14 May 2009

Column - Happy Entrails

My 'Back of the Book' column for Time Out Delhi:

Cities can be mapped in many ways. For my father, the kind of Bengali who spent his childhood breakfasting on a daily handi of rosogollas with his grandfather, neighbourhoods are marked by sweet shops: all of Calcutta littered with remembered mishti. What I’ve been thinking about recently is a meat map of Delhi. The thought was triggered, I think, by a somewhat odd remark by the writer MG Vassanji, in his recent memoir-cum-travelogue A Place Within, to the effect that Delhi until the 1980s was a vegetarian city, unless you went to Shahjahanbad – or a five star hotel. It isn’t true, of course – tandoori chicken must have been as orderable from the local takeaway joint as it is today, not to mention shredded lamb and chilli chicken from the Aka Sakas and Fujiyas. I have vivid memories of myself as a six-year-old eating barra kababs in a car outside Pandara Road. But it’s an interesting remark, because it makes one think about how the city displays itself to different kinds of people.

Having grown up sandwiched between the staunchly non-vegetarian influence of my father’s side, and an egg-abhoring Jain khandaan on my mother’s side, I know that the same city, depending on who you are, can conjure up very different images: oases of meat-eating holding out against a joyless desert of vegetarianism, or a vast carnivorous jungle, whose frightful sights and smells must be shut out as one journeys in search of the rare untainted kitchen. Within these broad territories, there are subcategories. So, for example, Old Delhi, fetishized as meat-eater-heaven, can be fully as fulfilling for someone in search of no onion, no garlic Marwari thalis, or the perfect kanji vada. On the other hand, one shouldn’t be surprised if for someone like Vassanji, butter chicken doesn’t quite cut it as meat, making the hearty kukkad-country south of Lutyens’ Delhi appear an unending morass of rajma-chawal. So, like so many non-vegetarian visitors to the city, he makes the necessary pilgrimage to Karim’s, noting dutifully that he liked the shammi more than the seekh.

There’s a flip side to this, which is that even chicken-lovers who ought to really be staying put outside Rajinder da Dhaba (or motoring up to Moti Mahal at most), feel obliged to pay obeisance at Karim’s – even if what they end up eating there is Noorjahani chicken with paneer paratha. Because chicken, whether the red meat aficionados like it or not, is our city’s default non-vegetarian food, the gift of Punjab to post-partition Delhi. Order mutton in an untested, standard-issue Delhi restaurant (outside of Nizamuddin and the Jama Masjid area, where the remnants of Mughal slow cooking still seem to survive) and nine times of ten, it isn’t tender enough. Well-cooked pork is even more complicated: yes, there are Chinese restaurants, but it’s still at its most interesting in the city’s Tibetan enclaves, or in tiny North Eastern outposts, on university campuses or in Dilli Haat.

The point is that it depends on how you look at the city. The more you explore, the more maps you’re going to find. To things you’re looking for, and even those you’re not.

A very slightly edited version of this was published in Time Out Delhi magazine, Vol. 3 Issue 3, May 1-14, 2009.

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