Traveller Sarah Yates shares her how to guide for getting the most out of Delhi’s culinary scene when staying with a local family...
Take one cup of a local family
Choose to stay with a family in Delhi so you can experience the city the way the locals do. Get to know the people, their lives and the way they see the world. The family we stayed with made us feel so welcome; we ate both our evening and morning meals with them.
I promise you the food in Delhi is nothing short of spectacular; the spices, colours and textures will add another dimension to your Indian travel experiences.
As is the way in most Eastern cultures, several generations live together under the one roof. In most families, and probably in the one you choose to stay with, there are three generations living together. In ours, the mother of our host Lubna, along with their three children lived jumbled together in a thin, three-storey house.
Add a breakfast comment
We mentioned over chai at breakfast one morning how much we loved Indian food. So much so in fact, that our decision to come to India was based almost entirely on the actuality that we wanted to eat there! You could see Lubna’s ears prick up – after all, she spends a great deal of her life cooking. She offered us an opportunity to cook the evening meal. Naanii (Grandmother in Hindi) would take us shopping for the ingredients at the local food market and we would learn to cook from scratch, from two generations of sari clad, rotund, wonderful women.
You will never get a better opportunity to see the real Delhi than by asking to shop with one of the locals. Be bold, go outside your comfort zone, and the rewards will be an experience that stays with you for life.
Combine with a morning at the fish market
The markets will be hot, steamy and full of the smells of fish, chicken blood and sweaty men. Buckets of ice will hold whole fish, prawns and other unidentifiable objects! Flies swarm over everything, there will be blood and scales and water covering every surface. Along the walls cages are full of live chickens, flapping and squawking in their tiny, confined spaces.
Men sit on benches in front of huge stationary blades, curved like a scythe and fillet by running the whole fish along the edge of the sword. You will see men take the skin off a piece of fish in one fluid, confident movement. You will admire the precision of their work. Other men sit in front of blades, beheading chickens. Head in one hand, body in the other, the chicken is moved across the blade and then thrown, unceremoniously, into a tub until their headless corpses stop moving.
It will be hard to watch, yet also somehow hard to look away!
It's a real privilege to watch as your Naanii barters with enthusiasm, in rapid fire Hindi. She will throw her hands up in the air in disgust, mime walking away only to be called back by the vendor with a laugh to continue negotiations. It's like watching an ancient dance, played out in choreographed movements that have been passed down through the ages.
Blend in roadside stalls
Your next stop will be smoky, dusty roadside vegetable stalls where you choose beans, pumpkin and several other root vegetables we had never seen before (or again, incidentally). The vegetables will need to be wiped clean of the dust.
You will buy spices to use, their scents invading your senses and pushing the gritty, chary smell of the road from your minds.
Simmer for three hours at home
Make sure you spend the afternoon talking over tea with your hosts about cooking, learning of the history of recipes used by their mother, and her mother’s mother. You will get more out of these hours than from touring a temple or visiting a garden.
Cooking an Indian meal takes hours. You grind spices, releasing their wonderful aroma. The pots will be battered, wonky on the portable stovetop you will use in the kitchen of your host. It will not be like cooking at home, but then, that is the point.
Serve piping hot, with good conversation
The food, when you eat it, will be breathtaking, literally. Flavours will explode in your mouth, spices, chilli, fish, vegetables cooked with just a hint of ginger.
In the end though, the taste of the meal will not matter. You will have been given a window into a world you knew not. Be humbled at the simplicity of the kitchen and marvel at how food so good could come from something so basic. You will feel privileged to have learnt this incredible art form from a master. I know I was.