The day we chose to have lunch here was a major festival, Pongal. The canteen was flooded with merry crowds of Andhra expats celebrating Pongal, and we entered the hall to find ourselves battling a huge crowd. An efficient maître d’, however, swiftly sent my husband off to the cashier to buy our meal coupons. Within about two minutes of arriving, we were seated, and a waiter had scurried off to get our meals.
The meals at the canteen are fixed. You can choose between a vegetarian meal (for Rs 50- just over US$1) and a non-vegetarian meal, at double that. The basics are the same: although we opted for the non-vegetarian meal, we got everything vegetarians did- in addition to the non-veg stuff.
Our food came on large compartmented steel trays. On one side was a little mound of boiled rice, tempered with mustard seeds, curry leaves, red chillies and fried peanuts. There was a small bowl of plain yoghurt; and a sweet- a delicious morsel of desiccated coconut mixed with raw sugar, wrapped in ground rice and deep-fried. In the centre of our table were placed some interesting condiments: a fiery red chutney based on red chillies; a chutney of a leafy green called gongura (a harmless relative of marijuana!); and gunpowder. Gunpowder, for the uninitiated, is a spice powder made from roasted lentils and spices. It can be mild or fiery, and is a must with most South Indian meals.
A small bowl of sambhar- lentils cooked with vegetables and spices- was put next to each plate. Alongside it was put another small bowl, full of a sour, spicy, soupy rasam.
A waiter came around, carrying a set of steel containers joined together by a handle on top- very typical of South Indian restaurants. He swiftly dished out, from the containers, different dishes. A very mild dish of lentils went into one compartment. Next to it went a curry of okra and tomato; then came a dish of boiled potato, beans and peas, tempered with onions and mustard seeds. Green chutney followed, along with crisp fried puris (a very delectable, if fattening, bread that’s popular almost across India). Plain boiled rice, fish curry, and a glorious mutton fry- crisp on the outside, tender inside- were also served up. Other than the mutton and the fish, everything was `all you can eat’.
For a mere US$2 per person, that’s not bad at all, especially when you consider that the food is refreshingly different from the usual stuff you’ll find in other South Indian restaurants in Delhi.
New Delhi, India
December 31, 2007
From journal Culinary Capital: Savouring Indian Food in Delhi