Cheap Eats in South Delhi?

Last month when a friend visited me in Delhi, we had a rather delectable brunch at Elma’s in Hauz Khaz Village. Freshly baked bread in different hues, a German-style handmade sausage roll, and olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes for dipping purposes. All washed down with Darjeeling tea (served in china cups and saucers, naturally) and carrot and cheesecake cake. The bill was Rs.1200.

Tea & Cake at Elma's - yes that is cheesecake!

While permissible as an occasional indulgence, forking out at this level just isn’t possible on a student budget. Luckily for me, my daily expeditions to North Delhi for college take me into the realm of Rs.30 thalis and Rs.5 cups of chai. But what happens when you want to eat local? Six months after moving into Safdarjung Enclave, here is my round-up:

Tiffin in the Village

If you find yourself in Hauz Khaz Village on a sunny day, then you can have the most delicious aloo gobi without breaking the bank (in fact, even if you order it with curd and roti, you’ll still have change from a Rs.50 note). This tiffin-wallah extraordinaire(who also sometimes has rajma, rice & aloo matter) is located just behind the newsagents on the left hand side of the main drag, just before you reach the entrance to the small park/historic monuments. Taking your lunch into said park means that you can enjoy not just delicious food, but also a lakeside view. What more could you want.

Aloo gobi in the village

Bengal Sweet Corner

In the same complex as Kamal Cinema in Safdardung Enclave, and rightly famed for its delicious sweet dishes, The Bengal Sweet Corner also does a rather wonderful thali. Rs 100 for delicious dahl makhani, a paneer dish, raita, tandorri naan, rice & sabzjie, it never fails to sate me. And for just another twenty rupees they’ll deliver it beautifully packaged to your door, with the added bonus of a desert dish (often gulab jamum – yum).

Madras Café

Whenever I find myself in Green Park Market, I always nip into the Madras Café for my fix of South Indian food. Whether you want a cup of chai (served so that you have the added challenge of pouring it back and forth from the metal cup to the metal bowl without scalding yourself) a dosa or a full blown thali, it’s the place to go. The thalis are particularly noteworthy for coming with poori rather than roti, which always goes down well with me. You need to get your oil fix somehow, nah?

Madras Cafe chai, served the south Indian way

Baker’s Byte

Sometimes only pizza will do. On such occasions in the past, I have relented and called Dominoes or Pizza Hut Home Delivery, forked out a large sum of money, and invariably been disappointed by the fact that the pizza claiming to feed two actually barely satisfies one. That was until discovering Baker’s Byte! A small chain of bakeries (with my local being a stone’s throw away in Arjun Nagar), it does very passable large pizzas for between Rs.100 and 150, in a range of (vegetarian) flavours.  Their personal pizzas (the same size as dominoes medium) come in at Rs.55, and they also have a great selection of toasties, pasta, and of course cake. Fast-food fix sorted.

Happy (cheap!) eating.

The Streets are Paved With …

Those of you living in Delhi will I am sure empathise with me when I say that it’s become very hard to get out of bed these days. No, not because I’m lazy (or not any more than usual) but because inside my bed, under two double duvets and a wool blanket, is the only place I’ve been able to achieve anything resembling warmth.

The thought of stepping out of this mini haven onto the icy cold marble floors or worse still into the bathroom is all just a bit much. Anything that can be done from bed is fine – eating, drinking tea, chatting on the phone, working on my laptop … all possible. Getting dressed and going outside? Not happening.

The Arts Faculty bathed in the winter sunlight

It’s a good job that I’ve got more than Hindi class to tempt me towards North Delhi on a daily basis, or  I’d have a serious problem sitting the exam come March. Luckily, the streets around Delhi University’s north campus are paved with – if not gold – the best array of street stalls you could wish for.

First stop – momos (choose from chicken, vegetable or paneer) from the Nepalese family near the metro station. Lunch? Tick. Need a notebook? A brightly coloured pen? Or a plastic folder with Sponge Bob Square Pants on the front? The stationery wallah has it sorted. Then for the ten minute walk down Chaatra Marg towards the arts faculty. The incentive? A steaming hot cup of chai from our favourite Uncle-ji, delivered with a smile, all for the bargain price of Rs.5.

Chai!

This chai has to provide sustenance through the first two hours of Hindi class. There is just about enough caffeine and sugar to last through revision of the present continuous tense and a lesson on when to use ‘apna’ before it’s back to the same hut for another cup and a freshly-fried samosa. For the last hour of class it’s the sheer amount of oil that you have consumed that’ll see you through.

The scrum at our favourite jewellery stall

Post-college, a reward is required. This comes in the form of the jewellery-wallah, perfectly positioned between the faculty building and the metro station. Even better, his stall is a bit up-market. Rather than his wares being laid out on a sheet on the floor, he has a giant tray attached to the back of his bicycle, making it all the more browse-able. Genius. You want glass bangles, a novelty bear or a Minnie Mouse mobile phone case? He’s got it covered. Even better are the beautiful wooden carved earrings in all colours – just like the ones in Fab India, but for a fraction of the price.

Finally, it’s back on the metro, but not before picking up an aloo tikki. I maintain that nothing can make you feel as good as fried potato inside lightly fried bread.

Aloo Tikki, fried with love

A good routine, no? The only problem being those days when it all goes to pot. Like yesterday: chai accidentally made without sugar, aloo tikkis finished before we reached the stall, and the jewellery wallah on holiday. It better get warm soon, because if things carry on being this unpredictable I’m going to need another reason to get out of bed and go to University …

Late Lies the Wintry Sun A-bed…

The cheesecake girls met up for the last time this year. The initial plan of having me visit the ‘inexpensive-but-awesome’ Majnu ka Tila was thwarted because the market was closed. Both M & S claimed vehemently that they’d never heard of the entire place shut down, but it seemed it was so because of some Dalai Lama event or another. Disappointed! Not completely though, for we did manage to catch a good look of Susanna’s favorite ‘Big Black Boar (Pig)’ from the rickshaw!

The three of us scratched our heads and unanimously agreed that the next best way to honor the ‘tradition’ was to head to Big Chill in Khan and have (yes, you got it!) more decadent cheesecake. Dreamy eyed damsels then couldn’t wait for a long metro ride and autorickshaw-ed instead! Having gotten ourselves to Khan, we scooted over. We write (and hence, advertize) so much about the place that we ought to be given a table right away, but sadly, that’s yet to happen. The good old 15 – 20 min wait later, we quickly ordered a salad (which had so many ‘leaves’ that it made me feel like a cow, frankly) and a pasta. We took care to not order too much because we had to do justice to desert, no?

And then, the cakes… the combination of the brown and the white (much like the three of us) that we attacked and M rightly put it when she said ‘This double chocolate thing looks manageable every time, but it defeats me in the end!’ We did finish both between the three of us and felt very beautiful indeed 🙂

The conversations were warm, the breeze crisp, and the cakes smooth… over cheesecake it began and with it, this year ended. It was a gorgeous Delhi December evening and three very full females skipped (yes, cakes do make us that happy) over to The Body Shop to do what we do every time (another post for that).

Curd, Lemon Juice, and Mustard Oil

However much I’d like to think that I completely fit in, there are several things that single me out as a foreigner. Granted, I’ve been blessed with a strong constitution when it comes to street food and tap water (God, please don’t strike me down with food poisoning for that comment!) but India – I have found – will catch up with you in other ways.

Have you ever witnessed a conversation between two ex-pats who’ve been here for more than about six months? The cliché would be that we’d reminisce about things we miss from home (turkey dinners, snowy winters, pub lunches etc) but the reality is somewhat different. Within five minutes the conversation will have turned to ailments – yes ailments:

“Oh my God, you have a weird skin rash under your armpits too? Apparently it’s the humidity”

“Don’t feel too bad – it could be worse -I have a friend here who literally cannot eat food outside anywhere without being sick for three days afterwards.”

“Ah! My hair is falling out in lumps too! What’s the deal with that?!”

You get the picture? My latest ailment has been my scalp, of all things. Having been through the wars with psoriasis supposedly triggered by Chennai’s humidity, I thought that I might be more suited to a dry, temperate Delhi winter. Conversely, it turns out that this is not the case – apparently my scalp responds to dryness by giving up the ghost, falling off & becoming incredibly itchy. Not good. Clearly I can’t cope with either extreme.

Fear not though – help is at hand! Almost everyone I’ve spoken to has had a simple (yet bizarre) solution to offer. My boyfriend remembered his mother massaging mustard oil into his sister’s scalp at this time of year – had I tried that? Friends from college poo poo-ed the mustard oil idea (too difficult to get out, apparently) but swore by the application of fresh curd.  Feeling very confused by these pieces of conflicting advice, I turned to (who else) Udita, who rubbished all of the above suggestions, but thought that lemon juice could help, and be a lot less messy.

I’m personally up for trying all three (perhaps not at the same time) and will report back on their relative merits. I’d rather that than carry on popping anti-histamines like smarties, which is clearly not a sustainable solution.  It’s funny – adapting mentally to a new culture and way of living can seem in the abstract like the most difficult thing to achieve, but it seems in many cases that it’s the body lagging behind the mind. Ah well, hopefully with the help of curd, mustard oil and a dash of lemon juice I can persuade my fragile gori physique to step up to the mark. I can hope, anyway.

(Photo courtesy of Michael Foley Photography, via flickr)

Dancing in the Street

Isn’t it funny that it’s often the best laid plans that come to nothing, while spontaneous excursions are unexpectedly wonderful? A bit like how meticulously coordinated nights out can be a bit of a flop, but if you drag your weary bones out to a nightclub at the insistence of your friends when all you really feel like doing is slouching around at home in your jim jams, it’ll all too often turn out to be a mind-blowingly awesome night.

Anyway, I digress. What I’m trying to say is that last Thursday was one of those days. I was in Mumbai for the week, making the most of my mid-semester break from college. Since arriving, I’d caught tantalizing glimpses of people practicing Dandiya dancing in the street as part of the Navrati festival that was going on. I was determined to catch a proper performance, and a friend of a friend promised passes to see what was billed as a spectacular demonstration at a swanky location – it was going on nightly for the entire duration of the festival, and she was entitled to apply for tickets via her office, so we had a good chance of getting hold of them on at least one night.

A whirl of colour - dandiya dancing in the street

The days – as they have a nasty habit of doing – swept by in a flurry of shopping, sightseeing and water park-type adventures (perhaps more on that later!) until it dawned on me that we only had one night left before Navrati – and therefore the Dandiya dancing – finished. Phone calls were made to said friend, who promised that tonight would be the night. She’d confirm by seven and the performance would begin at nine. Planning accordingly, we grabbed an early dinner, put on our best India finery and waited for the call. Seven o’ clock came and went. Then seven thirty. By eight fifteen when the call finally came, I was getting decidedly restless. It wasn’t good news – she hadn’t been able to get tickets.

What to do? Tucked away in the north of the city and at the peak hour for Mumbai’s notoriously heavy traffic I guessed that we didn’t have time to get anywhere. And anyway, where would we go? Not knowing the city, we didn’t have a clue where to start in finding an alternative performance. Finally, a decision was reached. Forget the time – we’d take the train to Victoria Terminus on the other side of Mumbai, and then wander around the Gateway of India/Taj Hotel area. However late it was, they couldn’t close that.

A ride on a beautifully adorned (tinsel and everything!) suburban train later, we passed through the gothic splendor of Victoria Terminus, took one of the ubiquitous black and yellow cabs and found ourselves outside the Taj Hotel. Having spent a touristy hour ‘clicking pics’, admiring the horse-drawn carriages and generally enjoying the laid-back atmosphere, pangs of hunger began to strike. Simultaneously, we remembered hearing anecdotes about Mumbai’s best eatery – Bademiya –  being a Mughal street stall behind the Taj hotel. We’d heard that people paying thousands of rupees to stay in one of India’s finest hotels would slip out the back entrance to enjoy seekh kababs and mutton rolls. Mumbai’s elite would roll up in their Mercedes, procure food and then slip back into the air-conditioned comfort of their vehicles. Perfect.

Ten minutes later we’d ordered a ridiculous quantity of food and bagged one of the plastic tables lining the pavement. No sooner had we taken our seats than a band arrived, and people carrying the traditional Dandiya sticks thronged into the cordoned off area of the adjoining road. A local dandiya celebration was starting and we were, quite literally, inadvertently in the front row. The music started, and hundreds of people – from toddlers to elderly aunties – began to dance, beating the sticks against those of their partners, before moving along in a circle and beginning the routine with the next person. Mesmerized, we drank it all in, while one-handedly devouring mutton kebabs, butter chicken and fresh romali rotis. What can I say? Couldn’t have been better if we’d planned it …

Omelettes in the Village

Do you know about ‘The Village’? No, we haven’t relocated to New York – Delhi has its very own suburban village in the form of Hauz Khaz, and in its own knowing sort of way it’s equally trendy. You won’t find a Coffee Day or Baristas on the main drag – instead it’s a series of designer boutiques and independent eateries. All very well and good, but definitely a little out of our price range on a regular basis.

You might ask how two impoverished students such as Susanna and myself found ourselves in such a salubrious area on a Friday evening after college? You’ll never believe it but were viewing property. Yes property!  I’ll explain. We’re members of a Delhi-expat yahoo group. Most emails that we receive as a result of said membership read something along the lines of:

One bedroom available in spacious, luxury flat in Defence Colony. Private bathroom, fully air-conditioned with own balcony. Rent Rs.30, 000/month – electricity, maid, cook, gardener and Wi-Fi charges additional.

This, we (and I think that I can safely speak for Susanna here too) find faintly depressing. But occasionally there’s a gem.

Such a gem – advertising a private room in Hauz Khaz for the bargain price of Rs.8000/month appeared in my inbox on Thursday:

There is a room available to rent near Hauz Khaz Village with a private terrace, kitchenette and bathroom. It comes semi furnished with a fridge, bed, closet and water heater (bathroom) with a private entry. It is overlooking the park and the deer park. The rent is 8000 with 8000 deposit.

Naturally we hot-footed it over there pronto, and viewed what can only be described a quirky apartment. Situated on the top floor of a housing block with a bedroom, kitchen and small bathroom in separate corners of an open terrace it was charming if a little unconventional (and in need of a good clean). Immediately we were picturing rooftop gatherings, fairy lights and al fresco dining. Sadly our hopes were dashed a little when we realized how many other people were interested in the place – and that the boho filmmaker NRI type who was showing us around was being decidedly cagey about how the landlady would choose who ultimately got it.

Slightly deflated we made the short walk over to the village to check out the trendy south-Delhi lifestyle that we could potentially be living. Should we go to the rooftop Keralan restaurant we’d heard so much about? A bar? Or to the famous Living Room for a cocktail and a quick snack? Having heard so much about it from friends and acquaintances we plumped for the latter, and were soon weaving our way up through dimly lit rooms, carefully squeezing past beautifully turned out young women in heels brandishing designer handbags, and feeling a tad out of place in our full salwar kameez sets (we’d come prepared to impress potential Aunty-type landladies, henna).

Perhaps not surprisingly on a balmy Friday night there were no tables, and we were soon making the same journey in reverse, climbing down from the top-floor open-air terrace back to the exit on the ground floor.

‘I saw a guy on the street outside making masala omelettes,’ Susanna ventured ‘Fancy one?’

Twenty minutes later we were trekking back to Green Park metro station – full of eggy goodness and only twenty rupees poorer. Perhaps it’s best that I don’t get the trendy rooftop apartment; I suspect that I’m not cool enough to live in Hauz Khaz after all …