Flavours of Delhi: A Food Lover’s Guide tells the story of Delhi through its food. It explores the
city’s culinary history beginning with Indraprastha, taking us through the Sultanate period, Mughal
rule and the British raj, and bringing us right up to the present.
Professional chef and food writer Charmaine O’Brien’s love for Delhi and its culinary
delights is evident. ‘She tells us not only what to eat but also where to eat it. From paranthas in the
galis of Chandni Chowk to kakori kababs at the fancy Dum Pukht, from chaat at a roadside stall to
appams at Keraleeyam, from fresh fruit and vegetables at INA Market to fish at Chittaranjan Part,
O’Brien takes us on a guided tour through the capital, encouraging us to sample and savour as we
History comes alive as the recipes in this book allow us to recreate the varied flavours of
the city in our kitchens. The result of extensive travel and research, and lavishly illustrated with
photographs taken by Kirsten Grant, Flavours of Delhi is history, travel and cookbook all in one. It
is a fascinating read that whets the reader’s interest and appetite.
Charmaine O’Brien cannot remember a time when she has not been interested in food.
As a child she delighted in poring over her mother’s cookbooks and her adult work life has been
centred around food. She has trained as a chef, run her own catering business and developed
cooking classes for an institution for adult education.
While taking a degree in psychology, she began travelling to India. It was the beginning
of an irrepressible passion for the subcontinent. O’Brien lives in Melbourne, Australia, but she
intends to be in India to begin research for a culinary travel book.
She is the author of World Food: New Orleans and was awarded a Harry A. Bell grant
from the International association of Culinary Professionals in 2001.
My aim in writing this book is to give the reader a complete picture of the food life in the city of
Delhi. Beginning with a comprehensive exploration of the city’s culinary history, the book winds up in
the fashionable cafés and restaurants of modern Delhi. I have tried to make history come alive by
including recipes old and new, that will allow the reader to recreate the flavours of the city in his or
her home. The latter half of the book is more akin to a restaurant guide and includes a guide to food
shopping in Delhi. I have not offered a comprehensive list of restaurants there are thousands in the
city). Instead I have chosen to focus on the places that offer the best examples of the style of food I
am writing about. I have also directed the reader to a broad range of eating places as my intention is
to guide him or her to the best food and this does not airways mean the most expensive. My choices
range from spartan dhabas to seriously expensive hotels. The difference between these places is
often not the food but the surroundings. A simple rule of thumb to follow: if I have recommended a
restaurant in a hotel—and many of Delhi’s best restaurants are in five—star hotels—then you can be
assured that it is expensive. Most other restaurants are reasonable and dhabas, sweet shops and
street stalls are inexpensive.
In the past five years or so Delhi has experienced a boom in dining out and the number of eating
places has proliferated at a great rate. As in many cities around the world, it has become very
fashionable in Delhi to have an interest in a restaurant. While many novice restaurateurs may have
great ideas and be serving up good food, they may not have the stamina or business acumen that it
requires to ensure longevity in the restaurant game. Consequently places can come and go; often
very quickly I have done my best to ensure that all information in this book is correct at the time of
printing but it may be prudent to call and check the current operating details and status of any of the
I have also included some suggested tours for those readers who would like to both see and ‘taste’
the city. I do not expect that the reader will be limited to the suggestions that I have made in the
book but that the information I have provided will encourage the reader to his or her own
The first time I landed in Delhi was 23 November 1995. I spent a few days in the city; I did not like
it. I had come to India to see all the magical places I had heard about- Varanasi, Rajasthan,
Rishikesh, Khajuraho, the Taj Mahal. The country I wanted to see was tourist brochure India: dusky
women in jewel—coloured saris gliding through beautiful stark desert landscapes; hawk-eyed men in
ice—cream—coloured turbans and big gold earrings; marble palaces glimmering pink in the early
morning light; decorated elephants; snake charmers; fortune tellers. Nothing had prepared me for the
capital of India.
Delhi was obtrusive—the mass of people; the vehicles moving madly across intersections; the
unrelenting bleating of car horns; the stinking public urinals and everywhere men spitting out streams
of blood-coloured liquid. Delhi was polluted; it was not magical in the least. I bought a train ticket to
Agra and left. I had no idea as I headed off to see the Taj Mahal that the man who built this Famous
monument had also created a marvellous city in Delhi.
28 November 1996, I was back in Delhi again. A Friend’s wedding celebrations necessitated that I
spend two weeks in the city. This time the damp smell of Indira Gandhi Airport seemed familiar and
welcoming. I was better prepared for Delhi this time. I had shed my travel brochure notions and was
ready for the shoe-shinewallahs in Connaught Place.
I saw a bit more of Delhi and begrudgingly began to like it. I discovered Old Delhi and some of the
city’s culinary treasures. I ate Mughlai food, plenty of tandoori food and I threw caution to the wind
and started eating from promising-looking street stalls (I did not get sick from this and remain
convinced that some of the best food in Delhi can be had from these stalls).
I was still blissfully ignorant though, of what a city this had once been. As soon as the wedding
festivities were over I left Delhi to see and taste more of India.
My travels in India had introduced me to the incredible diversity of cuisine eaten throughout the
country. I was astounded at how little we really know of Indian food in the West. All the Indian
restaurants I had been to at home served the same dishes. I thought that palak paneer, roghan josh,
aloo dum, dal, garlic naan and tandoori chicken were Indian food. How exciting it was to find out
It was obvious that changes in geography and climate influenced culinary differences throughout India
but there were so many other variables that had determined what people ate. The food of each
region, community or class of people told a story; their histories were captured in their food. I had
become besotted with India and wanted to know more. What better way to learn about this
incredible country than through her food! My millennium year resolution was to write a book about
food in India.
March 2000. I had packed up my life in Australia to come to India to write my book on Indian food.
I knew I wanted to write about food in India, but which food, where and how and when? I decided
to make a start in Delhi. I began exploring food markets and visiting restaurants but the searing
summer heat eventually drove me out of the city.
I escaped to the mountains where friends provided generous refuge and a copy of City of Djinns. A
Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple. The book properly introduced me to a city that I realized I had
not been giving due consideration to. I had an ‘Eureka’ moment—the story of the food of Delhi was
going to be my book. I came down from the mountains and began my own ‘year of living in Delhi’.
Delhi has been the capital of India only for the last ninety-two years but she has long been an
important city. Situated at the point where the Aravalli Ranges taper off and meet the right bank of
the Yamuna river, this geographic configuration creates a natural funnel fiat traffic into central and
southern India. The obvious strategic advantages of holding such a position made Delhi a magnet for
invaders. From early in history it has been said that ‘he who holds Delhi holds India’.
Successive invaders undertook expensive expeditions, travelling thousands of kilometres on
horseback to try their hand at conquering, plundering and ruling Delhi. What a fantastic city Delhi
must have been to keep attracting such attention and to keep rising from the ashes (often literally) of
The most obvious legacy of Delhi’s past is in the architecture of the city The buildings of Delhi’s
Mahabharata era only live on in legend but each subsequent ruler, from the seventh-century Rajput
kings to the British Raj, contributed to Delhi’s rich architectural history. Walk or drive anywhere in
Delhi and you will see the remains of earlier cities: ancient domes hover over new homes; crumbling
walls of older cities mark the boundaries of modern suburbs; green parks are dotted with ancient
mosques and decaying forts; a traffic roundabout is built around a medieval tomb. Typically those
who want to learn about Delhi study the architecture of the city, but another way to learn about Delhi
is through her food. Everybody who has come here has eaten. Just as each ruler left their
architectural mark on the city so each bequeathed to the city a culinary legacy.
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