the meals we (almost) couldn’t eat

There were times in Delhi when eating out required steeling ourselves against sights that made us want to run with waving hands for the first flight to Paris.

There were times we’d see a cook’s sweat dripping into his mixing bowl. There were times when we’d enter restaurant bathrooms so dirty that we’d curse our bladders for forcing us to see such a sight before we ate.

There was even a time at a trendy restaurant in Basant Lok when a mouse ran across the feet of the four people seated across from me; the impromptu chorus line that occurred as they all kicked would have been funny if I hadn’t been so busy jumping up on my own seat as well.

But a cook’s special seasoning or a four-legged foot massage would not deter us from enjoying our meals.

We’d adapted to Delhi’s culinary landscape, which sometimes required relaxing our sanitary standards a bit. Because through the moistest of alleyways and upon the greasiest of tabletops awaited some of the most unforgettable meals we’ve ever had.

We learned to follow the reaction of people around us: if nobody else seemed bothered by what was revealed when the kitchen door swung open, why should we worry?

Still. Sometimes our eyes saw sights that were too much for our hungry stomachs to bear. On one of our last nights in India, our friends took us to a set of competing storefront kebab stands near Nizamuddin (immortalized by my friend Sam Dolnick in the LA Times), where grease from daytime auto repair mingled on the cement with that of nightly mutton burra.

This was our fourth eatery of the night but the first to give us pause, even though two of the preceeding three weren’t quite models of salubrity themselves. First had been a paratha stand across from the Times of India building, where we’d enjoyed stunningly delicious stuffed bread from a stand built on cracked pavement; though cockroaches darted about, they were far enough away that we could pretend they always kept their distance from where food was stored.

The second stop was a perfectly hygienic restaurant in Old Delhi. But the round of parathas after that came from a vendor outside the Nizammudin Railway Station whose stand would have been far too close to the public urinal for nasal comfort had the breeze not been so favorable.

At this kebab stand, though, Jenny and I exchanged looks as we watched an employee stomp through puddles of black water on his way to a basin of steaming brown liquid in which he started dunking dirty plates. As we stood around in a circle as we waited for them to hose off a table for us, our friend Supratim idly rocked back and forth on a poorly-fitted manhole; though he didn’t notice it, his absent shifts on the unbalanced lid caused bubbles of black liquid to gurgle forth from the loose seal.

We could smell the kebabs cooking, but we could also smell something else.

We had full trust in our friends, and we reminded ourselves over and over that they’d never steered us wrong before. But we couldn’t do it. Suddenly I loudly realized that that very last bite of that very last paratha had, amazingly enough, been exactly what it took to make me completely full, and Jenny took the opportunity to remind everyone that she was a vegetarian but no, she didn’t want any paneer tikka because she wasn’t hungry anyway.

7 responses to “the meals we (almost) couldn’t eat

  1. Kind of unfortunate. Because, if the Nizammundin place was Aap Ki Khatir, then they have the best Kakori Kabab.

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  3. i would say — you are not alone in the revulsion you feel.

    i am reminded of my own experience in Joshi Bhojanalaya of Kalbadevi, Mumbai. even though i had been a regular there for about 2 years and enjoyed the meals very much, the first time I visited their toilet is what i remember most about the place – now that i am not based in Mumbai anymore. i have never been able to enjoy their food after that incident whenever i have (very very reluctantly) gone there because of insistent friends, and also due to the rationalization – if it is good for them, it is good for me too – somehow it never works.

    next time please do not allow your good judgment to interfere with any rationalization.

    oh and BTW, I am an indian … if you are curious.

  4. This post reminds me of my experiences eating in Pakistan (where I lived for 2 years). I was of the “watch those around me” school of thought and quickly learned to just go with it most of the time. I also learned not to tell some of my stories to certain friends back home. They just wouldn’t understand the ability to overlook sanitation for good pakora.

  5. Smell WHAT – this story need continuing. The suspense, the suspense………..

  6. This totally reminds me of this amazing sandwich shop I found one day in Old Delhi. They serve sweet sandwiches, with the requisite sliced-white bread of course, but also with mangoes, paneer, honey and jam. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried them… or the apple-paneer-honey-pomegranate sandwich.

    I’m pretty sure the sandwiches are seasonal (do yourself a favor and visit during mango season), and you can find the shop on Chandi-Chowk, which goes out from the East-Face of Jama-Masjid. Pass the fork in the road and keep heading toward Chawri Bazaar. On the right side (as you’re headed to Chowri, and maybe around 400 meters before reaching it) there should be an archway which leads to a little enclosure off the busy street. There’s a sign for a hotel called “Lovely” at the end of the little enclosed path. The sandwich shop is on the left as you exit. Believe me, you won’t regret the adventure or the food at the end.


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