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.