Discovering Old Delhi Through Its Food Culture

Delhi India

I’ve been honest about my concerns before first visiting India earlier this year. There is, after all, a reason why I hadn’t traveled around the subcontinent in my 42 years of life. I thought it would be too much for me, I didn’t think I’d enjoy it and I didn’t think it was worth the angst of the effort. One of my chief worries was about the food. Not the style, my local Indian eatery has taught me that I love Indian food. No, I was worried about the safety of eating in India, but that’s where luxury travel provider Abercrombie & Kent once again saved the day. There are many reasons why I enjoy traveling with them so very much, but one is for providing immersive experiences that are also safe and secure. One of my favorite such experiences happened one morning while in Delhi, when I met a guide to explore the labyrinthine markets of Old Delhi.

The Delhis

For those of us largely unfamiliar with India, the many terms used to describe Delhi can be confusing. Delhi refers to the entire region while New Delhi refers to the capital of India itself. That’s not what interested me though, no, instead I was intrigued by the far older (and chaotic) Old Delhi. Originally established in 1638 when that mighty Mughal emperor Shah Jahan decided to shift the capital from Agra, Delhi quickly grew into a busy and crowded city. After the British shifted the colonial capital and then the center of power within Delhi itself, Old Delhi emerged as a maze of streets, alleyways, shops and decaying buildings. But it was, and still is, very much the symbolic heart of Delhi and I was excited to experience it for the first time with an expert not only in the city, but in sharing the unique tastes that define it.

Delicious Cacophony

I’ve visited a lot of chaotic neighborhoods around the world, but nothing quite compares to Old Delhi. Almost as if I had crossed an invisible border, the crowds, the smells, the sounds, everything was instantly magnified. Following my guide like a lost puppy, I was amazed how she effortlessly navigated the bazaar, clearly knowing her way through the jumble of backstreets. Before I knew it we were at our first of many stops that morning, my first time enjoying the sweet pastry known as jalebis. One of many culinary influences from the Mughals, it was still glistening with ghee as I bit into it, instantly falling in love with the treat. Although modern day Delhi is very much like any other world capital with food influences of a global variety, locals still descend on the crowded lanes of Old Delhi for authentic bites like the jalebis, as well as the many other dishes I tried that morning.

Eager for the immersive experience, I set aside my old concerns and threw myself into the moment. Not surprisingly, that single decision transformed the walking tour into something a little extra special. Standing in line with locals for drinks and snacks, I still felt like an outsider, but one armed with enough insider knowledge to not feel as if I was from another planet. The morning also showed me a side not only to India but to the city that I had anticipated before the trip, but hadn’t seen much of during the adventure. Yes, it was chaotic but not any more so than similar markets in Cairo or Bangkok. I didn’t feel unsafe and I was confident in the quality of the food I tried. I think that morning more than anything else showed me not just how wrong I was about India, but how misguided most travel reports about the country are.

India Isn’t Scary

Based on the many accounts of traveling to India I’d read over the years, I was prepared for a level of chaos akin to a dystopian novel. So, imagine my surprise when I instead discovered a country like many others around the world. Is it chaotic? Yes. Is it loud? Yes, and if I never hear another car horn again I’m ok with that. But it’s no different from many other countries I’ve visited around the world in Africa, Central and Southeast Asia. It’s not as fearsome as I thought it would be. India is a developing nation of 1.3 billion people. There is a stark divide between the rich and the poor, although the middle class is growing like gangbusters at the moment. There are issues, I’m not disputing that and I’m not trying to portray a Pollyannaish image that’s inaccurate. No, instead I do believe that some accounts of India have been grossly off the mark and I think I know at least one reason for that. Many people visit India only briefly, there to see top sights like the Taj Mahal. If your only experience visiting India are the cities of Agra (where the Taj is located) and the capital city of Delhi then no, you won’t have positive impressions of the country. However, if you veer off into other areas of the country like I did with Abercrombie & Kent, then a more complete and robust image of the country will start to form. That’s actually one of the many advantages of taking a Tailor Made Journey to India. The trip was designed just for me and my interests, allowing me the opportunity to explore at my pace and to only experience those places and activities that truly interested me. As a result, I enjoyed nearly everything I did during my 9 days in India, especially that morning in Old Delhi.

Importance of Culinary Tourism

Whenever I visit a new city one of the first things I do is to find a food tour. Thankfully, they’re now much more commonplace than just a few years ago, enabling me to join them in cities around the world. I don’t like food tours just for the tasty bites themselves, although they’re certainly a bonus. No, a food tour is my first stop because it’s the best way for me to learn about a new city and even country. Food tours are about so much more than finding a few things to eat or drink. They combine cultural and historical lessons into the experience, whether intentional or not. By learning about what local people eat, we learn about what they value, what they deem important. It’s important for me as a visitor to know, for example, that in Madrid grocery stores there are multiple aisles of olive oil. That tells me something, it shares a little bit of their culture that I wouldn’t otherwise learn. Food tours accomplish this efficiently and quickly, which is why I love them and is why I enjoyed the experience in Delhi so very much. Although by that time I had spent a week in the country, that morning taught me more about the culinary aspect of traveling around India than any other experience I had enjoyed. It wasn’t just a nice walk around the neighborhood, it was something important for me to do. Whether it was watching the rough and tumble world of the spice trade, or learning more about the Jains, it was a crash course into Delhi life that I simply couldn’t have otherwise experienced, and certainly not on a more run of the mill tour. It brought Delhi to life for me, it gave it color and character and made me appreciate the city much more than any UNESCO site possibly could.

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