Eating our way through Old Delhi

We wisely skipped breakfast before our Old Delhi food tour. This is a first for us. We don’t do tours in general but despite my love of markets and familiarity with lots of Indian food there are so many street foods that we haven’t tried, and having a guide to navigate us through the famously chaotic Chandni Chowk market seemed like a good idea.

While we waited for our guide we saw this man making samosas exactly as I’ve been making them for almost 40 years, and as Ericka and Drew make them now too. It’s nice to confirm that we’re doing it right.

We met our guide and our fellow tasters, an English couple and two women from Greece, and headed into the market.

We started with jalebi, a crispy sweet coated in a sugar-honey syrup. We all loved it.

Before going any further we made a stop at a Sikh temple. I remind you that houses of worship are not Jack’s favorite thing, mostly because he doesn’t like to take his shoes off. But he promised before we committed to the tour that he would participate in everything and here’s the proof that he did. We had to cover our heads like pirates and remove our shoes then walk down the street and through some areas that may not have been entirely sanitary. But Jack was game, and so were the rest of us.

This temple is a refuge for the poor and needy and volunteers prepare meals for 30-40,000 hungry people a day.

The people eat in shifts. They file in to this room to be served. When they finish the next group moves in. It’s very calm and organized.

After touring the kitchen and serving area we sat in the temple for a few minutes, then we were reunited with our shoes to continue the food tour.

The market area is nuts. This is one time I wished I had a GoPro and could shoot continuous video of wending our way through narrow alleys and dodging tuktuks and rickshaws across noisy streets. Still photos just can’t capture the madness. I loved it. I haven’t been this excited in a market since Palermo in the 80s.

I can’t even attempt to describe — or even name — all of the foods we ate, some familiar, others new to us. We knew to avoid that green stuff. It’s fire in the mouth.

Most of what we ate was street food but we did sit down twice. This was a paratha place, in business for over 150 years and six generations. There wasn’t a scrap left on anyone’s plate. Except the green stuff.

I must have 100 photos of various stalls and vendors. I always ask permission to photograph in markets and no one ever says no. (Well, except for a cranky German woman at the Turkish market in Berlin back in 2004 who yelled at me for taking a picture of her wares. They weren’t even that special.)

Deep in the narrow lanes of the market our group paused to enjoy another dish when seconds later we were almost run over by a fully loaded rickshaw trying to make the corner with a wheelbase not suitable for the width of the alley.

This is not a pedestrian only area. At any moment a vehicle of some sort will force everyone to the edge and squeeze past. It’s like the dimension-defying night bus in the Harry Potter books, ten pounds of pedestrian and vehicular traffic in a five pound alley. Somehow no one gets hurt, but it’s hard to believe it.

Full props to me for tasting everything (it was all vegetarian.) Jack passed on two, and this was one of them. It’s called pani puri and it’s a crispy little dough sphere filled with either a spicy or a sweet liquid mixture. You have to pop the whole thing in your mouth at once, and when you bite down it explodes in your mouth with intense flavor. I tried them both. The spicy wasn’t too hot for me, and the sweet one was delicious. It’s just a lot to have swirling around in your mouth at once. Most of our crew tried to bite into it daintily, which only resulted in squirts and dribbles on faces and clothing.

The constant din becomes a brown noise background and after a while I found my brain just tuned it out.

I think Jack’s favorite was a lemon soda in a unique reusable bottle. The seal is formed by a captive marble inside that’s sucked up to the top when the bottle is cleaned and refilled. You open it by pushing the marble down into the bottle, breaking the seal.

After more tasting we plunged into the spice market where so much spice was floating in the air that Jack and I donned our facemasks. The rest of our crew braved the thick atmosphere and sneezed and coughed their way around.

If I had a kitchen or space in my luggage I’d have filled up a tote with all the fresh spices, most grown all over India.

Our other favorite beverage was masala chai served in single-use clay cups.

Our final sitdown stop was a tandoor oven where we enjoyed fresh naan and masala paneer. Notice the sink nearby for handwashing before and after eating. There are sinks and other fresh water sources all over the market. When you eat with your hands you appreciate being able to clean up afterwards.

Jack’s last tasting was a sweet fluffy concoction whose name I forget. It’s a wonder I remembered as much as I did.

There was one last treat offered us, sweet paan, a betel leaf wrapped like a cigar around spices and who-knows-what else. Only three of us tried it. One of the Greek women spit it out immediately. The English woman gagged but managed to eat it. I ate the whole thing, and let me tell you, it was a Tim Burton movie of competing flavors and textures. The leaf itself was as tough as a garden hedge and after a journey from sweet to sour to flowery herbal I was left with a strong menthol aftertaste that for hours afterward burped back up again.

And then we were back where we started with full bellies, some new favorites and definitely a couple of never-agains. We will absolutely do more food tours in the future. It was the most fun we’ve had in one day in a long time.

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