INDIA: THE KARIM OF THE CROP IN DELHI
After the relative ease of South East Asia, arriving in India really is a shock to the system and, even though it is not my first visit, I had forgotten what bloody hard work the country in general and Delhi in particular, is.
An hour wait at immigration because they had “run out of forms” reminded me quickly that things work differently here and this was added to by the no show of my airport pick-up and a stressful taxi journey where the driver tried to take me to another hotel because mine was closed “because of fire, sir”
Of course, it was no such thing. He wanted to take me somewhere where he got a commission for every mug punter he brought through the door. Just one of the hustles that form part of the visitor’s lot in a country where you rapidly come to the conclusion that you are no more than a walking dollar sign.
You have two options. You can either rage against it which gets you nowhere as you are faced with complete indifference from those attempting to separate you from your money. Alternatively, you can just go with the flow and accept that in India there really is little concept of customer service and everything is done in such a half arsed fashion that you want to suggest they replace the Ashoka Chakra on the flag with a single buttock.
Once you give in to it, realising that the amounts you may be haggling over are the equivalent of sums you might not stop to pick up if you dropped them on the streets of London or New York, things become a lot easier and you begin to concentrate on the incredible things about India not the negative.
At the top of the list, for me at least on this journey, is the food. That is certainly not half arsed in any way and Delhi provides an excellent introduction to the next five weeks of travel around the land of my fathers.
Given that I still have long months of travel ahead of me (Africa and Europe to come), I have played it safe so far and steered away from the street food here and concentrated on the restaurants. In part, hygiene is of course and issue. More, however it is that, after a few weeks of the relatively gentle spicing of South East Asia, I don’t want my body to rebel by kicking it up a notch in a fashion that would make even Mr Lagasse give pause.
Despite that, I have eaten rather well, I feel and began at famous Delhi eating hole, Karim’s in the frenetic city of Old Delhi where local food fanatic, Sunit had the bad luck to share a table with me.
We got chatting and he guided me away from my first choice of mutton towards his own particular favourite of Butter Chicken served with romali roti and a side order of chicken seekh kebab.
As we both ate our identical meals, sopping up the gee rich sauce with torn off hunks of fresh bread, Sunit explained that even here where things were well maintained “hygiene is a compromise when you want delicious food” Remember that all you restaurant owners next time Health & Safety pay you a visit.
In an act of generosity that is becoming embarrassingly common on the EAT MY GLOBE trip, Sunit insisted on picking up the tab. Things like that do a great deal to warm you to a country.
Last night’s meal at ParK Baluchi in the South of the city was memorable for three things.
The journey there, which should have taken half an hour but took nearly two hours as the driver got lost. At one point he gathered a crowd of nearly twenty people to look at the tatty piece of paper upon which the hotel receptionist had scribbled the name. I would have got out to help but, as I studied the map trying in vain to find the place, I suddenly realised that I was rolling out into the face of ferocious oncoming rush hour traffic because the driver had not put his handbrake on. I was only saved by a group of onlookers running out and pushing the car back to safety as the driver argued on oblivious.
Secondly, as I appeared at the door of the restaurant and asked for a table for one, the host said “not to worry, we get many lonely people here eating on their own here, sir” A summation of my life in one sentence.
The final reason is , at least, about the food. I ordered Murgh Potli, a creation of their own where layers of chicken breast surround spicy minced mutton in cricket ball size spheres cooked in a tandoor and brought to the table on a rather unnecessary flaming skewer.
They made the effort of getting there and facing my own solitary demons well worthwhile.
I decided on my last day in the city, before heading to Mumbai, to blow my daily budget on a meal at Bukhara a restaurant oft cited as being one of the best in Asia and which appears regularly in the lower reaches of Restaurant Magazines Top 50 in the world.
They are famous for their grilling and tandoori cooking and the quality of the meal makes up for the silly seating of dwarfish stools made of upturned logs, which make you squat down like you are playing “tea time” with a five year old niece.
Once again, I opted for chicken. I obviously my body’s telling me something. This time, a whole bird so succulent and spicy that it distracted my attention from some excellent papads served with a salad of onions dusted with a dry mango spice mix.
They give you an ugly bib to wear which I realised made sense as the juices from the chicken dribbled down my chin.
With the chicken, a bowl of their famous “Dahl Bukhara” in reality a Makhani Dahl made with black urud lentils and cooked with so much gee each serving should come with its own defibrillator. I scooped it up with pieces torn from a flaky, rich paratha and was glad of the finger bowl they provided at the end of the meal.
£36 for lunch is, to put it in context, what I paid for a week’s accommodation in Hanoi, but it was worth every last penny and I can see why Bukhara is so popular with Billy Jeff Clinton and Mr Putin alike.
So, I may not have been particulary adventurous on this my first city of the Indian leg of the tour, but I have eaten well and think I am rather going to enjoy the journey.
Please feel free to remind me I said this next time I start moaning.