed it. "In New Delhi, there was no interest in adventurous eating," said Vir Sanghvi, who writes a food column for the Sunday magazine of the Hindustan Times. "But as a result of the affluence of the middle class, we are seeing more exciting food options. Still it's a very new trend and there are just weak saplings in a vast forest of mediocrity."

For years, the only way to find regional cuisine in the capital was to eat at cafeteria state houses, colloquially called bhavans, which cooked up mass versions of their region's dishes -- fast, cheap and for the most part soulless. Meanwhile, the Punjabis ruled the kitchens of Delhi, which is surrounded by the state of Haryana just south of Punjab state, India's agricultural heartland. They invariably "Punjabi-ized" the food by loading dishes with chilies, curries and butter. At the same time, India's economic boom brought an explosion of five-star hotels serving ubiquitous multi-cuisine, all-you-can-eat buffets, with epic displays of Italian, Chinese, Thai and Indian foods. (These are often popular with India's extended families, which need a variety of cuisines to keep the teenager, 20-something and grandparents happy, Sanghvi said, but Indian chefs and food critics have bemoaned their focus on quantity rather than quality.)

Fortunately, Delhi's nascent regional-cuisine trend has so far escaped Punjabi-ization, partly because the new eateries are small boutique-like restaurants that wisely and stubbornly stick to the authentic tastes. At the same time, India has produced a new crop of Julia Child-like culinary historians who are trying to record and preserve provincial recipes down to the tiniest ingredient, as if observing history through the kitchen window. There has, for instance, been a flood of books that trace the historical influences on 100 versions of the rice dish known as biryani, from the lamb-filled type of the Mughal courts of decades past to the modern varieties, with prawn and curry leaves, in the chic southern beach resorts of Kerala.

"What's great is that it's no longer the government that is trying to force a sense of national integration by getting us to eat food at the drab state bhavans," said Ananya Kabir, an English professor who had just finished a hearty meal at Gunpowder, a South Indian restaurant that's one of the best of the new haunts focusing on regional food. "This is totally market-driven and for food lovers; it's one of the benefits of a new Indian economy."

Gunpowder, in Delhi's hip Hauz Khas Village, is hard to find. It's down a maze of narrow lanes filled with Bollywood poster shops, sari boutiques and handmade furniture showrooms. There's a sign about the size of a sheet of paper announcing the restaurant, which is on a balcony up three steep flights of stairs.

The vibe is relaxed and informal, like having a picnic with plastic tables and maroon tablecloths. From Gunpowder, you can see the remains of a medieval palace, ducks paddling around in a man-made reservoir and young Indian couples cuddling behind trees.

After catching our breath from the walk up, we tucked into plates of vegetable stew and barbecued pork from the Indian hill town of Coorg. The pork had been marinated overnight, and it seemed to melt in our mouths. We sopped up the gravy with Malabari paranthas, or stringy sweetbreads. There was also a fantastic sweet-and-sour pumpkin cooked in tamarind and jagger. For flavoring, there were small cups of tomato and chili chutney as well as mango chutney.

The food is all reasonably priced, especially for Delhi's pricey dining-out scene. Meals usually run less than $25 for two people, about a third of the price of a similar meal at a hotel restaurant.

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