Friday, May 18, 2012

Tandoori in the City of Mughals

The sprawling city of Delhi may boast the manicured avenues of the British Raj and be encircled by high-rise suburbs, but at its heart remain the atmospherically chaotic lanes of Old Delhi. This area grew up during the Islamic Mughal empire, and its heritage is reflected in its cuisine. It offers some of the best places in the world to eat tandoori dishes, cooked in a traditional clay oven.

Exploring India’s capital is a journey of rich historical discovery, for this is not one but seven successive cities. Predating the New Delhi of the British Raj, settlement began with Rajput-era Lal Kot and culminated in the crowning glory of the Mughal empire: Shah Jahan’s eponymous city, Shah-jahanabad, now known as Old Delhi. In between, a succession of Muslim conquerors left behind majestic monuments such as the towering Qutb Minar minaret and the elegant domed tomb of Emperor Humayun, but it is the remains of Shah Jahan’s city, founded in 1638, that most captivate the imagination.
Within the space demarcated by the old city’s four remaining stone gates and beside the expansive Red Fort and imposing Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, life goes on in many ways as it did during the Mughal era. Wandering through the web of narrow lanes and bazaars, you will encounter rows of tiny shops selling by turns gleaming metal pots and other household items, sparkling jewelry, or colorful spices piled high in bulging sacks.
Old Delhi is a true melting pot of people from all over the Indian subcontinent and beyond. At every turn, restaurants vie for attention with street vendors selling snacks called chaat (see pp192–3), but most distinctive among them – signaled by racks of ruddy-colored chickens fresh from the oven – are the tandoori restaurants. “Tandoor” is the word for the clay oven in which meat, fish, and some vegetables are cooked at temperatures as high as 750°F (480°C). This method of cooking, popular in the Punjab region, was said to be a favorite of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, father of Shah Jahan. However, tandoori cuisine as we know it today is widely credited to the restaurateur Kundan Lal Gujral and his Delhi base, Moti Mahal.
Tandoori dishes are fairly simple, with chicken as the most common ingredient. It is slit and marinaded in a mixture of yogurt, lime juice, garlic, and spices such as chili pepper, garam masala, coriander, cloves, and ginger before being baked in the oven. The marinade keeps the meat succulent and moist. It is served with an onion-based salad and usually eaten with naan flatbread, also fresh from the hot tandoor oven.

Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan

Best Places to Eat Tandoori

Moti Mahal

This restaurant – the epicenter of tandoori cuisine – was established in Delhi by Kundan Lal Gujral over 60 years ago and has since spawned a series of franchises, even beyond the boundaries of India. However, the prototype still has to be the place to sample tandoori cuisine at its best. There is plenty of seating within the relatively plain interior and a large leafy courtyard to dine in for most of the year.
Some nights there is live qawwali, Islamic devotional music, to accompany your meal.
It is the food, however, that really does the talking. A wide range of tandoori dishes is available, including chicken or fish tikka, lamb kebabs, shrimp, and a variety of vegetables such as cauliflower, potato, and mushroom, as well as some paneer (cheese) dishes. Unsurprisingly, tandoori chicken is the most popular main dish on the menu, but the traditional butter chicken is another favorite. And, of course, there is a range of freshly baked naan breads to help you mop up any remaining juices.
3704 Netaji Subhash Marg, Daryaganj, Old Delhi; open 11 AM–11:30 PM daily; +91 11 2327 3661

The precise mix of spices used determines the color of tandoori chicken
Also in Delhi
The perfect example of how local cuisine has been taken upmarket to suit the lifestyle of Delhi’s nouveaux riches, Punjabi By Nature (; expensive) has subtle lighting and decor, smart and attentive service, and delicious food that preserves its traditional roots. This is a fine spot for a special night out, sampling mouthwatering specialties such as tandoori shrimp, fish tikka, and raan-e-punjab (leg of lamb).
Also in India
Tandoori cuisine has spread to become a staple throughout India. In the city of Jaipur, Niro’s (+91 141 221 8520; moderate) offers a succulent range of dishes from the tandoor as well as Rajasthani specialties. There’s no problem finding good tandoori in the south, either: Chennai’s Bismillah Biryani Centre (+91 98 8464 8345; inexpensive) is a typical street corner joint that turns tasty items out of its oven, as well as serving biryanis.
Around the World
In London, look no farther than the branch of Moti Mahal (; expensive) in Covent Garden. This stylish restaurant offers top tandoori, expertly prepared by chef Anirudh Arora, as well as a variety of other traditional dishes. Over in San Francisco, the place to go is India Clay Oven (; inexpensive), which offers a wide range of tasty tandoori dishes.
The Spice Market
Khari Baoli, named after its stepped well or baoli, once used for bathing and watering livestock, is the largest spice market in Asia. It is a fabulous place to stock up on Indian cooking ingredients and soak up the atmosphere of Old Delhi. Located just beyond the western end of Old Delhi’s main street, Chandni Chowk, its crowded stands, separated by narrow lanes, are still often owned by the same families who began their businesses here ten generations ago. Every kind of spice, seasoning, and herb is on display amid a heady mixture of exotic aromas and a psychedelic palette of varying hues. The constant cries of porters carrying huge sacks and spice merchants advertising their wares adds sound to the sensual overload. You only need to take a pinch of garam masala and touch a little to your tongue to complete a sensory feast.
A Day in Old Delhi
Mesmerizing Old Delhi is just a mile or so (a couple of kilometers) north of Connaught Place, the modern hub of New Delhi. Unmistakably Islamic despite the nation’s Hindu background, it is a thoroughly rewarding area in which to explore historic sites and markets.
MORNING : From sturdy Delhi Gate, at the old city’s southern edge, stroll up Netaji Subhash Marg until you see the massive ramparts of the Red Fort (Lal Qila) on your right. You can spend several hours visiting the exquisite halls, palaces, and museum within, including a relaxing stroll in the delightful gardens.
AFTERNOON : Head west along crowded Chandni Chowk, perhaps dipping into the Hindu Lal Mandir temple, then bear south into the jumble of winding lanes that constitute one huge and vibrant market.
Getting lost is part of the fun.
EVENING : Find your way to Jama Masjid mosque, whose minarets tower above the old city. It is at its most magical around the time of evening prayers. Then it’s tandoori time.
Getting to Delhi
Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, due to be connected to the new metro system, is 9 miles (15 km) southwest of downtown. The metro provides a hassle-free and airconditioned way of getting around the city.
Where to stay in Delhi
Rak International (inexpensive) offers a bargain in the bustling backpacker area of Paharganj.
Godwin Deluxe (moderate) is a bright, modern hotel conveniently located in Ram Nagar, near the old city.
Maidens (expensive) gives you a taste of real Raj-style luxury in a converted colonial mansion in Old Delhi.
88 Janpath, New Delhi; +91 11 2332 0008

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