Going home

I know it’s a cliché, but it seems like only yesterday that I came to live in Delhi.

I will miss my work colleagues who have been very kind to me. I will miss the historical sites of the capital, that I have come to know so well. I will miss the food. I won’t regret leaving behind the heat of summer in the city.

I do stand out like a sore thumb, being the only white male in the village. Doubtless, more locals recognise me than vice versa. Over the past year, I have become acquainted with some of the inhabitants of our part of Shalimar Bagh. I am the fruit and vegetable buyer for the team, so the vendors of the Monday evening street market know my face and what I tend to buy (not bitter gourd). I get preferential service but not local prices, though.

My fellow swimmers at the Municipal Swimming Pool know me well enough to have a chat with me between lengths or while we are waiting at the poolside. I won’t miss the dirty, used Band Aid / Elastoplast which has been on the side of the pool at the deep end for the past eight weeks.

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Swimming class. Sit on the side of the pool and kick your legs, arms extended. Get splashed by the teacher if you are slacking.

Early each morning, I walk down the Gyan Shakti Mandir Marg, the dual carriageway outside our apartment. The instructor of the Hunny Driving School always gives me a wave from the passenger seat as his learner driver pootles slowly past. The men washing parked cars acknowledge my greeting with a nod and a smile, as they slosh murky water over dented vehicles. One of them respectfully calls me “doctor sahib”. A night guard salutes me and smiles every time I walk past.

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A cycle rickshaw peddler (or should that be pedaller?) sleeps on the pavement beside his bike. Earlier in the year, when it was colder and the sunrise was later, I would pass him while he was still asleep. Now, he is wide awake, doing his ablutions al fresco, or cleaning his rickshaw. There was rain last night, with rolling thunder and intermittent lightning flashes, so I suppose he didn’t get much sleep.

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By the jhuggi, I used to see the same school children, smartly turned out in clothes that are often too big for them (especially their shoes). They would have been waiting for the school bus. But it is the summer vacation, so public schools are closed and the children are already playing cricket in the school yard. The school bus drivers and conductors know me too, but they are gone now.

Bill Bryson in his book, “Notes from a Small Island”, writes about becoming acknowledged by the villagers in Malhamdale, Yorkshire. When the locals have accepted you, they greet you with a tiny finger wave, extending their index finger from the steering wheel of their car as they drive past you. It meant a lot to him and it means a lot to me when the men sitting on their cycle carts put their hands together in Namaste greeting to me, as they wait for customers to come their way.

I am amazed by the sweepers who clear up the massive pile of rubbish in the street, wearing flip flops and one who has a pink shirt uniform. How do they tolerate the stench? They scrape up the stinking mess into piles which they load onto three wheeler cycle carts. I have no idea where they dump the refuse, but I suspect it is Bhalswa Trash Mountain.

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This is Jahangir Puri, not Shalimar Bagh.

I am on “nodding terms” with the old Sikh man with a flowing white beard, who sits on a bench by the chaiwallah, sipping his tea. The gurdwara is close by with its free clinic. I’d stop for a cuppa, but although I enjoy the spicy masala, it is usually much too sweet for me.

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Pug owner feeding cows on the central reservation

I am beginning to know the animals on the street, too. The cows often have a rag tied around their neck for identification and ownership. It reminds me of nondescript black suitcases with a red swatch tied to their handles as they circle the carousel at the airport.

Some cows have small bells, others have a cord tied around their tails. One has a necklace with green stones. I know some by the deformed shape of their horns.

I know some dogs, too. There are pets being brought out to do their business by their owners and others which are streetwise and feral. Twice during the past year I have seen a bitch with puppies, and it has been satisfying watching them grow up, forming a pack.

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The barrow boys are selling whatever fruit is available. They call me over to taste and try. Now it is mango season, lychees are just appearing and bigger peaches compete for space on their carts. Ridiculously, red apples from Washington State are cheaper than apples from India. Coconuts are always on sale for drinking and puja. I usually have a chat with the sellers as I walk past, looking to see what’s worth buying. I might also make polite conversation with other customers who have completed their morning constitutional walk around the park. I nod, but don’t engage with Delhi Policemen who man a portable roadblock and never seem to stop anyone.

The barbers start work at 7am, so I see them when I am walking back from the pool. They are always trying to entice me to have a trim and a shave. Or even a henna colour. Perhaps before I leave…

Blind Tasting

Yesterday, a colleague took me to a restaurant called “Ctaste”, run by blind and visually impaired people in Amsterdam. A recipe for disaster? Not at all. The strapline for Ctaste is “hear, feel, smell, talk, listen, imagine, experience, enjoy”. Diners eat a “surprise meal” completely in the dark.

Before eating, we went on a virtual tour of a set of Amsterdam, experiencing it as blind people. Our guide, Walter, gave us our white canes and took us through a series of rooms which were pitch black. We went over a bridge, up some steps, through a maze of bicycles by a fruit and veg market, into a pub where we had a drink (fizzy orange, of course – it’s Holland), across a park and onto a train.

It was tricky making our way over cobbles, uneven ground, feeling for clues as to where we were and if we were safe. Space seemed to shrink around our bodies, we could only know what we could sense. It was fascinating to experience how our other senses tried to take over from loss of vision. Hearing becomes more acute and important, but in the noisy pub, the loud pop music detracted and distracted me from appreciating the surroundings. The noise was too much. And when I played the slot machine and pub games, I was no “Pin Ball Wizard”.

If you are blind and you get onto a train, how do you know where there is an empty seat? Most people avoid taking action and don’t speak up, telling the person where they can sit. I did get lost, however, and Walter had to take my arm and lead me back on the path. I took some photographs, but they all turned out black.

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I was apprehensive about the meal. I thought that food tastes better when it is visually appealing – look at all the gastro-porn on FaceBook. Werner, our waiter, collected us from the bar and led us through three blackout curtains into the dining room, hands on the shoulder of the person in front, like gas victims in World War 1. The blind leading the blind, in this case.

He showed us to our table and we explored our environment. Cutlery and a napkin, no condiments. He brought us a glass of water and an appetiser/amuse bouche. Tasting had become hard work. All my attention was on the food, touching it with the spoon in the small dish, smelling it, feeling the texture inside my mouth, hunting for clues. It was stirring my memory as well as my taste buds. The sensation of eating certain food made me think, “I know this, it reminds me of something, perhaps when I first ate it as a child.” I gave up on cutlery and used my fingers to feel all the food on the plate, which did improve my detection rate.

We spoke to each other as we ate, describing our experience. Any additional help was a bonus for identifying the food. In doing so, we appreciated it more.

I didn’t identify the smoked chicken breast in the salad, but I got the cream cheese (easy) with cucumber, tomatoes, onion and chives. This was real processed food – I had to process all the information I could garner about the dish in order to work out what I was eating. Needless to say, it was delicious and this process did not detract from the taste.

First course had a Chinese theme. Chicken with ginger sauce and marinated prawns covered in raita, served on a bed of shredded romaine lettuce, white cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, pak choi, baby sweet corn and mangetout.

You have to be aware that the mouthful you have just eaten might not be the same as the mouthful you are about to eat. Our brains assume we are eating more of the same, but wait a minute, that tasted like prawn, not like the chicken in the previous bite. You eat some white cabbage, identifying it easily. You are expecting cabbage, but you get pak choi. And then you get lettuce. Your brain is processing the information, taste, texture, context, smell. The oriental dressing coats everything like an invisibility cloak, hiding some of the finer features of the food.

The main course featured two types of meat, steak with orange chicory sauce and slow cooked pork shoulder with tarragon sauce. The vegetable was a herby ratatouille, and the fresh pasta with home made pesto provided the starch. Then I found a slice of tomato quiche with mozzarella.

This was getting to be exhausting. I was tired after the flight from Delhi, during which I was called upon to treat a sick passenger. It was way past my bedtime. But there was a appetiser of strawberry mousse to cleanse our palates then dessert. Apple strudel, caramel mousse, pineapple, poached pear, orange & chili pepper sorbet and yoghurt fig ice cream, all sprinkled with explosion sugar – that popped off in our mouths as we ate. (Unfortunately, the caramel sea-salt brownies were finished, so I will have to wait to taste Mark’s when I get home.)

How many flavours can you pack into a meal? I reckon we identified about half of the food that we ate, but we enjoyed it all.

There is an option to have wine with every course, and this is what fuelled the raucous din coming from a table of ladies-of-a-certain-age behind me. Their laughter was an unwelcome distraction from the food, but part of the experience. I would highly recommend this place if you are in Amsterdam – Amsteldijk 55, 1074 HX Amsterdam, email info@ctaste.nl telephone +31 (0)206752831.

 

Paratha for breakfast

Street food is one of my guilty passions. I passed a young lad working on his food cart in Khanna Market. He worked the prepared wheat flour dough into a saucer shape, then pressed in some spicy cooked potato, sealed it up and rolled it out to the size of a side plate. He flapped it from side to side in his hands and slapped it onto a hot plate with a drizzle of ghee. When the thick pancake was cooked, he wrapped it in newspaper and gave me a small cardboard fluted dish full of chick pea curry. I helped myself to spicy chutney hanging in a plastic bag. It was too hot to eat immediately. For an additional 10 pence I got a glass of cold salt lassi. Delicious.

There is a dessert version of parathas – served with jaggery (palm sugar).  In Mumbai, you can get parathas topped with Nutella instead. Momos, the Indian version of dim sum, usually have savoury fillings, but there is a version filled with melted chocolate instead.

I need to try more modern Indian fusion food. The Hindustan Times Sunday Magazine, “Brunch”, has a feature on new versions of traditional dishes.

Savoury dishes are easy targets for fusion food. Butter chicken is delicious (especially at Anmol Chicken, opposite the Jama Masjid in Urdu Bazar Road) but very rich, so combining it with pasta, such as penne, would be a great combination.

How about Maggi noodles as a topping for pizza? “You can’t go wrong with these two dishes,” says blogger Neeru Singh. I beg to differ.

Gulab jamun are those brown golf ball sized sweets, swimming in sugar syrup. But why not add them to a cheese cake? Dahi Bhalla consists of fried vedas (small dumplings made with ground dhal), curd, chutney, pomegranate seeds, potato cubes, chilli powder. A chef in Gurugram must have been watching Heston Blumenthal because he has turned this into an ice cream.

I remember being introduced to classical Indian food 40 years ago by the cookbooks of Mahdur Jaffrey.  You don’t know who she is? For Daily Telegraph readers, “Madhur Jaffrey is to curry what Delia is to a Sunday roast.” But I wonder what she would make of this bastardised fusion food?

I prefer traditional food – dahi papdi – made with crunchy namkeen. Here it is being served in Chandni Chowk at the weekend. The cart contains all the necessary ingredients, thinly sliced boiled potato, green mango, vedas, spicy lemon water, curd, spices, chutney (what have I left out?). Add vedas to water to soak for a minute, squeeze them out and crush, add mango, potato, curd, spicy gravy, thick papadums…glorious. Creamy, piquant, spicy, salty, sour, sweet, with the contrast in texture from crunchy sev to soppy vedas.

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Japani Samosa Wale

IMG_1800Tucked away in the labyrinth of stalls of Old Lajpat Rai Market in Chandni Chowk is Manohar Dhaba. Umesh Ji, the owner, has the best street food I have eaten in Old Delhi. And I have eaten a lot of street food; I have had the intestinal infections to prove it.

The house speciality is Japani Samosa. It is like a normal samosa made with filo pastry. This flares out, presumably like the rays of the rising sun on the Japanese flag. To accompany the samosa, Umesh serves a chick pea curry and a sweet yellow chutney. I like to snap off a crispy layer of thin pastry and use it as a scoop to eat the curry. This leaves the filling in the centre to savour separately. (I am obsessional about my favourite foods – there is only one way to eat a Walnut Whip.)IMG_1798

I complimented Umesh on how delicious the samosas were. He told me that his grandfather started the restaurant in Lahore in 1920s. Following partition, the family moved to Delhi and set up shop here 68 years ago, opposite the entrance to the iconic Moti Cinema. He even showed me an screenshot on his smart phone of a newspaper article in Japan, featuring his restaurant.IMG_1815

He insisted that I try some of the other dishes on the menu. The spinach curry was excellent, best I’ve ever had. The naan bread was crisp and fresh, great for mopping up rajma, a spicy thick soup made with kidney beans. I was too full to try the chole with bhature or puri, but I had a taste.IMG_1811

Just after I paid, he beckoned a waiter to give me a dessert – gulab jamun, probably up there in my top five Indian sweets. Absolutely delicious.IMG_1810

If you want to try authentic Punjabi/Delhi street food cooked by a culinary genius, visit the shop on Diwan Hall Road. You won’t regret it.IMG_1808

 

Street Market Scenes in Ardash Nagar

The wholesale fruit and vegetable market across the road from our clinic is the biggest in Asia. Trucks crammed full of produce unload in the open warehouses. The distributors   divide up the produce into barrow loads for distribution across the city at formal and informal markets. There is an informal market along the side of the Grand Trunk Road. I took a stroll with my camera one Saturday morning to take some pictures.

Virtually everyone was happy about having their photograph taken. Very few people made it clear that they weren’t interested. I smiled, wished them well and moved on. Some boys became very excitable and fought each other to be in the photograph. Older lads were more insistent that I take their pictures in gangsta poses.

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Many wanted to see their pictures on the back of my camera. Now it is so easy to send photographs via social media, WhatsApp or messenger, all they need to have is my phone number to download a copy of a picture on their smart phone.

Rabri Faluda I’m in love

In Chawri Bazar this afternoon I came across a food vendor with a queue of locals pestering him for attention. He was selling rabri faluda, a thick, creamy dessert with a basis of vermicelli made with corn starch (faluda seva). You need soaked sabja seeds (sweet basil), rose syrup, ice and cold milk. He added a dribble of strawberry syrup (what we used to call “monkeys’ blood” when I was a child), mashed it up with a spoon and added more crushed ice. It was heavenly, just what I needed on a hot, close day in the stifling streets of Old Delhi.

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You can look at a YouTube video of it being made at Giani di Hatti by clicking here.

 

Milk-o

India is the world’s biggest producer of milk. The USA produces more cow’s milk, but when you consider cow and buffalo milk production, India leads the way. Buffalo milk contains more fat and milk solids, so it looks whiter and is slightly more viscous.

My father was a milk deliveryman for most of his working life. Before I was born, he delivered milk from a horse and cart, doling out pints from churns. Milk became safer to drink with the introduction of tuberculosis testing of dairy herds and pasteurisation. My father used to deliver bottles of fresh milk to the doorsteps every morning (twice on Christmas eve).

I thought these yellow metal carts, decorated with a cow, were used to deliver milk from their steel containers. I never bothered to look inside the containers, until one morning I was walking to get milk from our local “Mother Dairy” outlet, and I poked my nose inside this cart parked by the temple. The cans contained waste material, discarded food and vegetable peelings. I realised that this was a charitable scheme where people donated food for cows. This is much better than scattering stale food on the roadside or leaving plastic bags of waste by the pavement.

However, there is a delivery of raw cow’s milk, not processed or “toned” like the shop-bought milk, twice daily from a young man on a motorbike in our street. His milk tastes fatty and coats the inside of your mouth. My flatmates prefer “Mother Dairy” processed milk, containing a homogenised mixture of buffalo and cow milk, because it tastes better in tea and coffee.

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Jashn-e-Rekhta

Recently, at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, there was a three-day extravaganza rejoicing in the “spirit and eloquence, the beauty and versatility of Urdu”. The festival celebrated everything Urdu – art, poetry, drama, music, cinema and literature.

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The ancient name for Urdu is Rekhta (which means scattered and mixed). Most people who speak Hindi can understand Urdu, as it is based on Sanskrit, with Arabic and Persian cultural influences. Hindi is written in a different script, Devanagari, whereas Urdu is written (right to left) in Nasta’liq. It is a delightful language on the ear; some say that even if you are arguing with someone, it sounds like you are complimenting them. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word, but it sounded charming.

I was only able to attend on Saturday afternoon, so I picked a musical event called Hum Bulbulein Hain Iski: Songs of the Progressives starting at 3:30pm. That gave me plenty of time to have lunch at the Food Court and to meander around the other events in the gardens.

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There was a wonderful variety of food available. Although I have enjoyed hot, fruity, spiced milk in the past, I decided it was too hot (29C) to drink it. I had a special pista kulfi ice-cream on a stick instead. The tandoori chicken looked tempting, especially as the birds are all free-range and much tastier than UK supermarket fare.

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I was also interested in the breaded cutlets, the mutton mince, “blue biryani”, stuffed parathas and bhel puri.

But I chose to have brain cutlets (Parsi style). Goat brains, lightly chopped, spiced with chilli, coriander leaves, ginger, turmeric, peppercorns and garlic, made into patties, dipped in beaten egg, rolled in semolina flour, then fried in ghee until golden brown. Absolutely delicious.

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Many of the trees had bells and packages hanging from their lower branches. I understand that people ask God for something, tie a gift onto a tree, and when their wish is granted, they take down the gift. There’s probably nothing perishable in the package. Hindus ring bells in temples to alert God to their presence, but almost all Urdu speakers are Muslim. Life is complicated in India, I get confused in my dotage.

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This gentleman looks very smart in his maroon Nehru jacket with matching turban

I managed to get a good seat in the shade to listen to Danish Hussain, the Bollywood film star of Dhobi Ghat and, more recently, Alif, telling amusing stories on stage. The audience really appreciated it and even though I couldn’t understand it, his delivery, diction and timing were excellent. He had them eating out of his hand.

Vidya Shah is a famous singer, writer and social activist in the area of agricultural workers’ rights and making family planning more accessible. In my medical work I have come across two of the agencies with which she is associated, the “Naz Foundation” and “Breakthrough”. A trio of musicians (tabla, harmonium and sarod) accompanied her classical singing.

Afterwards, I felt a bit peckish, so I sneaked back to the food court for some dessert – my favourite Daulat-ki-Chaat, of course. But I should have known better. It is always best enjoyed in the cool of the morning, after the dew has settled on its surface, helping it to firm up. My serving was rather flabby.

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Palate Fest 2017

Over the weekend, dozens of fancy restaurants in Delhi set out their stalls at this annual festival in Nehru Park. I was impressed with the variety and quality of the food. It was rather pricey compared to my local South Indian restaurant, where I can get a masala dosa with all the trimmings for 65 pence. This is a tenth of the price of some of the dishes from top quality, fashionable establishments at the Fest.

I was tempted by the genuine Japanese sushi/sashimi, which looked fresh and interesting. The Persian cuisine was even more exciting, with some great ingredients.

There were a few Mexican restaurants, such as Twisted Tacos, and a Turkish place, which weren’t doing a roaring trade when I passed by. But the dried fruit stall was busy.

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The children were enjoying the pirate-themed “Captain Grub”, serving burgers and fries. I liked the Punjabi fast food outlet called “Burger Singh”.

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Lots of shops selling gateaux, cup cakes, brownies, buns, banana bread and exotic desserts. I was assured that all the bits on this multi-tiered wonder were edible. Elsewhere, I have heard that the bottom bits are made of polystyrene, decorated with cream. This was the genuine article.

The Ethiopian restaurant didn’t seem to be selling much injeera, but I saw several people drinking their excellent coffee. The best stall selling Indian tea gave me a tasting of each of their speciality brews. They asked me if high quality tea would have a market in UK, so I talked to them about Waitrose. I am a bit of a philistine when it comes to tea; I prefer builders’.

Chai wallahs make Murabba, a concoction prepared by mixing water, milk, tea leaves, sugar, ginger and cardamom . This isn’t real tea as we’d know it in Britain, where tea leaves are brewed with boiling water in a teapot.

There are lots of television cookery programmes on Indian television so we were encouraged to find a celebrity chef, snap a selfie with them and upload the photo to the Fest website. The most wacky images would win a prize. Food probably. Jamie was not on the premises.

I watched a demonstration of a chef who managed to burn the olive tapenade and undercook the chick pea masala. We were being filmed as we shovelled the free food into our mouths. The chef said that those displaying the most ecstatic expressions might feature in an advertising campaign. But they didn’t ask me to sign the model release form.

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The man making cotton candy/candy floss didn’t seem to know how to do it, and was applying additional wisps of floss with his hands. The Indian equivalent of Ronald McDonald, who looked more like Timmy Mallett, seemed rather sad as no children would go anywhere near him.

There was a competition – whoever could hold the most packets of popcorn would win a trip to Dubai. The queue to join in was rather long, so I gave it a miss.

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Quite a few of the entrepreneurs promoting their new restaurants had been to UK, studying marketing at university. I chatted to a chap who did a degree in Lancaster. He gave me a fizzy mango drink which was flavoured with sugar and salt, in the Indian fashion. It tasted marvellous.

There were two music stages. One had Indian drummers performing, but spectators crowded in front of the old folks who were hoping to watch whilst sitting down. The other, larger stage had an Indian rock band doing sound level checks. Every five minutes the compere assured us that Virender Sehwag, the former opening batsman, was about to arrive. I waited for half an hour, but when the street theatre started, I gave up and went home, replete with food samples and gassy fruit drinks.

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Breakfast at Karim’s

Just off the Urdu Bazar Road, on the south side of Delhi’s largest mosque, the Jama Masjid, the Matia Mahal Road runs south towards Daryaganj. On the left after 50 metres, there is a nondescript small lane which leads to Karim’s Restaurant. We had been cycling through the backstreets and galis of Old Delhi for three hours since 7am, so we all had a good appetite.

The full menu was not available as it was before noon. We had to settle for Karim’s speciality – Khameeri rotis with mutton curry (and potato curry for the vegetarians). For dessert, we had a sweet bread which looked like a thick pancake, called sheermal. But my fingers were covered in curry so I couldn’t operate the camera to take a photo of it before it had all been consumed.

The small lemons help to counter the fierce heat of the chilli. The vegetarian dish was quite oily, as you can see. The wheat rotis (leavened with yeast)  were superb and the mutton curry was devine. The meat was delicious, soft, no bones, just a few sinews which had held it to the sheep’s lower leg. And the rich brown gravy was delicious.

I took these pictures using my camera phone, so the quality isn’t brilliant. But the food was.