I felt somewhat unfaithful as I took my first bite of India. I was in Delhi and if I was being true to the culinary heritage of this city I should have disembarked the plane and headed to the nearest tandoori joint and tucked into robust paneer tikka, roti, channa masala or kali dal. Instead I made a beeline to Sagar restaurant for a taste of the south.
The weather can take the blame for my cultural/culinary misdemeanor. For most of the year Delhi is a dry place but I have arrived with the receding monsoon. The air is still sticky with humidity, more like the atmospheric conditions encountered (with seasonal variation) year round in the tropical south – hence my appetite for southern Indian khanna (food).
Excuses made: let the eating begin. Glasses of chilled buttermilk flavoured with fresh coriander started us off. Next were lentil dumplings in yoghurt sauce (dahi bhalla):lentils (urad dal) are soaked over night and ground to the paste which is salted and beaten until it is fluffy; spoonfuls of the batter are cooked in hot oil, soaked in water and gently wrung out. Finely shaved fresh coconut and slithers of tomato are mixed into yoghurt seasoned with salt and sugar (Sagar’s version is quite sweet) and tempered with dry roasted cumin seeds to make the sauce. Both the bhalla (dumplings) and the dahi (yoghurt) are chilled – the two only put together upon serving (otherwise the dumplings will disintegrate in the sauce). A sprinkle of crispy tidbits (think rice bubbles for a visual and textural reference) made from besan (chickpea flour) finished the dish.
Whilst we devoured the dahi bhalla the table was loaded up with small bowls bearing various sauces and condiments to accompany the dosa – savoury crepes most commonly made from ground lentils and rice cooked on a flat iron grill plate the batter spread out in a circular fashion to create thin crisp edges and a thicker soft middle. We had chosen two exotic versions: rava dosa made from semolina; its lacy edges perfect for excavating the silky mound of potato cooked with onion and tomato buried in its center and neer dosa; delicate sticky steamed rice crepes. Accompanying these were green and red chutney; the former a zingy paste of fresh green chillies, coconut and ginger; the latter tomatoes, red chilli and spices cooked to an unctuous mass; fresh coconut chutney; the spiced chilli infused sauce called sambar and a thick stew of vegetables and coconut.
South Indian ‘café au lait’ and a rich almond fudge (badam halwa) did what ‘dessert’ is meant to do – that is to ‘close off’ your appetite.