“Milk?” I nod yes.
“And to eat?”
“Do you have scrambled eggs?” The waiter nods and bows slightly, closes his notepad, and retreats.
I’m sitting in the breakfast room at a modest hotel in New Delhi, waiting for my daughter to join me. (Two weeks later when we return here after seeing so much of northern India, the hotel will feel downright luxurious to us.) We’re both moving slowly after two long haul flights to reach India from Denver. We landed at 4:30 in the morning, an hour late thanks to an air traffic control diversion around Pakistani airspace, and I didn’t fall asleep until nearly 6:00. Fortunately, the steaming coffee is helping to clear the cobwebs.My daughter has arrived by the time my eggs are served, and I tentatively take a bite. They are silky, just the right amount wet. “Wow, these are really good.” We’re both cooks, and both know preparing eggs correctly is the sign of a good cook.
The eggs have been plated with a small roasted tomato which instantly reminds me of the breakfast room at the hotel in Madrid that was my home for two months in 2016. My husband was hospitalized there, and every morning before I went to the hospital, I had one of those roasted tomatoes. I cut into the tomato now and think just briefly of that difficult period of my life. Food does that – imprints memories permanently that we forever link to a place and time.
That fated trip to Madrid, in some indirect way, is the reason why I’m in India at all. While my husband fought heroically to recover, in the end the damage to his brain took his life six months later. He had never wanted to come to India, and so I had never even considered a trip. After losing him, propelled by a sense that time is fleeting (and also possibly using travel as a way to escape my loneliness at home), I decided I really wanted to see India. I asked my daughter, a wandering soul with a great sense of adventure, if she’d like to join me.
My daughter and I both have worked in the culinary world – she as a restaurant chef and me as a cooking teacher and food writer – and while we’re excited to try the food in India, we’re both worried about too much too fast. The creamy eggs, while not remotely Indian cuisine, are comfortable and familiar. They seem safe.
That night, we’re jetlagged and overwhelmed as we head to dinner at a restaurant in the relatively calm area of New Delhi near our hotel. Although we have arranged for a private driver, it doesn’t occur to us to call for him and instead we request a taxi from the hotel. As we set off for the restaurant, the driver wants to take us on a tour of the city, but we repeatedly try to explain we’ve already done that all day long. When he finally drops us at the restaurant we’ve chosen for dinner, he refuses to leave and refuses to take money, insisting he’ll be waiting to take us home. We feel like we’re being scammed, but we give up arguing, since he’s only asking for 700 rupees roundtrip – barely $10. Later, we’ll be slightly ashamed that we were skeptical about his sincerity.The restaurant is one long, dark room, nearly empty room, with one couple seated at a two top at the very back. We’re ushered to a table right next to them, and the restaurant quickly starts filling – with locals, with tourists, and with a large German group.
We missed lunch because of our city tour, and we’re famished, ready to try authentic Indian food. We start by ordering the more common dishes we know: rogan josh (lamb slow cooked with wild sandalwood and spices) and chicken makhani (tandoori morsels of chicken braised in a classic tomato and butter sauce). And garlic naan, because my daughter has talked obsessively about it on the long trip here. As an afterthought, or maybe because we’re anxious to start tasting something new, we order an appetizer of hara kabab (spinach patties with cheese and nuts).As the waiter brings us glasses of wine, he drops off a platter of crispy wafer-thin crackers. It will take three more servings of this across three more cities before we finally understand that this is papadam, a thin cracker made from chickpea flour. Sometimes it’s served with a tomato chutney, but it’s best, we think, when accompanied by the creamy coriander chutney that we will find served at every meal. We’re both intent on making it as soon as we get home.
The food is good – familiar flavor profiles, but distinctly different than what we have enjoyed at say the Indian food truck that my son drove in Denver a couple of years ago. Clearly, we’ve over-ordered – each dish looks family-sized, which we will find everywhere we go over the next two weeks. We do our best to eat what we can, neither of us comfortable wasting food, especially in a country with so much hunger. We surrender early, and head outside to find the taxi driver waiting exactly where he said he would wait. He charges us just what he said he would, and I tip too much, because I can’t relate to the difference in cost of living.
The guide explains he’ll only be taking us to the stalls they trust – the ones who’ve been in business long enough that they feel it’s safe to eat the food. All I can think is I sure hope he’s right. The last thing I want is Delhi belly.
We eat a ridiculous amount of food in rapid fire as we move quickly from one stand to the next: Aloo Tikki, Nankhati, Paranthas, Daulat ki Chaat, and Samosa. Then we move on to sweets and I’m relieved to think we must be coming to the end of the tour. Jalebi is a funnel cake dessert that is drenched in a heavy-duty sugary syrup. I take one small bite and feel I’ll vomit if I eat this, so I pass it over to my daughter to work on.At the Chai stand, they’re making it the old-fashioned way, with a kettle over a wood fire. The guide steers us inside and then brings us each a small serving of masala chai in Styrofoam cups. We notice everyone else is drinking from small glasses, and I realized this is to protect us from the probably poorly washed glasses at this stall.
After sweets and tea, I’m thinking we surely must be finished, but the guide tells us we’re just getting started. The jalebi and chai were simply to clear our palates, and up next are the meat courses, he explains. Both of us groan, then get in the tuk-tuk he’s commandeered. Until this point, he tells us, we’ve been eating the vegetarian dishes of the Hindu neighborhoods within Old Delhi. Now we’re crossing over into the Muslim neighborhood. “What’s the biggest difference?” I ask.
“More meat, less women on this street,” he says, and I laugh out loud. We’re heading to the famous Karim’s for goat seekh kebab and mutton korma. When I hear mutton, I think strong flavored, gamey tasting meat, but it seems to me that in India they just call lamb mutton. The steaming bowl of korma has a thick layer of grease floating on the top when our guide sets it down, which gives me heartburn just looking at it. “Here’s the trick,” he says as he gently tilts the bowl to let the fat drain off the side.We dig in with the naan bread he’s brought to the table, and the flavor is so intense, the meat so tender, that for a few moments I dismiss any concerns about hygienic cooking or the intestinal problems or the heartburn I might encounter later.
I’m really ready to call it quits when we stop in front of another meat stall. One guy is tossing marinated chicken quarters onto a 10-inch round wooden platform that serves as a cutting board and then throwing down a meat cleaver in rapid fire to cut each quarter into four smaller portions. He’s moving so quickly, the cleaver ripping right through the bones, and his final cut on each piece is within an inch of his left hand holding the chicken. I can’t look away, even though I fear with each thwack of the cleaver that he’s going to lose a thumb.After he’s cut the pieces, the other guy quickly skewers them and throws them on the grill over the open wood fire. He has about ten skewers going at once, and he’s continually rotating them, grabbing the ends of the metal skewers with no hot pads at all. When the chicken is cooked through, he slides the pieces off the skewer in one swift movement into a stainless bowl. The first guy ladles yogurt on top, then an obscene amount of melted butter, uses a quick flip of the wrist to toss the chicken in the yogurt and butter, and pours it quickly into a bowl to serve. This is a unique take on chicken makhani, or butter chicken, because it doesn’t include the usual tomato sauce in the mix. We sit down to eat, slopping up the buttery yogurt sauce with very thin roti, and although we are far past stuffed, this is the best thing we’ve eaten since arriving in India and we don’t stop until we’ve polished it off.
We’re now into the dessert part of the tour, but neither my daughter nor I really love sweets, plus we really don’t think we can eat anything more. The guide seems heartbroken when we ask to skip the kheer. Just looking at the rice pudding reminds me of being forced to eat it as a child. I just can’t do it. Because the guide feels he’s letting us down by not filling us with desserts, we agree to stop at the kulfi stand. The sign shows a vast array of ice cream flavors, and we agree to try four of them: the saffron pistachio which is supposedly a classic, and then mango, blackberry, and pomegranate. I’m prepared to just have a small lick of each, but the mango and pomegranate are so refreshing we nearly polish them off. Neither of us can stomach the saffron pistachio, which is made with sweetened condensed milk and is cloyingly sweet. The blackberry is so tannic that it leaves our mouths feeling dried out and parched that we pass on it.We can barely breathe we are so full. We are also completely disoriented, lost somewhere within the narrow streets deep in the heart of Old Delhi. The guide helps us into another tuk-tuk who will take us out of the old city to meet our driver, but the old city is completely gridlocked at this hour. It’s dark outside, and many of the tiny, narrow streets have no lights whatsoever. Every small alley seems packed with people, bicycles, motorcycles, dogs, kids and general chaos. Oxen are being hooked up to carts for vendors to take things home for the night, making it even more difficult to maneuver through the crowds.
The tuk-tuk driver is whipping around corners, coming within inches of animals and people and buildings, and hitting every pothole as we go. I’m trying to hold on for dear life, increasingly concerned about the food that is bouncing around in my stomach, worried I’m going to be sick at any minute. Just when I think I can’t stand it another second, we mercifully exit the old city to a wide boulevard by the mosque that divides Old Delhi from New Delhi where our driver is waiting. I finally exhale.
We’re the only ones here because it’s early, really too early for dinner in India, but we’re starving. During the long drive from Delhi to Agra, our driver stopped at a roadside rest stop, and we didn’t understand we were supposed to order some lunch. If I’m truthful, we were too scared to eat what we saw there and instead downed a bag of Lays potato chips (they’re everywhere in India). When we checked into our hotel in Agra, we left immediately with our guide to visit the Baby Taj and the Agra Fort, so now we’re ready to eat.The town of Agra offers little beyond the Taj and the Fort, and as we look out over the town from the roof, sipping our bubbly, it looks poor, rundown, sad. The Taj is sitting out there in plain view but is far away and looks rather tiny. Even with the telescope the hotel has mounted to view it from this roof, it’s hard to get the feel for its true grandeur. The next day we will be completely blown away when we enter through the arches to the sun rising over the Taj, the reflection of its beauty shimmering in the water in front.
But for now, we’re glad we came early. The waiter is very attentive, wants to make us happy. After the trip when I see the price of this meal in comparison to the others, I’ll know this was a splurge. We tell him we don’t want to rush, that we want to watch the sunset and relax, but that we’re also very hungry. He’s very accommodating and brings us a bowl of papadam with the coriander chutney we’ve already fallen in love with. We like his suggestion of ordering the thali – a large silver platter with 9 small silver bowls of various foods accompanied by some varieties of breads – and he suggests that we wait on that and let him bring us some kebabs first to take the edge off our hunger. We’re instantly grateful.The thali is phenomenal. We’ve opted for the non-vegetarian, which means we have both meat and other dishes: mutton, lamb, and paneer each in a different kind of sauce with a nice bowl of basmati rice, a mixture of cauliflower and other vegetables with spices, and rich, savory black lentils. There’s a big bowl of freshly cut vegetables with some sauce to dip them in, but we’ve been warned about eating raw vegetables, so we skip them. The dessert is the Indian classic gulab jamun, which looks like a doughnut hole, but is made from reduced milk solids. It’s soaking in the typical cloyingly sweet syrup and I only take a small taste.
It’s peaceful being up on the roof, removed from the traffic, noise, congestion, and chaos of life in the city below us. We end up sitting here for hours, watching the sun set, watching the colors and shadows change on the Taj, marveling that we are really here in India, so far from home. For just a brief moment I miss my husband, wish that he could experience this, that I could share this with him. I shake it off, grateful that my daughter has joined me for the trip.
We’re a few days into our adventure, and we’re feeling confident about the food. We peruse the menu and order quickly. Palak Dahi ke Kabab (deep fried spinach and yogurt kebabs), Barra Kabab (tender lamb chops from the tandoori oven), Murg Garlic Tikka (chicken in a creamy garlic sauce), and Garlic Naan. I order my first, and what will turn out to be my only, Kingfisher beer, thinking of my husband. This one’s for you.
As we wait for our food, we’re watching the table of four women next to us. They’re speaking in Chinese as the waiter places a large platter of meat kebabs on their table. One woman says she’s not eating, and I notice she’s sipping some sort of space aged food out of a pouch. Allergies, I’m guessing, and I turn my attention back to our table as the waiter arrives with our food.The platters are enormous and gorgeous, and suddenly the Chinese women, who it turns out are from New York, are all over us. “Oh my God, how did you know what to order?!” they want to know. “We can’t figure out any of the menus!”
One of them leans over and starts photographing our dishes, then actually stands up, grabs one of the platters, and moves it into a position to get a better photo. I’m shocked at the intrusion and wish they’d leave us alone. We tell them about the thali from the night before and they are frantically looking it up and making notes on their phone. As they exit, my daughter and I dig in. It’s delicious, it’s far too much food, and we eat too much too fast, knowing our train won’t wait.
Now it’s a few hours later, and I realize I’m not hungry; I’m ill. My stomach begins cramping and I change positions. Before I know it, I’m dashing for the bathroom. Within a couple of hours, I hear my daughter up doing the same. We will spend the better part of the next day, when we had fully intended to be playing Holi in India, groaning in our beds and taking turns in the bathroom, counting the hours until we can take the next dose of Pepto Bismol. We are at the point where we need to make a decision – are we getting better, or do we need to move on to more aggressive drugs? – when the pain finally, mercifully, starts to ease.I seem to have gotten sick first, by just a few hours, but now I’m starting to also recover first. Our guide and the hotel have both warned us it isn’t safe to go outside alone, but I can’t stand it. We timed our trip to India specifically around Holi, the celebration to welcome spring, and I don’t want to miss it. I put on my old white jeans that I’ve brought along specifically for this day, with the long white Indian tunic I purchased in Delhi at the Janpath Market, and I walk the thirty feet from our hotel to where the alley meets the main road in Bundi.
I can hear the chaos before I even get close. There is a steady stream of motorcycles, with an occasional cow or oxen in the mix, and many people walking. Everyone is lubricated, doused in paint colors, and rowdy. As I stand there in my pristine white outfit snapping a couple of pictures, a group of young men across the road see me. They have handfuls of paint colors and one of them nods in my direction, as if to ask, do I want color? Slightly terrified of what might happen, I nod ever so gently yes.They are on me in seconds, smearing the powdery paints on my face, in my hair, on my clothes. They want pictures with me, and as they surround me, I struggle to keep their hands off me, while they snap selfies. As soon as they get the shot I push away from the group and run quickly back up the side street to our hotel. I’ve only been playing Holi for two minutes and already I’ve had enough. I retreat to the room and shower off the paint before getting back in bed and falling asleep; it’s only mid-afternoon.
By dinner time, feeling well enough to finally leave our room, we head to the rooftop patio of the hotel. The views over Bundi are pretty at night, and we see groups of people on various roofs washing off their Holi colors and celebrating with friends. The hotel is flanked on the backside by the giant Taragarh Fort, and we watch the monkeys playing in the deserted fort and around the buildings near our hotel. As the sun sets, we see a massive flock of bats fly from the fort to round up bugs just as the full moon is coming up near the fort. We relax and sip water slowly to prevent our stomachs from cramping, grateful to be out of our room.Our waiter, who is also the bell man and the front desk man, knows how sick we’ve been because we’ve requested more toilet paper from him about ten times today. The rolls in India are only single ply with about a quarter of the number of sheets in those big Charmin rolls we get at home and are completely insufficient for two sick women.
The waiter thinks it best if we just eat some plain white rice and plain yogurt for dinner. We ask if we could also have some plain naan bread with it, but he denies the request, telling us we’re not well enough for that. Wow. We don’t argue, as it seems he knows what he’s talking about, and we are desperate to be well.We try eating the fragrant rice alone, then the tangy yogurt alone, then discover that the yogurt on the rice isn’t half bad. We eat slowly, our stomachs tender and our confidence tested. There is only one other couple on the rooftop. They aren’t staying here but have come for a multi-course romantic dinner with views of the sunset. We watch as the waiter brings them dish after dish, and the smells alone are hard to stomach.
After we finish our rice, even though we can hear the Holi celebrations continuing through town, we head straight to bed, praying for an uneventful night.
After a full morning of touring the Amber Fort, our guide brings us to a restaurant for lunch. “We haven’t seen saag on any of the menus,” my daughter says, and the guide looks shocked. The creamy spinach or mustard greens are served either alone or with mutton, chicken, or paneer, and it’s a favorite of both of ours.The minute we open the menu, we see it: Mutton Saagwala. My daughter closes her menu quickly, knowing that’s what she’s having. For variety, I choose the Chicken Lehsuni Tikka, chicken pieces cooked with chili and garlic, a popular dish in the Punjab region of India. I order some steamed rice, still not quite sure about our stomachs. My daughter insists on Butter Naan.
The food is great. We eat everything. We don’t feel sick at all. This will be the turning point for us. Yesterday we were both ready to board a flight home, but suddenly we’re excited to continue our journey together.
Nadhi starts by demonstrating pakoras. She makes a version with potatoes in a thicker batter, then with thinly sliced onions in a thinner batter, and finally with cauliflower, which require a two-step fry process to flatten the patty. It’s basically just crunchy fried food, but it’s good and we nibble away while she moves on to the next dish.
We’re making daal with yellow lentils, and both Jenny and I gasp at the amount of oil that goes into the dish. It’s not like we’re frying something and removing it to discard the oil; in this case, all of the oil is incorporated into the dish. I expected a heavy hand with the spices but am in shock at the amount of salt that’s used.Next Royal (his nickname) is up. He’s making zeera aloo, which are cumin spiced potatoes, and again, a large amount of oil is used to start the dish and heavy salt to finish it. The potatoes are delicious, but I’m wondering just how swollen my fingers and ankles are going to be after this meal. I’ll lose four pounds the first couple of days I’m home just from the water I’m retaining on this trip.
The final part of our lesson is taught by one of the men who work in the house for them. He has a large ball of dough on a platter and he teaches us how to make chapati, a simple flat bread like a tortilla but without any lard in the dough. We use the same dough to make paranthas, a flat bread that is stuffed with the cumin potato mixture then rolled back out flat. The final bread is poori, and the man shows my daughter how to slip the rolled-out disk of dough into the hot grease where it instantly puffs up and turns golden brown.We’re invited to sit down for dinner and Royal brings out two bottles: one a brand name vodka and one a rare Indian rum. He asks us to choose which we want a shot of and we both pick rum, even though neither of us really drinks hard alcohol. We try to politely sip, but it’s burning our throats. Royal shows us how he mixes his vodka with his rosewater drink. I try it with the rum and it’s only marginally better.
When we are served all of the food we have made, along with a couple other dishes they have prepared ahead of time, we find that our hosts are not going to eat with us, but rather just sit there and watch us eat. Our hosts explain they do these classes four or five nights each week, and I’m sure they are sick of all of these recipes by now. I can relate – I too find I can’t eat the dishes I repeatedly make with guests in my cooking classes. Before we leave, after a short visit to the night vegetable market, we exchange information and plant the seed for them to come teach Indian classes in Denver.
Now we’re in Delhi, where we need to wait for several hours until our connecting flight to Amritsar. The airport is a sharp contrast to the rest of Delhi. It’s new, it’s modern, and it is filled with stores, resembling more of a shopping mall with a food court than an airport terminal. As we make our way to the lounge where we will wait my daughter sees it: KFC.
Neither of us really eats fast food at home, but we succumb and order chicken strips and fries. We inhale the food in minutes, a little ashamed of ourselves to be doing this in a foreign country. We’re members of Slow Food after all. It’s the only meal we don’t photograph during our entire two-week trip.
Not willing to risk another round of stomach issues, we heed the advice and end up eating three meals in the same place over 36 hours. We order Indian the first night: Sarson ka Saag (mustard butter garlic), Tandoori Murgh (chicken), Pakhtooni Burra Boti (lamb), garlic naan, and rice. We order Italian at the same restaurant the next day for lunch: Penne Arrabiata and Fettucine with Pesto Cream Sauce. And we order Chinese at the same place that night for dinner: Thai green curry chicken with rice, dim sum, and vegetables. While nothing tastes quite authentic, it’s passable fare, actually quite good. More importantly, neither of us gets sick in a city where it sounds like the odds are stacked against us.
Once we pass the turn where the highway winds up into Jammu and Kashmir, the landscape begins to change. As the congestion of the cities fades, we pass field after field of wheat and rice. Boys are playing cricket out in the fields while farmers guide their ox carts. In between farms we see massive crops of marigolds, which are used in both religious ceremonies as well as weddings. The terrain is very flat, and very green, and dotted with large scale wedding venues. During our time in India we’ve learned that the typical Indian wedding lasts five days and includes hundreds if not a thousand guests, and we’ve seen these large venues all over the country.The air is clearer now, and we can see the outlines of the Himalayan Mountains in the distance. Living at the base of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, this feels familiar to us. Our driver stops at a strange tourist spot along the way that has a large dining room for guests with small outpost buildings for the drivers to eat. Several other drivers have stopped as well, and the guests are all led into the dining room.
My daughter is adamant that we not eat here. The next day we are scheduled to hike in the mountains, and as a rock climber, she is expecting it to be the highlight of the trip. She doesn’t want to risk getting sick again by eating somewhere not on our “cleared list”, so again, we purchase only some Lays potato chips and sip water.
We are staying the final three nights in McLeodganj, high above lower Dharamshala. Tibet in Exile is run from this town, and it has a distinctly different feel from every other part of India we’ve visited. We’re ready for a change, having eaten largely nothing but Indian food for ten days.Over the next couple of days, we try as many Tibetan dishes as we can: momo (steamed vegetable dumplings with some soy sauce), thukpa (noodle bowls with rich broth and some vegetables), shabri (fried mutton meatballs with ginger lemongrass and glass noodles in a thick stock), pepper and salt vegetables, vegetable chow mein, chicken spring rolls, fried momo (spinach and cheese), and oddly, some fabulous thin crust pizza which seems to be very popular in this area.
We hike, we scatter some of Greg’s ashes at the top of a waterfall, we shop, we watch the young monks at the Dalai Lama’s school, we eat, and we laugh at the monkeys. In a bar in the center of Mcleodganj we meet the first and only Americans we’ve seen in all of India, and are shocked to find out they are also from Colorado and that we share mutual friends. Small world indeed.We visit temples and Tibetan artisans and the Tibetan history museum and learn so much about Tibetan culture. We both love it here, even though we spend much of our time in this town feeling utterly and completely heartbroken for the Tibetan people.
For our last night in India, we’ve arranged for a very special final meal, at the restaurant largely considered the best in the whole country, Indian Accent in the Lodhi area of New Delhi. We take advantage of the hotel room to shower and organize our luggage for the flight home, then head downstairs to meet our driver at 9:00.
The dining room of the restaurant is gorgeous – shiny, beautiful lighting, white tablecloths, pretty crystal. In other words, nothing like anywhere else we have eaten in any of the five cities we visited during the past two weeks. This is fine dining, and we sit down eagerly, feeling happy we decided to dress up.With very little thought to how much food will be served or cost, we gamely agree to the non-vegetarian chef’s tasting menu. The waiter brings our glasses of wine, and then the food starts coming fast and furious, starting with two things that weren’t even listed on the menu, a little amuse bouche from the chef: savory blue cheese filled dosas and something deliciously creamy and crisp on a tasting spoon.
We don’t even fully know what the courses are, as there is little description on the menu. Ash roasted sweet potato over white pea mash with strawberry; kanyakumari crab rasam with applam; and roast chicken with sarson saag and masala feta. We ask the waiter to please slow down the food so that we can enjoy it and digest it a bit before the next course. We’re also trying to extend our time at the restaurant until our 4am flight.
He obliges as he delivers meetha aachar pork ribs with sun dried mango puffs – possibly the best pork rib I’ve ever had – and then the palate cleanser of anar and churan kulfi sorbet. My daughter hates the sorbet, but I find it refreshing. She has chosen lamb, as she has at most meals during our trip, and the waiter brings her lamb chops with barley Haleem and braised turnip. I’ve not felt secure ordering fish anywhere during the past two weeks, but know it will be good here, so I choose the baked fish with sweet corn kadhi and mathri crumbs.
We hadn’t even noticed on the menu of courses that our entrees will be served with black dairy dal, bathua and purple potato raita, and Indian Accent breads. We’re groaning at this point, unsure how to fit in another bite.It’s after 11 by the time they bring dessert, the latest we’ve been up since arriving in India. We’re barely able to keep our eyes open, and though we’re not really fans of sweets, we dig in because they are so delicious: black carrot halwa, cannoli, pistachio and doda burfi treacle tart with hot toddy ice cream. As we set our forks down, and sip the last of our wine, we’re both grinning, silently agreeing this was the perfect ending to our amazing adventure eating our way through India.