Food and Drink

Mostly stories from my stint as food critic at Time Out Delhi, but a few other things too.

bpb Review: Kofuku, Ansal Plaza

wafu-steak-carpaccio

Wafu Steak Carpaccio

Delhi’s Japanese dining scene may have a slight edge on Mumbai’s in terms of numbers, but with the novelty of Tsukiji-sourced seafood wearing thin in recent years, the arrival of Bandra’s Kofuku restaurant in the refurbished Ansal Plaza ought to rejuvenate this genre, with its casual approach to offerings that go beyond sushi and teppanyaki.

Maki In India

Despite the hype, little seems different about Ansal Plaza, which shows, if anything, signs of an ongoing hiatus from public life. After an invigorating romp through the shiny new Decathlon’s floodlit obstacle course of athletic aspirants, we are grateful to step into the the warm tatami-draped, umami-scented interiors of Kofuku and be ensconced in a traditional booth, rather than one of the many empty tables.

cherry-blossom-maki

Cherry Blossom Maki

It would be wise for first-timers to study the 30-page menu beforehand; it manages to encompass everything from age dashi tofu to zaru soba with remarkable simplicity, but there’s a lot to cover. Our homework gives us more time to ignore our lackluster mocktails—a Frooti-ish Kofuku Special and a cucumber and mint “I Love Kofuku”— and draw, instead, kanji-esque characters with soy sauce on our plates, while contemplating the restaurant’s montages of photographs of Japanese scenes juxtaposed with Japanese painting.

seaood-hotpot-detail

Seafood Nabe Mono

Pleasant, but not as pleasing as the first sight of wafu steak carpaccio, a pink buff beauty of a dish, each piece lightly tanned by grill fire around the edges, glistening in a shallow pool of rice vinegary dressing. The subtle meat doesn’t have a great deal of its own taste, but the texture is perfect. Cherry blossom maki is tasty and pretty, but as Delhi’s sushi snobs have by now learned, unless you’re on the beach, the fish will always be flash frozen and thawed. Still the salmon, avocado, and tuna roll, topped with flying fish roe, will certainly hold its own amongst its local competitors.

Too Darn Hot (Pot)

Kakuni Pork

Kakuni Pork

Our server balks at taking down our order for seafood nabe mono, a table-side hot pot dish usually shared by larger groups, but there are times when duty and greed compel us all. This is a really good choice in spite of its size: laden with shrimp, squid, crab and fish, as well as greens and mushrooms, the soup is delicious, full of crustacean sweetness. The two diners at our table polish it off. It is, however, overshadowed by the much-recommended kakuni pork, a Nagasaki style stew consisting of two blocks of perfectly cooked fatty belly in a simmered decoction of soy, sake, dashi and other magical ingredients, glittering with bubbles of fat.

After all this, it’s best not to ask ourselves how we also managed to pack in two gloriously presented mochi ice cream balls (a bit thick on the ice cream and thin on the mochi), and “dango”, small rice flour dumplings on

Dango

Dango

skewers, dripping a sweet-and-salty soy sauce and sprinkled with sesame, which comes with a mug of utterly necessary green tea.

Dango and good night: Bombay, your banzai buckeroo will do.

Getting there: Kofuku, BG-09, Ground Floor, Ansal Plaza, Khel Gaon Marg. A meal for two with no drinks costs Rs 4,000.

Mochi Ice Cream

Mochi Ice Cream

Accessibility: The restaurant is wheelchair-accessible.

bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.

Originally published in Brown Paper Bag Delhi, January 2, 2017.

Published: January 2, 2017

Neighbourhood Guide: Khanna Market

Neighbourhood Guide: Khanna Market ♦

Khanna Market

The cover of a trader’s association booklet about Khanna Market from the 1990s.

Each of the four big markets in the quadrangle of land bound by Lodhi Road, Nehru Stadium, Aurobindo Marg and the railway line has its own special charm, from the leafy literary appeal of Jorbagh; to the sleepy specialty stores and restaurants of Lodhi Colony Market; to Mehar Chand’s mix of haute and hoi polloi.

But of all the neighbourhood shopping centres on that fringe of central Delhi where the colonial city ended and the refugee city began, the one I visit most often and find most endearing, is Khanna Market. Between the lofty imperial archways of Lodhi Colony and the scattered, built-over remnants of an older city—the Aliganj area, with its Shia graveyard of Karbala, and the Shah-e-Mardan dargah; and the 18th-century tomb of military commander Najaf Khan—Khanna Market provides a prismatic view of the moment when Delhi became the capital of newly independent India, born from the labour of Partition.  It is also immeasurably convenient for erranding.

The oldest and most famous inhabitant here is Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel, an unassuming South Indian joint with roots in the area going back to 1930, well before the market existed. The original Chidambaram, from the town of the same name in Cuddalore, was the cook of a cabinet minister transferred to Delhi. Chidambaram wanted to join the military, but was drafted instead to run a mess for the officer’s quarters at Lodhi Colony, newly built by the British as they cemented Delhi’s position as capital.

C. Kumar, who now runs the restaurant with his brother, says their father “brought idli-vada to Delhi”, and used to feed “100 bachelors”. According to him, the elder Chidambaram believed that “selling food is a sin.”  Over half a century later, the prices and flavours still induce gluttony. Faced with this  sweet trespass—idli encrusted with gritty red masala; golden vada threaded with onion; creamy dahi-vada topped with crunchy boondis, chillies and beetroot; lacy rava dosa folded over shredded coconut confetti or slathered with garlic paste—the loyal regulars demand their sin again and again.

Manmohan Arora, of Arora Store

Manmohan Arora of Arora Store

Chidambaram was one of the first to set up shop in Khanna Market when the area was developed for Partition refugees in the early 1950s, under the auspices of market namesake Mehar Chand Khanna, the politican who eventually headed the Department of Rehabilitation. At Arora General Store, a kirana dukan enlivened by a colourful selection of embroidered borders, Manmohan Arora recalls coming here with his family from Gujranwala in 1947. “We did footpath business also,” he says, “until we got the shop in 1957.”

Arora’s store is tucked away in a neglected crook of shops next to a tiny park across Najaf Khan Road and beyond a cluster of tentwallas, in the so-called “New Khanna Market”. His mine of memories about the market’s heyday include a the festivities of the passing Phoolwalon Ki Sair, the four large gates of Karbala, and a parade for a young Dara Singh;. Back then, it was “four bananas, one anna,” he says.

There are still cheap, filling thrills to be had though, starting from Rs 5 for boiled anda at wholesaler Malhotra Egg Sales. The chhola-kulcha seller behind Trilok paan stand is the most popular of several; sample at your peril the tandoori momos at car-o-bar friendly Peshawari, or the snacks at Ram Singh Bhoj, Krishan Sweets or Bangla Sweet Corner. Burning a bigger hole in the pocket is airconditioned North Indian-Chinjabi restaurant Hot Chimney, which has deep ties to tourist taxi drivers, who take advantage of the market’s free parking and eat the same food at the cut-price Dawat next door. Meanwhile, market stalwart Golden Bakery has a droolworthy selection of cookies, cakes and snackfoods.

The Hakim may or may not be in.

The Hakim may or may not be in.

For home baking needs, there are two chakkis, and the woebegone but chatty owner of Chabbra Floor Mills (sic) was once kind enough to grind almond flour for me on request. (The smaller Bansi Mills is more efficient, but less accommodating.) The meat shops include a reliable Green Chick Chop, but  it’s really Khanna Market’s well-stocked and reasonable produce stores that tip the scales in its favour compared to other markets. My go-to is Puri Brothers, which carries everything from bamboo stalks to banana flowers, and whose owners  provides cooking suggestions for unfamiliar seasonal vegetables like fuzzy “barsati karela”. There are also two decent wine and beer counters.

Other market gems include the famous Devan’s South Indian Coffee and Tea in New Khanna Market, which has perfumed the environs with the aroma of roasting coffee since 1962. Bhatia Musicals, run by the knowledgeable Sandeep Bhatia, is packed to the roof with lustworthy imported guitars, classical instruments, and technical equipment (don’t miss the giant vinyl record on the ceiling). A bit further off the beaten track is a mysterious staircase leading to the Bareilly Surma Centre, an eye clinic run by Hakim M. Riasat Qadri, who shuttles between Bareilly and Delhi ministering to clients of every faith. The market’s three opticians  and half-a-dozen chemist shops supplement these services. (The hakim’s surma is purely medicinal.)

Khanna Market’s cloth shops sell everything from blankets to bolts of fabric, snugly fitted next to tailors with decades of experience in the crisp lines of sarkari office-wear. Keep an eye out for phulkari dupattas, fifty-rupee blouses, and sharp, pinstripe suits, as well as a dozen tailors, some little more than sewing-machines-in-the-wall, others part of full service shops that also sell fabric. There’s even a cute little dry-cleaning service, Roxy, that advertises four-hour service.

 

Behind Khanna Market, a vision of Delhi in BK Dutt Colony.

Behind Khanna Market, a vision of Delhi in BK Dutt Colony.

There are cosmetic shops, a mehendi-walla, at least two places to get your hair cut, a photo studio, shoe shops and appliance dealers. One of several textbook and stationary shops, Adarsh Pustak Bhandar displays both Raj Comics and Akbar-Birbal stories. Sahib Bhai Patang Wala’s shiny hole-in-the-wall is currently stuffed with Holi supplies.

Despite this abundance, Khanna Market is relatively peaceful, perhaps because it’s still the sum of its parts, not a destination. The shopkeepers wouldn’t mind a bit more business though. Kamal Kishore of Kamal Cloth House, which he opened on Republic Day, 1966, told me that his stock of Vardhaman yarn brings in knitters from far and wide in certain months, but the rest of the year is lean. A stone’s throw from the Swacch Bharat-supported Lodhi Colony street art initiative, the little park outside his store, which the shopkeepers once “maintained beautifully with trees and flowers” is now a tentwalla dumping ground.

Sitting in his loft office above a trinket-stuffed Archies, Ravinder Grover, president of the Khanna Market Trader’s Association, told me about low-key “revamp” plans. A few shops have constructed second storeys, and others have the NDMC’s approval to do so. It’s unlikely though that Khanna Market will see anything like what one shopkeeper called “the hijacking by Khan Market people” of Mehar Chand, which is largely unauthorised. According to Grover, Khanna Market has long survived by catering to the needs of civil servants for things of use. Grover said his father, Chamanlal, fed breakfast to “500 to 600 regular customers” at his restaurant in Lodhi Colony Market. Grover’s ran from 1945 to 1974, he said, with milestones like Delhi’s first jukebox and an early “expresso” machine.

Enjoying life at Chidambaram's New Madras Hotel.

At Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel.

Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel 7 Khanna Market, 2461-7702. Meal for two Rs 500.

DCCWS and DSIDC Wine & Beer Shops 80 and 31 Khanna Market.

Devan’s South Indian Coffee & Tea 131 Khanna Market, 2469-4467.

Golden Bakery 101 Khanna Market, 2469-4314.

Kamal Cloth House 125 Khanna Market, 2469-1872.

Jagdish Studio 91 Khanna Market, 2464-7700.

Malhotra Egg Sales 31A Khanna Market, 98919-72531.

Puri Brothers 10 Khanna Market, 2464-0549.

Roxy, 45 Khanna Market, 98190-40769

Originally published in Brown Paper Bag Delhi, March 23, 2016.

 

Published: March 24, 2016

Chukandar chop

Beetroot patties ♦

beetrootHere’s a beetroot, juiced for breakfast and its fibrous bits turned into patties for lunch. With lettuce and tomatoes from the veranda gamlas.

Beetroot patties: Fibre of one beetroot (also happened to be two carrots, a cucumber, and mint in there, but only because this was all juice byproduct); 1 egg; bunch of dalia flakes; half a small onion; some garlic; whatever spices were in reach (bunch of fresh basil, dried red pepper, oregano, pepper, salt)… Mushed up, moulded into four patties, pan-fried in olive oil, consumed.

 

Published: April 12, 2014

Scent of a season

Farewell to winter ♦

Winter ends as it began, its first and last trace a lingering scent, like the whiff of tobacco on a smoker’s shawl. All season, the city has mostly been a smudged landscape in indeterminate shades of grey, lifted from a palette of fog, smog, smoke, haze and mist. Hindi might have even more words to describe Delhi’s mix of pollution and precipitation in all its hoary proportions – from the frosty tuhin and tushaar to the dusty dundh, dud and gubaar, not to mention the many variations on kohra: kuha, kuhasa, kuheri, kohar.

If the many gradations of fog can be named, the scents of winter deserve a proper cataloguing too. Compared to the heavy summer attars of jasmine and khas – or, if you prefer, of sweat spiked with coriander and slow-baked asphalt marinated in piss – the dry, ephemeral perfumes of winter are harder to pin down. All the more so because they’re often sniffed through snot-blocked olfactory passages.

The early winter festivals and initial round of auspicious wedding dates assail the senses first, with loud bangs and puffs of gunpowder. An instantly recognisable seasonal marker is the acrid, floating aroma of firecrackers, slightly mellowed by wafts of perfume from the blooming alstonia scholaris trees – what a friend once poetically called saptaparni and cordite.

As winter progresses and the nightly mist descends, black spumes unfurl against the white, pungent petrol exhaust spewing from the backsides of incontinent cars and buses. But the diesel fumes sputtering forth from generators all summer give way to the more chemical odour of trash and plastic being burned, mixing with the leafy smoke curling up from tightly rolled beedis, which glow between the tightly cupped hands of squatting men, swaddled in beige shawls. Trailed gently by must and hay, off-white horses trot past them, sporting faded red caparisons. Our own pea soupers taste more than smell – soft and almost liquid on the tongue. The stench of the Yamuna is tamped down and masked by the flourishing carpet of greenery spreading over its banks. Gardens around the city are fragrant with the light, flirty scents of chrysanthemums and sweet peas. Expensive synthetic colognes mix with gladioli in guldastas bound for parties, where the strangely spearminty smell of dark rum swirls out of glasses, mingling with wisps of clove-spiced smoke from lit gudang garams. Not to mention the seductively boozy bouquet of brandy-soaked plum puddings.

Of course, the best winter smells are the ones that seem to filter straight down to the stomach. Hot tea, frothing up from saucepans and releasing gingery steam. Cast iron, heated by coal – the base note for a whole subgenre of charred smells: desiccated kernels of corn; salty peanuts; floury, crumbly roasted naan khatai.

Then there’s the thick, sweetish smoke rising from knobbly piles of shakarkandi, its thin skin singed; its insides soft. And the buttery, sugary, sesame-tinged aroma of chikki and gajjak and laddoos made of gur. The gooey, ghee and cashew fragrance of halwa emanating from great pans of either the earthy moong daal stuff or the juicier, more vegetal gajar. And finally, the faintly milky, pistachio-and-saffron perfume of daulat ki chaat, which is less food, more transubstantiated winter cloud.

Signalling the beginning of the end, the wood-stacked fires of Lohri blaze before the houses in my neighbourhood, and large families gather around the flames. Red-cheeked, powder-caked babies in their pom-pom caps with tasselled ear flaps cuddle in their mothers’ arms. Fattened these past few months on kababs and paneer pakoras, the young men emanate undertones of cheese and grease, with top notes of deodorant and hair gel, while the girls give off traces of fresh methi, gulab jal and hot jalebis.

The old men throw popcorn into the fire, sitting spread-legged in plastic chairs, their bald heads cosy under turbans, hats and scarves. Grandmothers with tiny, scraped-together buns huddle under woollies, their feet toasty in thick socks with toes, easy to slip between their rubber chappal thongs. The bodies of the elderly, like well-varnished antique instruments, are suffused with heavy oils of mustard and almond. But the strong infusion of camphor has finally faded from their shawls.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, January 2014

Published: January 31, 2014

Club Pangaea

Guilt plated ♦

photo 5Judging by the tremors Pangaea has caused in the lifestyle media with the news of its opening, the nightclub at the Hotel Ashok promises a seismic shift in the after dark life of the capital. The club aims to “redefine high-end entertainment”, said Spice Global chairman and owner BK Modi in Blouin ArtInfo. Reservations will cost up to Rs 4 lakh a table, reported Forbes India. The Pangaea club in Singapore, reportedly serves a $26,000 cocktail. Collaborator Michael van Cleef Ault – an inter­national nightlife baron who created the Pangaea brand (yes, he’s one of those van Cleefs) – said the Delhi club is “a sensuous and brilliant journey into the decadence of the Renaissance”. Is Pangaea all it’s cracked up to be? To find out, we headed to the Ashok one Friday night. A velvet rope and a small army of bouncers and hosts in black uniform stood outside where F-Bar used to be, bowing us in without a peep about cover charge or table price. We suppose the generosity and the warm welcome was bestowed upon us due to the relatively early hour (about 10pm), and our gender. Milling about inside were more waiters and two European women in red dresses. Around us: walls padded with red velvet – somewhere between bordello and loony bin, chandeliers and thick curtains, drawn apart to reveal some startling wall décor looming above the leather sofas. Front and centre is Eugène Delacroix’s “The Death of Sardanapalus”, which depicts an Assyrian king overseeing the murder of his harem to protect it from his enemies. Is the figure of a naked woman, bent painfully backwards in the grip of a man plunging a dagger towards her throat, really the best embellishment for a Delhi drinking hole? Will the patrons Ault mentioned in a Sunday Guardian interview – “Indian jet-setters”, “Delhi’s most affluent”, “the Bollywood star, the Hollywood star, the super­models and rock stars” – relish the opportunity to appreciate this classic of French Romanticism as an example of what Edward Said called “the Oriental genre tableau”, while nursing their bejewelled cocktails? We doubt it. Even if this were Prufrock, not Pangaea, that might be too much to ask. Anyway, neither famous people nor fancy cocktails were visible on our visit. In fact, there was no cocktail menu at all. When we asked for something interesting, we were offered the standard choices of “Cosmopolitan? Mojito?” The club plans to offer bottle service, but that night they didn’t even have Johnnie Walker. It’s been reported that the management here fires any waiter who doesn’t bring you a drink in three minutes. This wasn’t a problem as it was a relatively empty night, but getting the bill took longer than expected (and we had to ask for our change). Of the party-goers who did show up, some looked barely out of school and the rest were garden-variety scruffy south and west Delhi punters. The men were moussed-up, the women epilated and nervous as they swayed on their high heels to overloud EDM. A group congregated near the bathroom so they could gab. People seemed to be coming and going from the cordoned VIP section fairly freely. We lingered past 1am, but after a wallet-busting G&T and dirty martini (Rs 570 and Rs 700, sans tax), it was time for us to go too. Casting a look back at the not-so-sensuous decadence of a city’s youth adrift, we slipped under Jan van Eyck’s disapproving “Portrait of a Man in a Turban” and out the door. That we then sat for half an hour in the Ashok’s lobby, watching businessmen and NRI families from the late international flights checking in, tells you all you need to know.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, December 6, 2013.

Published: December 11, 2013

Saanuk Oriental Bistro & Lounge

Luxe Buddhas and a killer deal ♦

In the early days of Time Out food reviewing, there were no quaint little tea rooms or reservoir-facing bistros popping up every other week. You were lucky if you got to go to a hotel once in a while; otherwise, a high percentage of the free dining experience consisted of resto-bar visits or dhaba dives, interspersed with liberal doses of immodium.

Of course new resto-bars are still as common as hipster boîtes, and we were wary at first of Saanuk’s “Bistro & Lounge” tag and its location in Kailash Colony Market, which – though it has a history of diamond-in-the-rough eating joints – is still a little on the rough side. Then, it’s owned by Sanjha Chulha, a Punjabi chain that’s been around since 1975, but has only ever had a small Chinjabi section among its tikkas and curries. Saanuk’s two floors of dark granite tables, red velvet benches, occasional flatscreens and Buddha accents follow the dictats of the resto-lounge aesthetic, but it is spic-and-span and the ambience grew on us.

Currently, Saanuk’s main draw is not the upstairs lounge (liquor license pending), but the insane meal deal: a soup or mocktail, a starter, a main course, noodles or rice, and dessert, all for the princely sum of Rs249 (vegetarian) or Rs349 (non-vegetarian) per person. If two people order, the price is Rs449 (veg), Rs 649 (non-veg). And we’re not talking piddly little plates of last year’s momos, but full-fledged entrées, garnished with nested strands of beetroot or carrot, fresh ingredients and above-average taste.

There’s a good selection and everything we ordered was available and customisable (we asked them to hold the cabbage). True, the strips of tofu in the hot and sour soup were just a little paneer-like, and the fried aubergine a bit on the salty side, but these are minor quibbles when you’re digging in to minty popiah, pak choi and broccoli sautéed with garlic, and the most yummy discovery – chilly-honey glazed, battered and crispy fried water chestnuts – all for less than you’d pay for one prawn entrée at Speedy Chow or Asian Box down the street.

Special mention must be made of our waiter’s masterful command of the menu (down to informing us which three mushroom varieties were in a soup) and grace under pressure when the first crème brûlée he brought us turned out to be randomly spiked with salt. When we asked for a little soy sauce, he got the chef to whip up a fresh black bean sauce, with whole black beans.

You could do a lot worse than Saanuk if you’re in the area, looking for affordable grub, and don’t mind a little Enrique while you eat. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for a market-busting drink deal, and applaud this resto-lounge for doing its bit to improve the reputation of its kind.

Saanuk HS-36 Kailash Colony Market (97171-81583).

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 2013.

Published: July 19, 2013

Asharq Al-Awsat

A worthy detour on the road to Damascus ♦

We don’t often find ourselves in Sarita Vihar, but Surya Sweets – a restaurant run out of a budget hotel for Middle Eastern medical tourists – was always reason enough to navigate the truck traffic and the potholes. On a recent expedition to the rapidly urbani­sing area behind Apollo Hospital, we were confronted by a shuttered door to the large basement room, which once boasted wall-to-wall prints of Damascene plazas, counters full of baklava, nuts and bread, hookahs, and seating arrangements of office chairs and tables. Happily, we were directed to the rooftop of the hotel next door where Asharq Al-Awsat is a hub of activity in an otherwise quiet back alley.

The small indoor area and large terrace are reminiscent of Indian Coffee House, with a view that is  unromantic, but sublime: half-built flats sprawling out to one side; sporadic clumps of greenery and the defunct Ferris wheel built to emulate the London Eye dotting the vista towards the Yamuna riverbed. The name translates to “The Middle East”, but the simple description is apt. The staff, some familiar from Surya Sweets, are from various countries – Iraq, Jordan, Syria – though most are Palestinian.

Make your way through the menu with the help of a smartphone, gestures and a healthy sense of adventure; most staff don’t know much English or Hindi as the patrons are mostly Arabic-speaking hotel guests. Ask for the fabulously buttery, tahini-spiked fava (“ful”) dip if they have it. Otherwise, the fries are crisp, the hummus fresh, the salads (fattoush, tabulah) large, citrusy and beautifully garnished, the moutabel (eggplant dip) sharp and garlicky, and the falafel, without reservation, the best in the city.

We’ve consistently found the vegetarian fare better than the non-veg, but certainly some of the meat dishes are worth trying; they are unlike anything you’ll find at a typical multi-cuisine restaurant that purports to serve Middle Eastern food. There’s soupy meat and chicken tashrib, upside-down rice and meat dishes called maqlubah, coal-grilled chicken called farooj mashwi, and other tikka-style meat plates. Like offal? Try the sheep liver sautéed with tomatoes and onions. Call in advance or order out (you’ll pay taxi charges) to try the stuffed lamb dish (mahshi kharoof).

Cap your meal with a cup of tea – even the Taj brand brew tastes unfamiliar – or linger over the smoothest shisha in town with friends. Getting to “The Middle East” is a bit tricky. Go south down Mathura Road, turn left towards Noida after the Jasola-Apollo Metro station and flyover, take a U-turn, and then the second left. Turn at Aggarwal Sweets and keep an eye out for the Om Palace sign to your right. Bon voyage, and bon appetit.

Asharq Al-Awsat Om Palace, 61-B Madanpur Khadar, near DDA Janta Flats Sarita Vihar (2994-9376).
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, May 2013.
A worthy detour on the road to Damascus

Published: May 10, 2013

Fodor’s Essential India

Guidebook ♦

essential indiaI wrote several chapters for Fodor’s Essential India guidebook and helped update others for the second edition. This included articles on Indian history and culture, food, archaeological monuments and Delhi.

You can preview some of the content here.

Originally published in 2011, updated in 2012.

Published: May 8, 2013

Spiritus mandi

To market, to market ♦

The Defence Colony sabzi and phalwalas are a sonorous lot, with strength in numbers and vocal prowess. Mornings sound like an episode of “So you think you can hawk?” or maybe the opening song of a kitschy musical: a dim-lit stage, the low murmer of doves, the plaintive refrain of a lone hoopoe. A faraway train whistle; the muted strains of azaan. A piercing cry of “kabaadeeeya” breaks the stillness, followed by a soaring “sabzi-loa!” on C-sharp, then the emphatic litany of “Seblo, papitelo, santrelo! Anaarlo, kelelo, rasbhari-loa!” Even the most glottal-voiced sabziwala projects with confidence, demanding rather than entreating us residents to buy his wares.

Despite the enticement to come out and pay, I prefer to lie in bed, in lazy contemplation of the cartfuls of kharboozas passing me by like the morning sun. “Come buy my fine wares,/ Plumbs, apples, and pears./ A hundred a penny, In conscience too many,” wrote Jonathan Swift in a series of “Verses Made for Fruit-Women”. One can indulge in the projection of the sentiments expressed in this early 18th-century doggerel onto the modern-day phalwala: “My children are seven,/ I wish them in Heaven… Not a farthing will gain them, /And I must maintain them.”

This is rough verse, but some fine lines have been inspired by fruit and veg, and for some reason my weekly round of produce shopping seems to put me in a poetical mood. I’m sure the seths can sense my inexperience with matters of home economy as I meditate for minutes, plastic basket in hand, on the worthiness of a head of lettuce, the dust-coated beauty of a ruby red beet. I wonder if the cabbage knows, he is less lovely than the Rose?

DSC_0026Defence Colony’s Pindi Store and its Khan Market clones are deceptively beautiful dens of thieves, with their glossy baingans and out-of-season mangoes, their shelves of forbidden foreign fruit. I linger amongst the tubers, am lured by the lushness of the leafy saag, half-recalling poems. “Every fruit has its secret,” wrote DH Lawrence, erotically obsessed with the fissures of the “glittering, rosy, moist, honied” fig, the“gold-filmed skin” of the “Oh so red” pomegranate, and the “lovely, bivalve roundness”, the “suggestion of incision” of the velvety peach.

The maal here is almost worthy of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, which never fails to make me salivate at its “plump unpecked cherries, melons and raspberries”; “figs to fill your mouth, citrons from the South”; “pellucid grapes without one seed” and “melons icy-cold”. Tempted, like the poem’s two little girls, I briefly handle an asparagus bundle, then, balking at the price, I put it back. I glance furtively at the dragon fruit and guiltily fondle a crisp Fuji apple. Do I dare to buy a peach? They are rupees one hundred fifty, each to each.

On one visit, I ran into a family friend and longtime Pindi patron, who admonished the shopkeeper – “Yeh hamari beti lagti hai” – and I was duly given the family rate. But typically, I slink off to the Safal down the lane, where I dig for spuds and “The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap/ Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge/ Through living roots awaken in my head.” Like Seamus Heaney eulogizing his father, I too think of my forebears – not rooting around in the dirt, but, jhola on arm, queuing up at the sarkari sabzi depot.

Lately, a bit disgusted with Safal’s indolent swarm of fruit flies and flaccid spring onions, I caved at Defence Stores and purchased a couple of those attractively packaged and fairly affordable HUMM Marketing Consultants veggies that have been cropping up at kirana stores all over the city. Vaguely reminiscent of Ikea home accessories in name and sterile aesthetic, these cute little individually priced packs are an example of the ever-more creative ways Indians are using plastic despite bans on polythene, as well as catering to smaller urban households. But the mess of onion skin, carrot peels and Styrofoam in my dustbin was guilt-inducing enough to swear off a repeat purchase, at least until the company finds a less wasteful way to parcel up their goods.

I felt less remorse at trying out one of the capital’s farm-to-door organic produce deliveries not long ago. The company delivered admittedly jewel-like sabzi: nimbus and tinda and moolis, nestled in a crate that they took away again. Who could imagine we’d one day be able to order karonda online? Still, the most fulfilling vegetable harvesting experience this season has been the flowering and fruiting of a row of pots I planted on my terrace this winter. The “broccoli” sprouts from Sundar Nursery turned out to be unruly, purplish gobhi – more flower than cauli – and the baingan is only now putting out its soft mauve blossoms; but each morning, as the sun burns off the latent wisps of fog and the final calls of the sabziwalas fade away, like Walt Whitman, triumphant, you shall see me showing a scarlet tomato.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, March 2013.

Published: March 15, 2013

Espresso Grill

Rich flavours on pretty plates ♦

Delhi’s largest multilevel parking lot on Baba Kharak Singh Marg, which opened to much fanfare last year, is a desolate, glittering island between the hustle of Hanuman Mandir and the panoply of state emporia across the street. A digital display outside lists the impressive number of available spots, 1,408, less than a quarter of which are ever occupied. The fact that the lot is currently free should attract some traffic, as should Espresso Grill, a surprisingly swank little spot on one corner.

From the earthenware to the wooden furniture, straight black is the theme at this stylish open-kitchen restaurant, which, despite its unpromising name, has a fairly imaginative continental menu with appetising descriptions. The complete liquor and wine list wasn’t available when we visited, but if the mocktails were anything to go by, Espresso should make a strong showing in the drinks department as well. Prohibition was a peachy mixed-juice drink in a hurricane glass, while Baby Bellini was a snifter-full of slushy lemon and mint sorbet topped with ginger ale that inspired rude slurping sounds as it neared empty.

Mint is also a garnish on fresh tzatziki that comes with Greek flatbread with a crunchy topping of seeds and spices and hummus on the side. Another of the chef’s favoured ingredients is cracked black pepper, which pleasantly spiked a few of the dishes we tried. A creamy, olive oil-speckled tomato soup with a terrine of mozzarella, tomato slices and pesto daubs was weather-appropriate, though not extraordinary, and twice-cooked chicken wings with pomegranate molasses were sweet but not saccharine.

The ricotta and spinach tortellini with brown butter and slivered almonds was a bit dry, but stuffed with green and topped with crisped spinach. A slightly over-salted potato roesti came beautifully presented, topped with a tangle of zucchini “spaghettine”, a tapenade of olive and tomato and a pool of cream. The non-vegetarian mains cover the gamut from soy-glazed salmon to steak au poivre; slow-braised lamb shanks were a classy rendition of the standard, with red wine, rosemary and chilli glaze and leeks on the side.

The espresso itself wasn’t all that special, but a hot chocolate pudding with a scoop of intensely-concentrated coffee ice cream was one of the best fondants we’ve tried (and when every other menu has one, that’s something). A dense, chalky pavlova melted in the mouth, and went well with its topping of tiramisu cream and brandy-soaked prunes and figs, but was too big a portion for such a limited palette of flavours. Aside from a few flavour tweaks, Espresso Grill is an appreciated addition to the CP dining scene, and a good spot for lunch between emporia shopping too.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, January 2013.

Published: January 4, 2013