Till well into the 90s, Delhi wasn’t a very happening place when it came to non-Indian food. True, fancy five-star hotels did have good restaurants that served everything from French haute cuisine to the "best dimsums outside Hong Kong" (as a Chinese-born friend of mine once described them). But if you wanted to eat burgers or a pizza, you had no option but to go to the local Nirula’s. If you wanted ice cream, it was again Nirula’s (which still makes fantastic ice cream). If you craved doughnuts, you made them at home.
Then, sometime in the early 90s, economic reforms aimed at the globalization of the Indian economy slowly began to open the country up to food companies from abroad. Suddenly, imported foods—cheeses, meats, bottled and canned goods, wines and spirits, chocolates—began appearing in Indian markets. Equally importantly for those keen on dining out, multinational food service companies gradually started arriving in India. Delhi (and some of India’s other major cities, like Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Chennai) are now—or are soon going to be—home to everything from Yauatcha to Benihana, to Sakae Sushi.
While those are the bigger, less ubiquitous names to be seen in Indian cities, there are some which you’ll find all over the place: Domino’s, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Subway: these have a presence even in smaller towns, and are hugely popular. How do they stack up against their counterparts in the West?
While the rest of this journal reviews some of the newly-opened, less ‘everywhere’ chain eateries, in this note, I’ll discuss some of the very common ones—the places you’re likely to find in just about every major market in Delhi.
1. Pizza Hut : All you have to do is have a look at the Pizza Hut menu to realize that this is one chain that’s gone all out to appeal to the spice-loving Indian palate, which wants curry on its pizzas (I hasten to add: not all of us fall into that bracket). But, going by the popularity of Pizza Hut’s chicken kebab, green chilli, and chicken tikka-topped pizzas, they’re obviously a hit. There are vegetarian options too, both for pizzas as well as pasta. There are wings, potato wedges, and rolls. All of them (including the garlic bread, which you can order with a topping of chopped onions and green chillies mixed into the cheese!) are a rather predictable fusion of Western and Indian. Be warned: don’t opt for Pizza Hut if you’re a Westerner looking for familiar food.
(Do note, though, that the dine-in menu, as opposed to the home-delivery menu, is more extensive and offers more options for less spicy, less-Indianised dishes).
2. Domino’s: Unlike Pizza Hut (which has a substantial number of dine-in outlets), Domino’s remains primarily a pizza take-away or home-delivery place. Most of their stores do have a couple of tables where you can eat if you want, but it’s not as if the menu will be any different, or wider in scope, from what you’d get if you ordered in.
Like Pizza Hut, Domino’s too has ‘Indianised’ its menu—but not too the exclusion of all else, which is one reason I prefer Domino’s to Pizza Hut. For example, while there is a keema do pyaza pizza here (keema do pyaza is a classic North Indian dish of ground meat cooked with lots of onions), there is also a barbecue chicken pizza, and a pepperoni pizza. There are pastas, wraps, lots of vegetarian pizzas (not to mention wraps and rolls), and plenty of options that really pile on the heat, in the form of everything from jalapenos to paprika, to red chillies and green.
3. McDonald’s : McDonald’s was one of the first major chains to arrive in India, and became an instant hit among those who wanted a taste of the West without going too far out of their comfort zone, or having to pay too much for it. Keeping in mind the composition of much of the target audience, McDonald’s in India goes very heavy on the vegetarian: even all the mayo, and the sauces, are egg-free. There are plenty of vegetarian options, ranging from paneer burgers and wraps to the McAloo Tikki burger (with an aloo tikki, a spiced potato patty), Veg Pizza McPuffs, and even vegetarian breakfast items, like the Veg McMuffin.
Also, for those who don’t know: the non-vegetarian burger patties at McDonald’s in India are always either chicken, or (in the case of Filet-o-Fish), fish. There is no beef or pork in any dish here. Even the Sausage McMuffin consists of a chicken sausage, not pork.
The McDonald’s food is pretty much what one expects of food like this: assembly line, mass-produced stuff. To be fair, some of their burgers are not bad—the Chicken McGrill (with a mint chutney sauce) and the McSpicy Chicken are recommended, should you ever end up with no choice but to eat at the Golden Arches.
4. Subway : Like the rest, Subway too has a menu that’s been tailored to Indian tastes. For example, there are loads of vegetarian options, including a spicy potato filling and a spicy mixed vegetable patty. (Unlike McDonald’s, though, Subway do serve pork). However, to make life easier for customers, Subway arranges its menu in such a way that you can immediately spot the ‘Traditional’ dishes—the Italian BMT, Chicken and Bacon Ranch, Turkey, and other sandwiches are listed separately from the ‘Local’ dishes—the Chicken Tikka, Chicken Seekh, Chicken Tandoori, etc. Besides offering subs, they also do salads, a few breakfast dishes, soft drinks, and all of one dessert: a rich chocolate truffle, a Delhi favourite. In addition, jumping on to the ‘healthy’ bandwagon, Subway also have a ‘97% fatfree’ section.
Subway is, like Domino’s, a good place to go if you want familiar fast food: even though it has its fair share of Indianised menu items, there’s lots that will be familiar to palates that crave something non-spicy.