Two hours after touching down in Delhi, I’m weaving through Chandni Chowk bazaar – the the city’s most densely packed area – on a street-food tour.
The sights and smells are frenzied, as I dodge rickshaws and motorbikes down narrow lanes tangled with telephone wires. A man wafts me past carrying incense, a sea of saris swish by and people sit knitting marigolds to lay at temple.
I should be delirious from the flight, but instead I’m wide eyed with wonder at this chaotic induction to the most chaotic of cities.
I’m with Shikha Gupta, a 33-year-old female guide, who set up India’s first culinary tourism company with her husband eight years ago. In addition to taking on Old Delhi, the company offers food tours around Agra and Jaipur, too.
Our first stop is Shyam Sweets, a centuries-old confectioner that began by satisfying the sweet tooth of the last Mughal emperor in the Red Fort before he was exiled to Burma in 1857.
Today, the eighth generation of the same family runs the shop, still making the time-tested recipes they did over a century ago. Back then, some of the treats were made to last for months on end – that way the Indo-Persian dynasty could travel without missing their favourite Delhi desserts.
We start by gulping down delicious lassis – the yogurt-based drink – here, spiced with rosewater and served in terracotta cups, which are discarded after use, as the water permeates the clay. They seem too beautiful to waste. But on this tour, I do as the locals do.
Next, we move on to another storied establishment, Jain Coffee House, founded in 1948 – which Shikha reveals is where her husband proposed. Perhaps it was something to do with the fresh-fruit sandwiches they serve: the only place in the world to dish up these unusual bread-based delicacies.
It being the start of mango season, my portion comes with slices of the tropical fruit, along with grapes and saffron jam, all wedged between white buttered bread. If it sounds unusual, it is. That’s why this street-food tour is so interesting – it takes you to backstreet, out-of-the-way places that you would otherwise miss. The lighting’s dark, there’s peeling paint on the walls and the makeshift wooden tables aren’t exactly fine dining – yet this place is doing a roaring trade, turning out thousands of portions a day.
Moving on, we pause at the cart of a moustachioed older gentleman with whispy white hair, who rustles up cardamom-spiced cookies between two charcoal-warmed pots. Light and crumbly, they’re traditionally served with coffee, but are good enough to eat any time.
One of my favourite dishes, though, is a kathi roll – skewers of soya bean loaded into handkerchief-thin rumali rotis, topped with coriander and mint chutney. Although I’m approaching full, I guzzle it down, using a parked motorbike seat as a table. Like all the food on Shikha’s tour, it’s vegetarian, but its balance of spices and flavours means you don’t miss a thing.
I soon realise I may have peaked too soon: two takes on chickpea curry arrive, plus there’s bhatoora – a poppable puffed bread. Next, I taste rasgulla dumplings (a syrupy dessert), followed by pomegranate and pistachio kulfi ice-cream. Finally, I sip one more cup of lassi, flavoured with rose and almond.
It’s all delicious. But what I love most is Shikha’s side servings of cultural palate cleansers. Did you know, for example, that turmeric was initially used in Indian cuisine because its antibacterial properties were thought to neutralise untreated cooking water? And that chilis are not native to India, but were introduced to the region by the Portuguese?
I learn of all this while walking through Khari Baoli – the largest wholesale spice market in Asia – where traders from all over the country come to proffer giant sacks of ginger, pepper and more. The air is so thick with the smell of spices; it provokes involuntary coughing and sneezing in all who enter.
Emerging bleary eyed, I manage to weave my way through a phalanx of rickshaws, as a paperchain of macaques silhouette across the rooftops. Feeling a bit more local, I’m full to the brim, yet hungry for more.
HOW TO DO IT
Food Tour in Delhi runs a four-hour culinary group tour of Old Delhi’s markets from INR4,000 (£43) per person, or a private tour from INR4,500 (£48) per person. Return transfers to and from your hotel cost INR1,500 (£16).
The Lodhi hotel is a serene escape in Delhi and to extend your trip beyond the city, see Mr & Mrs Smith’s hotels across India.
For flights, British Airways flies daily between London Heathrow and New Delhi.
All photos by Laura Holt; feature image is of a Delhi spice market; via Getty