With its myriad sights, sounds, smells, and flavors, India is an overwhelming country for first-time visitors. Everything is in your face—at once delightful and exhausting. While many travelers hire outfitters or tour agencies to handle the logistics of their trip, my partner and I were determined to go it alone. Only at the urging of equally stubborn D.I.Y. travelers did we break our no-group-tours rule and book an evening outing with Delhi Food Walks. Our new pals assured us this tour was different, special, and crazy memorable. They were right.
Delhi Food Walks founder Anubhav Sapra didn’t start out in food; he earned his master’s degree in political science from Delhi University and worked with street kids for five years before launching his company. It was in college that he first fell in love with local street food culture and began scouring the city’s by-lanes and back alleys for “kitchen wizardry” as tasty as his mom’s home cooking.
“Away from the posh restaurants with overpriced international cuisine, I wanted to find places which embodied the spirit of Delhi,” Sapra says. “The city has been home to people from all walks of life, ever since Mughal rule. It has learnt to preserve its cultural history and appreciate distinctiveness. The same goes for the food.”
Sapra planned street food–themed walking tours for his buddies and blogged about their collective food adventures. In 2011, he started guiding tourists. Sapra chose eateries based on five hallmarks: taste, authenticity, hygiene, quality of ingredients, and value for the money. Many of the spots he dropped in on made just one dish very, very well; others were family-run joints that have passed down secret recipes from generation to generation. Intimacy was key: He would take no more than six people at a time, which negated the need for embarrassing follow-the-leader flagpoles, headsets, and other trappings of lemming-like tour groups.
Our own Old Delhi Food Tour covered about 10 stops in 4.5 hours, winding through the chaotic, labyrinthine Chawri Bazaar and Chandni Chowk market. The walk was well paced, so we didn’t get too full too soon, and it featured a mix of sit-down restaurants and curbside noshing. We sank our teeth into flame-licked lamb kebabs at Karim’s, a century-old street meat institution, and tucked into real butter chicken at Aslam, which tasted nothing like the imposter chicken we’d been eating back home. Here, the bird was grilled to juicy perfection, tossed in spiced yogurt and butter, and served with rumali roti, a thin flatbread. At other spots, we snacked on sev puri (diced potatoes and onions smothered in a rainbow of chutneys and topped with sev, crunchy seasoned noodles made from chickpea flour), stuffed our cheeks with potato-packed paratha flatbread, and ate our weight in fruity kulfi (Indian ice cream) and jalebi (like funnel cake, only deep-fried with maida flour and dripping in tooth-achingly sweet syrup).
Our tour traversed a range of Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu neighborhoods, integrating historical and cultural stops along the way. My favorite was a visit to the communal kitchen at Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, a welcoming Sikh temple. We learned about the langar, the free vegetarian meal prepared and served daily by volunteers, and watched worshippers perform beautiful ceremonial ragas on harmoniums and tablas.
Looking back, Sapra’s food tour was one of the best I’ve ever taken, because he kept the groups small (ours had just four guests, us included) and vetted the stops so thoroughly. He is a thoughtful tour leader, providing guests with bottled water and hand sanitizer, forever turning around to make sure he hadn’t lost anyone, and taking pains to ensure each guest got home safely at the end of the night.
Could I have eventually found all of the places we visited on my own? Eh, maybe. If I wanted to spend a month researching it. Even then, I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much about Delhi cuisine, culture, history, and religion as I did in Sapra’s company.
Delhi Food Walks has grown exponentially since Sapra went full-time with the company five years ago. Now he and his small band of passionate guides conduct tours almost daily between October and March, when the weather is a little cooler and monsoons are unlikely. Vegetarian and non-vegetarian itineraries, breakfast trails, tea tours, lunch outings, and bazaar walks have been added to the roster, and a new series of street food videos offers visitors a glimpse of some of the unique foods they’ll be sampling on his tours.
Walks take between two and seven hours and cost 1,500 to 6,500 rupees ($22 to $94 USD) per person, depending on the length of the tour. While the Old Delhi Food Tour is still Sapra’s most popular offering, his latest addition is A Day in Delhi. The seven-hour outing hits up some of the capital’s most vibrant eateries, pops by a morning veggie market, takes a fly-on-the-wall look at an outdoor laundromat where workers wash the linens of hundreds of city hotels, and breaks for chai in Asia’s largest spice market.
Sapra says his long-term goal for Delhi Food Walks is to launch multi-city tours across India—deep diving on the culinary traditions and local food culture of cities such as Amritsar, Lucknow, and Varanasi. If everything goes as planned, the first tours will roll out in February 2020. I’ll be the first to sign up.
To book a tour with Delhi Food Walks, visit delhifoodwalks.com.
>>Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to New Delhi.