The beautiful chaos of Delhi

Priya Krishna 20 May 2021

Take a virtual trip to Delhi with our guide and discover the chaotic beauty of the Indian metropolis

India’s capital city is often described as “organized chaos,” a concept that applies to every aspect of Delhi: the crowded streets, the boutiques and art galleries coexisting with centuries-old ruins, the fruit and tea vendors traversing the city with their wares.

In recent years, however, the city has undergone a transformation. Interwoven among the stately buildings, relics and beloved food stalls are new restaurants, markets, and developments that lean into India’s bountiful heritage. Instead of gazing outward, Delhi, it seems, is finally looking inward.

"Instead of gazing outward, Delhi, it seems, is finally looking inward"

I’ve been visiting this city since I was a kid. Indian culture normally dictates that I stay at my aunt’s place, so it’ll take some time to adjust to my spacious room at the The Oberoi, in the New Delhi district of Delhi. I’m excited to explore the city on my own for the first time.

On my first day I decide to dive headfirst into Old Delhi, so named because it was a former capital of the Mughal Empire. It is 1,500 acres of sensory overload: rickshaw horns blaring, frying pooris giving off their nutty scent, and throngs of people weaving through narrow alleys and bustling streets. After breakfast I set off with Vishnu, a ToursByLocals guide.

Red Fort, Delhi

Red Fort, Delhi

Along the way, we pass the Red Fort, whose moat-lined stone wall separated the palace complex from the rest of the city during Mughal times. I know we’ve reached our destination when we begin to share the road with cows and sugarcane juice vendors.

Our first stop is the Jama Masjid mosque, which was completed in 1656. I can’t help but compare the breathtaking structure—soaring red sandstone minarets, white marble domes, lines from the Quran carved in black onyx—to the Taj Mahal. Both were commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan.

Chadni Chowk markets

Chandi Chowk markets 

From there, we take a brisk walk into the Chandni Chowk markets where people are hawking everything from silver jewelry to gulab jamun (sugar syrup-dipped milk dumplings). I want to browse, but Vishnu is on a mission to show me the havelis, centuries-old townhouses with elaborately decorated doors. I see one etched with incredibly detailed roses, another that’s bright blue and outlined with mint-green vines.

"People at the markets are hawking everything from silver jewelry to gulab jamun"

Chandni Chowk has a lot of alleyways (galis, in Hindi). I have my stomach set on Paranthe Wali Gali, home to a cluster of stands that sell only stuffed breads called parathas. Vishnu directs me to a simple setup with just a few tables that dates back to 1872.

I order two parathas stuffed with paneer, a mild Indian cheese. A cook rolls out the dough, folds in crumbled paneer dotted with fenugreek and coriander, rolls it out again, and slides it into a pan filled with ghee. It’s served alongside sabzis (stewed vegetables). I dip a piece into a pumpkin sabzi. It’s a rich, crisp, spicy, and slightly sweet mess.

Indian spices and dried fruits at a market stall

Back on the crowded streets, Vishnu advises me to “walk like an Indian.” As he charges confidently into traffic, rickshaws magically get out of the way. I try my best to mimic him, but I can’t help but flinch at oncoming cows.

On Khari Baoli, one of the district’s most bustling streets, we browse a spice market with fragrant bags of cardamom pods and saffron threads. I pick up a vial of saffron perfume at a 100-year-old perfumery.

After all that walking, I’m hungry again. I’ve been told that Karim’s kebab house in Chandni Chowk has the city’s finest grilled meats. It was started more than 100 years ago by the son of a chef who had worked in the court of the Mughal emperor. The seekh kebabs’ beef is so tender it falls off the skewer.

Khari Baoli, Old Delhi

Khari Baoli, Old Delhi

After lunch, I spy a group of plumbers, electricians, and carpenters napping in the shade, awaiting customers. “It’s a good system,” Vishnu insists. “If you need a plumber, you know exactly where to find one.” I’m reminded that I could use a nap too. Back to the hotel. 

When I wake up, it’s time for dinner at Indian Accent. The famed tasting menu restaurant is a far cry from Old Delhi—the dining room is spacious, serene, and dimly lit. A parade of dishes appears: pepper crab topped with idiyappam (rice noodles); pork ribs laced with rum and mango pickle; and for dessert, makhan malai, impossibly light saffron cream topped with rose-petal brittle and almonds. “The idea is to do pan-Indian regional food, but make it new,” explains Manish Mehrotra, corporate chef at Indian Accent Restaurants.

Makhan Malai delicacy

Makhan Malai dessert

Belly full, I crawl into bed. I’m already looking forward to everything I’ll eat tomorrow.

After breakfast, my driver takes me to Red Fort, the Mughal emperor's primary residence. Considered by many to be Delhi’s most important monument, it’s surrounded by a mile and a half of imposing red sandstone walls, with ornately carved domes and tall watchtowers. Inside, I explore Rang Mahal, which was home to the emperor’s wives, and Diwan-i-Khas, where the emperor, seated on his bejeweled Peacock Throne, met with courtiers and visitors.

Humayun's Tomb, Delhi

Next is Humayun’s Tomb, which was built in the 16th century to honor Emperor Humayun. With its triptych-style facade capped by an imposing dome, the tomb served as inspiration for the Taj Mahal. Complicated marble inlay patterns line the facade to the 154-foot-tall structure.

Delhi is full of public parks, and I’m off to see the most famous one: Lodi Garden, which is both a garden and a tomb for the rulers of the 15th- and 16th-century Sayyid and Lodi dynasties. By the time I arrive, it’s well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That doesn’t stop me from being amazed by its design. The tomb of the ruler Muhammad Shah, for example, is octagonal, and the dome is topped with a lotus flower.

Lodi Garden

Lodi Garden

Around me, I see couples cuddling on benches and elderly aunties out for a stroll. I’m melting, though. Time for indoor activities.

I meet my aunt Manisha, who has lived her whole life in Delhi, at Café Lota. Warm, bubbly, and open to eating anything, she is the perfect dining companion. The café, housed in the National Crafts Museum, serves regional food showcasing the country’s range of heritage lentils and grains. There’s corn dhokla, savory fermented cakes from Gujarat adorned with crisped curry leaves, mustard seeds, and a fiery tomato chutney; cheela, a tangy pancake studded with chilies, paneer, cilantro, and green beans; and bhatt ki churkani, a stew of a local variety of black bean.

The flavors are wildly vibrant. I want to order more, but Manisha cuts me off. “We can barely fit what we have on the table,” she points out.

We digest our meals with a spin through the museum, where I find an early-20th-century purple sari embroidered with hunting scenes in gold thread. I’m also enamored of two hamsa (swan masks) from West Bengal, used in classical dance.

National Museum of India, Delhi

National Museum, Delhi

Manisha wants to check out an exhibit at the National Museum called Jewels of India showing 173 gems and items of jewelry from the collection of the nazims (monarchs) of Hyderabad. I’m dazzled by the 184.75-carat Jacob diamond and a seven-string pearl necklace called a satlarah.

My dinner reservation is at NicoCaara, located in the Chanakya, an upscale mall in Chanakyapuri. The restaurant, a collaboration with the chic Delhi clothing brand Nicobar, is appropriately stylish, with botanical wallpaper and plants in gold pots hanging from the ceiling. Cofounder Ambika Seth is one of only a few restaurateurs in India focusing on local sourcing.

“We have this colonial hangover based on this strange complex that imported was always better,” Seth tells me over a plate of nutty zarai cheese, made in Uttarakhand, near the Himalayas. “That’s changing with my generation.”

"We have this colonial hangover based on this strange complex that imported is always better—that's changing"

Himalayas

Himalayas 

The rest of the meal is a pageant of bold flavors—orecchiette with fresh pesto made using basil grown at Seth’s organic farm, and a coconutty prawn stew from Malabar laced with rice noodles, lentils, and earthy mustard seeds. For dessert: a fluffy almond-orange cake with a dollop of not-too-sweet cream.

After dinner, I check into Bungalow 99 in the Defence Colony neighborhood. I barely have time to look around before my head hits the pillow.

The next morning I visit the market at Bikaner House, a former palace that has been converted into an art gallery and cultural space. Every Sunday, vendors sell everything from fresh dosas to artisanal granola. I have my eye on The Pickle Studio, which specializes in achaar, or Indian pickles. I buy a pungent dry garlic version—whole cloves in chili powder and ghee.

Lotus Temple

Lotus Temple

From there, I’m off to one last architectural marvel: the Lotus Temple, a Baha’i house of worship. Finished in 1986, it draws more than four million visitors a year. The flowering lotus shape, which reminds me of the Sydney Opera House, was chosen because it’s a symbol of purity and peace. Crowds of sari-clad elderly women stream by, elbowing me out of the way so they can take selfies against the backdrop of the temple.

For lunch, I am told that one of the best restaurants in town is Little Saigon in upscale Hauz Khas. Vietnamese food in India? I’m surprised. “I wanted Indian people to know Vietnamese food the same way they know Thai or Chinese,” says chef Hana Ho, a Ho Chi Minh City native who came to Delhi in 2010 to cook at the Blue Ginger restaurant in the Taj Palace hotel before opening Little Saigon. I enjoy a round of summer rolls, followed by a cold noodle salad with homemade pork patties dappled with herbs and fish sauce.

Hauz Khas district

Hauz Khas district, Delhi

For dessert, I stop at Evergreen Sweet House, a place I’ve been frequenting since I was a kid. The store is a Willy Wonka factory of activity and color. I’m here for the kaju ki barfi, diamonds of cashew, milk, and sugar. They’re soft, creamy, and not too sweet.

Now, time for a little shopping. I head for nearby Kamayani, which offers the full range of Indian saris, from the tie-dyed bandhani saris of Gujarat to the striped leheriya style of Rajasthan. The store’s eponymous owner buys textiles from Indian artisans who have spent their lives mastering classic sari-making traditions.

“These saris are works of art and treasures of our country,” she says. I’m tempted to try one on, but I don’t trust my clumsy sari-tying skills with the delicate fabric.

Sari shop in Delhi

For dinner, I try something new at Mizo Diner, which is devoted to the food of Mizoram in northeastern India. The cuisine is heavy on rice, pork, and bamboo shoots. I enjoy vawska rep, a smoked pork stew with leafy greens, and sawhchiar, a chicken and rice porridge served with an addictive sweet-spicy onion jam.

By the time dinner wraps up, the city is showing no sign of slowing. Car horns honk furiously, and vendors try to sell me the last of their fruit. Even at 11 p.m., the air is hot and thick.

I go to bed dreaming of smoky pork and saris the color of cotton candy and all the things I’ve discovered in a city I thought I knew—and where I’ve still barely scratched the surface.

From Hemispheres, copyright © 2020 by Ink for United Airlines, unitedmags.com. The writer visited Delhi pre-pandemic.

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