Friends, food and a return to Delhi
Maybe it was the aggression on the streets or the indignities that Delhi’s people inflicted on the weak and vulnerable. Maybe it was just the heat of summer or the dirty, grey air of winter. Maybe it was my lack of ease with the city’s Hindi- and Punjabi-dominated idiom and ethos. Despite living 17 years, on and off, in India’s chaotic, sprawling, ugly—and beautiful—capital, a city of migrants that is more accepting of outsiders than either Mumbai or Bengaluru, I never felt like I belonged.
So, when I returned to Delhi last week after a two-year absence, culture shock quickly kicked in. After six years of returning to Kannada, Dakhani Urdu and Tamil in Bengaluru, it was strange to hear Hindi everywhere. After six years of experiencing gentler attitudes to life, the pushing and shoving to get off planes and buses did not appear normal. When I glanced up at the wall next to my taxi in a traffic jam, a sign read: “No trespassing. Violators will be shot.” And the cars! There were more than I remembered—jamming the roads, the side streets, the pavements and, it appeared, every open space that was left.
Ah, yes, Delhi.
Don’t get me wrong. I may never have felt like I belonged, and I may have been in culture shock last week, but I do not dislike Delhi. I am just conflicted about it, as I have always been. There are two things about Delhi that I miss terribly: its parks and my friends. These are friends I take for granted. With them, I can do and say what I want, secure in the knowledge that they will always open their homes, hearts—and kitchens. We know each other’s secrets (mostly), share joys, sorrows, offer unwanted advice, feel free to shout and sulk, and need nothing more for entertainment than each other.
Thus it was that I found myself at the amazing Aravalli Biodiversity Reserve in south Delhi one humid morning, running along a narrow, meandering path through a lush city forest with a frantic peacock racing ahead of me. Trailing its long, iridescent blue-green plumage, the panicky bird stayed on the path ahead of me for nearly a minute, till it finally veered off. As I continued my run, peacocks called around me, a wind rustled through the forest, and only the occasional morning walker reminded me that I was still in a city of 20-odd million people.
Delhi’s parks are respites from its grim realities. Despite its old, green colonial heart and tony neighbourhoods, India’s best Metro system and a never-ending web of elevated roads, Delhi is a ramshackle city with crumbling civic infrastructure. My escape to the Aravalli forest was enabled by my old friends Salil and Sandra, whose 19-year-old offspring, Arvaan, is my godson—and the photographer who shot the picture on this page. I spent one of my two evenings with them, catching up with their lives, talking nonsense and eating Sandra’s home-made kebabs and chicken and vegetable stew.
Apart from the parks, food and friends are the perks of Delhi, each intertwined with the other. So it is with my friend Shammy, whose culinary link to me is saunf chicken (see box), which she always makes when I visit. Apart from being an intrepid, fearless reporter given to wearing only sleeveless clothes—we once had to persuade her that something with sleeves might be more appropriate when reporting from then Taliban-run Afghanistan—Shammy is an excellent cook.
I may tussle with her about when dinner must be eaten—she prefers close to midnight, my dinner time is 6pm—but that is because I like to have all my senses about me when I do. The saunf chicken, Shammy clarified, comes from her mother (an equally strong woman who lives in Chandigarh), and its unusual quality is that apart from the saunf, it uses hardly any ground spices, ginger or garlic. “It is possible to cook meat without ginger-garlic,” Shammy told me, as she meditatively ground the roasted aniseed and explained that it was important not to add anything that would overpower the saunf.
As I valiantly interpreted her singular instructions—“Dry the water, but leave a little, it should be lipta-lipta”—I was glad to watch Shammy’s mummy’s magic unfold, leavened with my dear friend’s characteristic flourish. The saunf, she explained, should go in last. I interrupted.
“Ah, yes, like a garnish?”
Shammy cocked a manicured eyebrow and, with considerable hauteur, declared: “Like a crowning glory!”
Shammy’s mummyji’s ‘saunf’ chicken
1kg chicken, cut into 16 pieces
4 big onions, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
4 dried Kashmiri chillies, deseeded
2 black cardamoms
1 tsp black peppercorn
4 tbsp saunf (fennel) seeds
1/2 tsp chilli powder
1 tbsp oil (vegetable or olive)
Roast the saunf seeds on an iron pan until they crackle and brown. Remove from pan and allow to cool. Grind to a fine powder.
In a non-stick wok, heat the oil and add cardamom and dried Kashmiri chillies. Take care not to burn them. When they start to splutter, add onions and peppercorns and let them brown. Add tomatoes and sauté for 2 minutes. Add chilli powder and chicken, Mix well, cover and reduce to a simmer.
Cook for an hour. Check and flip if needed. Uncover after an hour and start drying out the water, letting a little water remain. Sprinkle saunf powder, mix and turn off the fire. Allow the saunf to settle in for about 15 minutes. Serve hot.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
The writer tweets at @samar11