After the speed tour around the Golden Triangle, I spent four days in New Delhi for work. More accurately, my hotel, the Radisson, was in New Delhi, and my office was 3 km (but 1 hour away by car in traffic) away in Gurgaon.Here are a couple of things, in no particular order, that surprised me about my time in New Delhi:
- Many of the roads are newly-paved, neat and smooth. However, the roads are so clogged by traffic during rush hour (i.e., 8-9:30 am and 5-7 pm) that it hardly matters how nice the roads are. You’re just not going to get anywhere fast during rush hour.
- All the “best” restaurants (as was the case in Agra and Jaipur) are in large, expensive hotels, and cool clubs are sometimes in shopping malls.
- Buying imported alcohol (especially wine) is 4 or 5 times more expensive than it is in the US, though Foster’s is considered a “local” beer because it’s brewed in India and therefore counts as a “domestic” drink, resulting in a lower price (allegedly because domestic alcohol isn’t subject to crippling import taxes).
- While fancy coffee drinks are available, there are no Starbucks in New Delhi (or in India, period, according to my colleague in India). Considering there is a Starbucks in the Forbidden City in China – need I mention, a communist country – how weird is it that there are none in all of India?
Despite being in New Delhi for work, I did get to visit the Qutb Minar complex (photo at the top of this post), which looked romantic at sunset, but lacked any meaning to me beyond the oh-so-profound sense of “wow, there used to be a big and powerful civilization here and now there isn’t.”) My guidebook was not very handy, and I was uninterested in the series of vague dates and names the guide shared about the complex.
I spent most of my time at the office in Gurgaon, which is to New Delhi as Reston, VA is to Washington, DC, meaning that the NH-8 highway running through Gurgaon is flanked by gleaming office towers wearing the logos of the largest (mostly high-tech) companies in the world.
I was interested to see that most people working in Gurgaon are driven between home and work in employer-provided vans. It’s kind of like riding the school bus to work, except better because it’s door-to-door.
In many ways, my trip to India was very sheltered – private cars, guides – but in a weird way, I think that these sorts of services and sheltering from the noise and touts *is* India. Of course there is the vast majority of the country living in poverty, so I guess the slice of life I’m trying describe is the India that’s on the rise.
Take, for example, the Gurgaon office tower complex I worked in. The office tower (see photo at left) is shiny and new and could be anywhere in the world – say, in Reston, VA.
At lunchtime, you might go downstairs and line up at the Citibank ATM in order to grab some cash for lunch. Then you walk over to the complex’s food court, which includes a McDonald’s and an Indian version of that oddly-always-Chinese-influenced “Cajun Grill,” and while there’s an Indian twist to the food court (chicken korma paninis using white bread instead of ciabatta, or a dosa takeaway joint), the Indian professionals in the food court are having a work day no different from anyone else’s in the US.
For these Indians, life is busy, challenging and comfortable, especially when you consider how, because of low labor costs, a middle-class family doesn’t blink at having full-time staff at home.
One evening, my team had dinner at the house of one of our Indian colleagues, Shilpa. Shilpa still lives with her parents because she’s unmarried, and she went to college in the US, which means that relative to most people in India, she’s wealthy. How else to pay American tuition sans financial aid?
Her parents live in what she calls a “farmhouse,” which is a term used in India the way some people in London talk about country houses in the Lake District. On the one hand, the house – located in a part of Delhi known as the Defence Colony – was imposing with all sort of columns and marbling and staff. On the other hand, it was so Asian – from the cognac bottles (even in airplane-miniature sizes) on display in the curio in the living room to the glamour-photo family portraits.
Shilpa’s parents seemed to be the sweetest people on earth (we were at their home for a big catered dinner on the night of their 25th wedding anniversary – how’s that for generosity and hospitality?), though I have a feeling I don’t want to be on the other side of a negotiating table from Shilpa’s father, who runs an “import-export” business of Chinese goods. I loved learning how Shilpa’s father viewed business with China as a lucrative and booming one because I always picture China and India being competitors on the world stage. But maybe the two countries will team together and kick everyone’s ass in the end.
Anyway, I know I’ve gone on a little too long about my trip to India, so here are my closing blurbs on the bits of eating and shopping I managed to do in Delhi. As many of my Indian colleagues and friends repeated to me, all the “best” restaurants in India are in the big hotels and not in holes-in-the-wall. For home cooking, you eat at home, apparently. So with this explanation (read: defensive statement) for why I ate in places like the Sheraton and Radisson, here you go:
The Great Kebab Factory (Radisson Hotel): There’s no a la carte menu – it’s just one prix fixe option, but the food is all you can eat. For Rp 990 ($20 US, but still a small fortune in India), you’re served an endless march of grilled meats (veg option available, but I opted for meat) and outstandingly flaky and buttery parathas and rotis.
It’s surprising how good the food is given that (1) the decor is a little bit Cheesecake Factory-like, (2) the servers wear overalls (it is the Kebab Factory, after all), and (3) all the food sits for a while in chafing dishes in front of the kitchen while the servers run around serving courses of grilled meat one-by-one tableside.
Bukhara (Mauraya Sheraton Hotel): This restaurant gets all the hype. Even when you’re seated and already eating, servers will remind you: “we are the Number One restaurant in Asia” followed closely by “this is Bill Clinton’s favorite restaurant.” It’s just pure, unadulterated pride on parade, but I guess it’s that pride that keeps the standards so high after all these years.
The decor and menu are identical to those at Peshawri at the Mughal Sheraton in Agra, so I was just really surprised when I walked in and felt as if I’d walked into a “chain.” As was the case at Peshawri, the daal bukhara was deliciously spicy and smooth, the murgh malai kebab (chicken breast) and grilled prawns were juicy and savoury, and the tab was about $100 a person for appetizers, mains, beers, breads, desserts and coffees.
I have a hard time mustering a lot of enthusiasm for Bukhara – not because of anything there that fell short of delicious – but because I guess I had expected the place to be more elegant and unique, and instead it was exactly the same as Pehsawri restaurant in Agra.
I Ching (Radisson Hotel): My Indian colleagues insisted I try Chinese food while I was in India. So one night, Erica and I checked out the Chinese restaurant in our hotel. It was a disappointment. The decor was plush and quiet, but the Chinese food was just awful – and not because the spicing or flavouring was “Indian” (which is what I was curious to try), but because food came out dry or otherwise badly-cooked.
Shrimp shu mai and fried pork dumplings were particularly bad. Chewy and flavourless. Avoid.
I didn’t have much time to shop, but here are the two places I visited:
Central Cottage Industries Emporium: This store, in the main shopping district, Connaught Place, is three or four floors packed with rugs, pottery, sculpture, jewelry and textiles handmade in different parts of India. The prices are relatively high, but they’re fixed (sometimes it’s a relief not having to bargain) and the quality is also high. So said my friend Ruchi, who took a whole group of us there to shop.
For a quick snack after dropping by the Emporium, the South Indian place across the street, Saravana Bhavan, was very no-frills but delicious. It’s apparently a big chain in India, and Ruchi has gotten me hooked. The dosa (crispy crepe filled with potatos, usually) and uthappam (see photo just above – it’s like a giant potato latke – shredded and pan fried onions, potato and rice flour) get a shout out, though I can’t say I was a big fan of the idli (fluffy, spongy disks of rice flour – click thumbnail at left). The idli seemed to be just a healthy medium for eating up all the delicious dipping sauces, so between a savory uthappam and a light idli, I’ll take the uthappam every time.
Dilli Haat: You have to pay Rp 30 to get into the Dilli Haat, which is a gated outdoor market built to look like a traditional Indian village market. The thinking is that the admission fee keeps out the touts and beggars (again with the sheltered theme in India). Once you get in, there are hundreds of stalls selling all the same handicrafts you can find at the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, except bargaining is part of the picture.
Overall, I didn’t think the quality of the goods was as high as it was at the Emporium, but on the other hand, you’re likely to get lower prices at Dilli Haat, depending your bargaining skills.
And that’s it on India.