(A very short) Passage to India

I have heard many things about India.

That one will either love it or hate it.  That one will inevitably and surely fall very ill on their first visit, and that it will be a sickness like no other.  That any sense of rationality or reason that one has, will be challenged and defied in India.  That one must spend a minimum of 3 months to get a feel for India.  That no matter how long one spends in India, one will never understand it.

I was very excited to finally have the opportunity to visit India.  I don’t know why, but I always felt that I should put off going to India until I felt that I was ready.  I wanted to be in a good state of mind, in a good place in my life, and with more experienced eyes to be able to see what I was meant to see.  I wanted to make this virgin passage to India with a maturity and curiosity that would be worthy of experiencing the soul of this beautiful country.  Little did I know that I was in for some serious spiritual ass kicking.

My brother and his family moved to New Delhi a couple of years ago, and it was the perfect opportunity for me to visit them. It always makes a difference to know somebody who lives there and to have a place to stay. They have already experienced the traveler’s diarrhea, the stomach aches and numerous other mystery illnesses that come with living in a city like New Delhi, and they warned me to be careful with food, water and frequent hand washing.  They were so concerned with making sure that I didn’t get sick, that for the first 2 weeks of my 3 week visit, we stuck to home cooked food and upscale restaurants.  The restaurant scene is quite lively in New Delhi with an explosion of establishments offering authentic global cuisine, and I was excited to explore this part of the city.

I had amazing Indian food at Sahib, Sindh and Sultan Restaurant in Gurgaon.  A Sindh Thandai drink made with milk, crushed almonds, saffron and cardamom was delicious.  Tandoori Malai prawns flavored with lemon were plump and juicy, and the traditional dahl was rich.  Their specialty, Butter Chicken curry or Murg Makhani, was one of the best that I have ever had.  It was so delicious that I was scraping every last bit of curry off the spoon with my garlic naan.

The Smoke House Deli, inside of the Emporium Mall, was a relative newcomer to the restaurant scene. The adorable interior with stenciled wallpaper and printed frames was too cute for words, and the clean and sterile environment of this deli-restaurant was almost surreal.  I felt like I was in a Parisian bistro, far away from the polluted streets of New Delhi right outside of the building where dirty street dogs sniffed through heaps of garbage on the pavement.

I had a glass of refreshing kiwi, cantaloupe melon, lemonade and jasmine tea cooler with big succulent chunks of fresh fruit. We even had imported Italian wine, a Rubicon Trebbiano, with the house special filet mignon, a tenderloin steak with rosemary emulsion, and a lightly smoked lamb shank with tamarind hash and rosemary quenelle.  The food wasn’t to die for, but I was impressed to be having contemporary cuisine in the heart of this city.  The menu offered soy and vegan options in addition to angus burgers and ham sandwiches, making it apparent that there was a large ex-pat community in New Delhi that the restaurant was trying to target.

I couldn’t help but feel uneasy and uncomfortable stepping out of the restaurant and into the shopping mall where wealthy Indian madams toting Louis Vuitton bags and flashing their decadently embellished saris pranced from the Gucci store to the Armani store while their humble chauffeurs waited outside.  How ironic that these drivers relieve their full bladders on building walls and eat 50 rupee street food for lunch while their employers recklessly use Platinum credit cards for pleasure?  The privileged rich had a greed and hunger for precious gems and stones for which India is very popular, and I saw many women flaunting their gigantic rocks.  Yet they paid their servants and maids mere pennies for long hours of intense labor.  I was starting to see numerous contrasts and contradictions in this city of New Delhi.

The streets of New Delhi were always congested, from dawn till dusk, with a mix of rickshaws, auto rickshaws, taxis and chauffered import cars. Sacred yet filthy cows dominated traffic while monkeys, dogs, camels and goats also stirred up more back ups on the main roads.  On one occasion, on our way to drop off my niece at her school, we witnessed a strange sight.  2 lamborghinis, one white and the other blue, were racing each other through the chaotic morning streets as they aggressively swiped past elderly men on bicycles and auto rickshaws clearly carrying 3 times their capacity of passengers.  I hardly ever see lamborghinis in Los Angeles- what were they doing in New Delhi?  Rich and poor constantly collided yet co-existed in this capital city of India.

I also witnessed this stark contrast of wealth in every hotel that we visited. For a city that has no infrastructure for public sanitation and street cleaning, I was flabbergasted at the high quality of world class hotels.  Urination and defecation on public streets is not unusual in New Delhi, especially in areas close to the numerous slums scattered throughout the city, yet the majority of hotels were more impressive than any that I have been to in Tokyo or Los Angeles.  Marbled floors in the grand entrances of each hotel were so clean that the 3 second rule was more like the 3 minute rule.  Outdoor and indoor bars were fully stocked with the finest spirits from around the globe and mixologists who were prepared to shake up any cocktail of choice.  Nicola Conte’s funky beats livened up beautiful lounges with plush couches that young rich socialites would love to party at.  Impressive interior decor of historic Mughal style and modern contemporary flair decked the jaw dropping hallways of these institutions which saw no paucity of ex-pats and rich locals alike.

The Aman Resort was my favorite hotel, but a close second was the historic Imperial Hotel where I had a delicious chicken masala dosa and a tomato onion uttapam.  This colonial style hotel, lavishly decorated with expensive artwork and Italian furniture, was the kind of upscale place that could bring out the snob in any humble human being.

Another cultural contradiction struck me.  Here I was in one of the finest hotels in the world, getting first class service from the most attentive staff imaginable.  The highly efficient staff wouldn’t allow so much as a crumb to land on my lap, and the degree of hospitality was almost overwhelming.  A simple question of ‘where is the restroom’ would inevitably lead to 3 people escorting me and practically wiping my butt for me.  Yet, outside of the hotel environment, in any store or business in the real outside world, an unfathomable degree of inefficiency and lack of work ethics would prevail.

Outside on the streets of New Delhi, in any store that I would go to, I would receive a beautiful smile and a warm welcome.  They would all enthusiastically answer to my requests with a cheerful ‘Right away miss!’ or ‘In one minute’.  Yet, they would continue to talk on their cell phone or finish eating their plate of dahl for 30 minutes before I would have to remind them again, to which they would give me the same response.  I quickly learned that I cannot take things literally in India.  If one promises to have something done in 1 day, I need to clench my teeth and accept the fact that it probably means 1 week.  If somebody says ‘right away’, I should probably go home, take a shower, eat lunch and come back after a long nap, at which point there will still be a long wait.  When I would ask my sister-in-law about these things, she would only shake her head and say ‘That’s India’.

Like most modern cities with a long rich history, it was interesting to see old architecture and UNESCO sites try to co-exist in the same space with high rises and new office developments.  It wasn’t unusual to see numerous McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken stores flanked between paratha stands and samosa stalls.  I took a peek at the McDonald’s menu, and did not see anything familiar on the menu.  Maharaja chicken sandwich, Paneer salsa wrap and McAloo Tikki were so beyond the golden arches that I couldn’t even get myself to try one for kicks.

Humayun's Tomb

I was having a difficult time wrapping my head around the fact that in this country with such deep religious roots, I was observing a city that was so plagued with poverty yet simultaneously infected with the desire to flaunt wealth.  India is where Siddhartha became Buddha, the Enlightened One, and where he spread the message of letting go of all humanly desires in order to be free from suffering.  I didn’t see any of his teachings being carried out in New Delhi, where any bit of wealth and social status was openly flaunted and advertised.  Rich and perfectly coiffed Bollywood stars dominated news headlines, sending young people the message that it’s better to be wealthy and beautiful.  Fair skin, green eyes and a mean six pack abdomen will get you what you need in life, not who you are or how you give back to your community.  Apparently facial bleaching creams are all the rave in India, as women desperately try to throw away their natural beauty for a more Westernized look.

Bahá'í House of Worship, The Lotus Temple

In this country where foreigners make their pilgrimage to seek a path to Nirvana by attending yoga retreats, ashrams or Ayurvedic camps, crime and cheating is rampant.  When I bought a travel guidebook for my India trip, I was surprised and appalled to see that the first 50 pages of this book were dedicated to featuring traveler’s horror stories and travel don’ts.  How people got drugged at restaurants and teahouses, only to wake up the next morning naked, bagless and passport-less.  How they would inadvertently get jipped through local travel companies and tour guides, and end up having to pay hundreds of dollars in excess.  How women would get kidnapped and raped.  How not to trust anyone, because the smiling benevolent appearing good samaritan is the one who is scamming you.  Is this really what it’s like in India?  Maybe it’s just New Delhi, I thought, and hoped that my trip to the Taj Mahal would be different.

Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world.  A sacred and beautiful mausoleum that Shah Jahan built for his beloved wife.  Behold this white jewel of India, this ethereal beauty that radiates bright light in the city of Agra.  That was what I wanted to feel, but it was really difficult with the numerous boys who hustled me every 5 meters to buy a Taj badge or a Taj calendar.  ‘Look miss, good quality. OK, for you special price, I give you for 200 rupees.’  Imagine 10 boys surrounding you in a circle, all shoving poorly constructed and frankly ugly Taj souvenirs in your face, not leaving your side until the next group surrounds you.  They are not allowed to enter the Taj grounds, so I thought that I was safe when I went through the entrance gates.  But another even more aggressive group of tour guides, claiming to give me a good price for an English tour, came chasing after me.  I couldn’t get a moment of peace in order to take in the majestic sight of this world wonder.  ‘That’s India’, I could hear my sister-in-law saying.

As I watched the sun set behind the Taj, I sighed at the thought of another adventure packed day in India coming to an end, and reflected back on my growing confusion over the different opposing dynamics at play in this culture.  I’ve visited many countries where there was such a stark disparity of social status and wealth, but not to this extent.  It seemed like the Indian caste system was very much alive and present, even in New Delhi, where the social stratification was an accepted and matter-of-fact way of life.  Was I completely naive in thinking that by the 21st century, this system would have been completely abolished?

Back in New Delhi, I had a conversation with my 10 year old niece about Indian street children.  They were present everywhere you looked, and even if you weren’t looking, they would remind you with an aggressive knock on your car window at a stop light.  Sometimes they would press a baby, wrapped in tattered dirty cloths, right up to the window to show you how desperate their situation was.  My niece told me that her teachers at school suggested donating food and candy, but not money.  The money may not necessarily go to the children, but to their leader or pimp who would use it for something else.  On several occasions my niece rolled down the car window to distribute cookies and snacks.  But every time she did so, the street children, expecting money and hard cash, gave my niece a dissatisfied and critical look.  You just can’t win…’That’s India’.

By the end of the second week, I was getting impatient with myself for seeing and judging India through a foreigner’s privileged eyes.  I wanted to go deeper into this culture and try to see a little more of the truth that lay buried under the cloak of expatriate comforts.  I became friends with a local chef, who wanted to take me to Chandni Chowk, the oldest marketplace in Old Delhi.  He told me that this was where the true essence of Indian life existed, and where I would feel the raw crudeness of the working class spirit.  I was excited to finally try some real Indian street food.

But alas, although I was extra careful with sanitary precautions and food choices, I became ill.  Yes, everybody told me that I would almost certainly get sick on my first visit, but I didn’t think that it would happen to me.  In fact, I became so sick that I had to go to the hospital.  In those dark days of relentless vomiting, and the darker moments in the local Emergency room where I watched helplessly in horror as they inserted an IV needle into my vein that seemed questionable, my spirituality and moral strength was put to test.  I really thought that I was going to die there, in the nucleus of chaos, contradictions, nonsense and paradox.  I eventually recovered, only to find out that my local chef friend was also very sick that same weekend of our planned outing. ‘That’s India’.

My last week in India was spent slumped over the toilet, and I missed my outing to Chandni Chowk and a weekend trip to Rajasthan.  2 weeks proved to be barely enough time to get my feet wet in this country, but I was still left with a strong impression.  I remembered back to what people had told me about India. That I will either love it or hate it.  So far I can honestly say that I love India, even for all of the puzzling cultural nuances and even despite my violent illness.  I had a feeling that I would be drawn to this beautiful country, and did not hesitate to get a 10 year visa.  I’m planning to go back in May for a second visit.  Hopefully my immune system will be stronger then.

….THAT’S INDIA.

Random trivia:  Legend has it that upon completion of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan ordered all of the sculptors and craftsmen to have their hands chopped off and their eyes gouged out.  This was so that they would never be able to see or build such a wonderful monument as the Taj Mahal.  To date, thankfully there has been no evidence to prove these myths to be true.

Bukhara- New Delhi, India

The S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list comes out every year, researched and comprised by numerous chefs, restaurateurs, and food critics around the globe.  It shall come as no surprise that El Bulli has consistently held 1st place in 5 previous lists, followed closely by its biggest rival, The Fat Duck.  It’s interesting to browse the annual lists of the past decade and see different culinary trends.  The biggest change that I’ve noticed is an exponential  surge of world class cuisine exploding out of Spain.  An unfortunate drop has come from The French Laundry, which used to grace the top position in 2004 but has plummeted to 12th place in 2009.  An unusual Asian competitor is Bukhara restaurant in New Delhi, which used to be #37 in 2007 and named the Best Restaurant in Asia and Best Indian Restaurant in the World, but has dropped down to #65 on the 2009 list.

During my recent trip to India, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of trying out this famous restaurant which has seen the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bill Gates.  Bukhara, named after the Silk Road province in Uzbekistan that used to be a bustling center for trade and religion, offers rustic flavors of the northwestern frontier of India.  The menu centers around traditionally prepared seafood and meat roasted in a clay tandoor oven.   Housed inside the cosmopolitan ITC Maurya hotel close to embassy row in New Delhi, this restaurant is always fully booked and thriving with international diners. It’s possibly the most famous restaurant in India, and I was excited to be able to dine there.

Unlike its ‘Best 50 Restaurants List’ rivals like Pierre Gagnaire and Tetsuya, the decor and ambiance at Bukhara is almost shockingly casual and rugged.  Diners sit on small wooden logs and have the option of wearing their signature red and white checkered Bukhara bib.  Copper pots hang on stone walls in this low-ceiling space that seems like a cave.  Here, you have to find the right timing to flag down servers in red and gold vests, who are always scurrying from table to table- they don’t necessarily come to you.

Perhaps the most fascinating feature of Bukhara is the large open kitchen where chefs skillfully heave long skewers of marinated meats into the blazing oven and wrestle with the famous Bukhara Naan, an enormous 3 foot naan that goes for 1350 rupees ($29 US) and can probably feed a whole village.  As if sitting inside this cave-like dining room wearing a bib and eating with your hands wasn’t primitive enough, watching these strong male chefs churn out whole chickens and lamb shanks on kebabs is enough to transform any proper lady into a chest beating ape.  This place is not for vegetarians, and it’s not for those looking for a quick light bite.  It’s hearty masculine fare that’s rough at the edges but satisfying in your belly.

There were many excellent choices on the menu such as tandoori pomfret (whole roasted flatfish) and sikandari raan (marinated leg of spring lamb), but we stuck with the classics.  We started with paneer tikka, roasted Indian cheese marinated with yellow chiles.  The huge chunks of unaged cheese, which had the appearance and texture of freshly made tofu, were delicious.  The slight charring at the edges gave it a distinct charcoal aroma that went beautifully with the light flavor of the paneer.

Seekh kabab, minced lamb kebabs hot off the metal skewers, was my favorite dish of the evening.  Lamb is my favorite red meat, and Bukhara couldn’t have done these tender animals any more justice by creating this memorable and fantastic feast.  The kebabs were intensely seasoned with ginger, green chiles, coriander, royal cumin and saffron, and each bite was dripping in fresh lamb essence.  Although the seasoning was a bit too cumin dominant, I really enjoyed the sharpness of the flavors.

Murgh tandoori, which is classic tandoori chicken,  was a whole chicken marinated in yogurt, malt vinegar, ginger, garlic, lemon juice, chili, turmeric, and garam masala.  We ordered garlic and butter naans to complement our perfectly roasted meats.  There’s something so satisfying about using your bare hands to tear meat apart and stuff it in your mouth.  It’s carnal, primal and most of all, it’s fun.

Bukhara is probably most famous for its dahl, which is so popular that it’s sold in supermarkets all over India as ‘Dal Bukhara’.  Indeed, this bowl of hearty and smoky dahl was the real deal.  Unlike others that I’ve had before, Bukhara’s version was creamy and thick with a subtle sweetness that kept me dipping my naan all night.

In case you were wondering… yes, I did put my Bukhara bib on.  Shameless, perhaps, but practical.  It was the only safe way to protect my clothes, as proper table manners went out the window in this delicious carnal feast.  It was a peaceful and satisfying moment to finish the last scrumptious morsel of tandoori chicken off the bone, lick my fingers, stretch out my limbs, shake my mane and stick my dirty fingers into the warm finger bowl.  Ahhhh….

My dinner feast at Bukhara in New Delhi was filling and satisfying.  It was some of the best Indian food that I have ever had, but I am only saying that because I haven’t had enough good Indian food to compare it with.  Although I was happy with my meal, I question whether it’s worthy of being on the 50 Best Restaurants list.  It certainly had the price tag of a Best Restaurant contender though.  Talk about emptying your wallets- the paneer tikka was 1475 rupees ($32 US) and the small bowl of dahl was 550 Rs ($12 US). It may not seem that expensive compared to $100 steaks with black truffle sauce or 80 Euro foie gras dishes, but we’re talking about New Delhi where food normally goes for a few cents.

I’m anxious to see how Bukhara does in the 2010 list, but more curious to see if they’ll finally start acknowledging more Japanese restaurants on their Top 50.  Tokyo now officially has the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world, surpassing Paris in a big ego blow.  If I don’t start seeing these places on the Pellegrino list, then it will be hard for me to accept the full validity of the list.  I stand by my country!

Bukhara

ITC Maurya Sheraton & Towers Diplomatic Enclave
Sadar Patel Marg
Delhi
India 110021
Tel: 91 11 2611 2233

The Top 50 Restaurants

The S. Pellegrino world’s top 50 restaurants list for 2010 will be announced on April 26th, 2010.

Random trivia:  Did you know that cumin is the second most popular spice in the world, following black pepper in first place?  In ancient times, cumin was thought to keep lovers from straying.  Women gave their men bread baked with cumin to prevent them from wandering.

The Tapas Lounge, Aman Resort- New Delhi, India

The sights and sounds of the chaotic city of New Delhi were new and exciting for me during the first few days of my travel, but after the second week I started to slow down my pace and let everything settle into my overstimulated brain.  The polluted air filled with toxic fumes from the auto-rickshaws aggressively winding through tight spaces on the crowded streets was getting to my lungs, and the constant honking of horns was piercing right through my eardrums into my throbbing brain.  The more time I spent in New Delhi, the more I was confused about how to accept this profoundly different culture which bore no resemblance to my more structured American and Japanese upbringing.

Every day as I explored the city, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated at the immense traffic that was generated by people who drove by their own illogical rules.  I didn’t see the point in traffic lights and road signs as nobody seemed to follow them anyway.  As if the ignorance of road rules was bad enough, there were camels, mules, cows and monkeys causing mayhem in the middle of the streets during rush hour.  Nobody seemed to raise an eyebrow let alone bat an eye, as honking cars maneuvered past urinating cows and famished street children at busy intersections.  On several occasions I witnessed entire families on single tattered bicycles trudging down the highway going the opposite direction into speeding cars, oblivious to their near brush with death.  And to all of the reckless moped drivers- do you really think that your turbans take the place of safety helmets?  If people honored traffic rules and actually stopped at a red light, then the constant traffic jams would let up.  The utter inefficiency of ignoring all form of order and common sense was flabbergasting.  But….that’s India.

On another one of these typical days in New Delhi where my senses were being flooded with the absurdities of the culture, I went to seek refuge at my new found urban paradise, the Aman Resort.  I was captivated by the peaceful atmosphere of this beautiful hotel on my first visit, and my soul yearned to make its pilgrimage back there.  This time I went to the split level Tapas Lounge that boasted a wood-fired oven in the large open kitchen and was decorated lavishly yet tastefully with silver leaf ceilings and leather flooring. The ground floor is where this action is, and where diners can enjoy Spanish wines and sangrias in a sexy and seductive atmosphere.  The second floor lounge, with an unobstructed view of the reflection pool, is where diners can stretch out on plush sofas and leaf through rare Taschen books.   The third floor is more formal and traditional for those who want to get serious and enjoy the resident Spanish chef’s wonderful tasting menus.

Spanish chef Jonay Armas runs the kitchen at the Tapas Lounge.  Young and handsome Armas has worked alongside famed Michelin starred Catalan chef Santi Santamaria, among other reputable chefs like Paco Roncero.  He did a lovely tasting menu lunch for us in the relaxing second floor lounge.  The vegetarian portion of the tapas menu featured classic dishes like patatas bravas, ensaladilla rusa and tortilla Española, and a Papas Canarias with Mojo to reflect his Canary Island heritage.  Non vegetarian items included garlic prawns, lamb skewers and cured anchovies.   All, except for a plate of jamon iberico, were under 350 Rupees ($7 US).

The toasted almonds and house cured olives were amazing.  The olives were meaty and succulent, bursting with aromatic juice and savor.  We started our fantastic meal with one of the best gazpachos that I have ever had.  Slivers of fresh garlic, forest green basil oil and a twist of finely ground black pepper added the perfect amount of zest to this silky Andalucian tomato soup.  The amalgam of vegetable essences was rich and dense, and the intense flavors in each spoonful coated my sensory receptors with a magical fruity veil.

I was in meat lover’s paradise with the grilled chorizo dish.  Of course, the chorizo was imported from Spain, as the predominantly Hindu and Muslim populations of India do not eat pork.  It’s very difficult for me to survive more than 2 days without pork products, so this grilled plate, saturated with the finest pork essence and drippings ever imaginable, was a heaven sent gift.  Each slice had that perfect crunchy sear that is necessary to concentrate the meat flavors.

Tender cubes of crispy potatoes on a bed of spicy red tomato sauce were generously layered with creamy aioli in the patatas bravas dish.  Each cube had a pleasantly crisp exterior with the perfect amount of oiliness to complement the rich aioli.

Crispy calamari was indeed extra crispy with a wonderful light texture.  These deep fried rings of seafood delight, with a squeeze of sour lemon and a light dip into the aioli, were delightful.  Once you start, you can’t stop…

We enjoyed our delicious meal with a refreshing glass of their Sangrina, a virgin sangria with diced apples.

Chef Armas brought up this plate of assorted croquettes with fresh green salad.  Mushroom, chicken and jamon croquettes were warm and toasty.  As I bit through the perfectly fried crunchy shell, the creamy rich filling melted in my mouth and gently massaged my tongue into a catatonic bliss.

We finished our fantastic meal with crema catalana, the Spanish version of crème brûlée.  As I struck the top layer with my spoon, the solid burnt caramel shattered into large pieces and gave way to the sweet pool of cream underneath.  I watched the silver spoon slowly sink into the thick ooze of vanilla sap before I pounced on it with my ravenous appetite.

The luxurious and serene Aman Resort, one of my favorite resorts in the whole world, allowed me to escape from the noisy and turbulent streets of New Delhi.  With Chef Armas’ magical touch, my dining experience at the Tapas Lounge took me further along in my retreat away from reality to the lush green countrysides of Spain.  These delectable dishes were some of the best tapas that I have ever had, and it rivaled some of my most memorable plates that I had in Barcelona.  We concluded our Aman experience with a fascinating tour through the wine cellars and cigar humidors.

My body is back in the US, but my heart and spirit still remain attached to the tranquil grounds of the Aman Resort…

The Aman Resort, New Delhi

Lodhi Road, New Delhi 110003
India

tel (91) 11 4363 3333

Random trivia: Did you know that gazpacho, the most famous Andalucian dish of chilled vegetable soup, was originally considered poor man’s food?  It was made with bread, water and olive oil, all pounded in a wooden bowl called a dornillo.  Later versions were made with bread, water, anchovy bones, salt and olive oil.  It wasn’t until Christopher Columbus introduced tomatoes to Europe in the 1400′s that tomatoes were added to gazpacho.

The Aman, Aman Resort – New Delhi, India

Have you ever been inside of a hotel or a resort that was so beautiful that it took your breath away?  I’ve stayed at amazing oceanfront resorts in places like Hawaii, Okinawa, Phuket and the Maldives where it was primarily the ocean view and the majestic landscapes that made it worth the money.  It wasn’t until I stepped foot inside of the new Aman resort in New Delhi India that I truly, for the first time ever, fell in love with the actual hotel.  Once I passed the security gate and check points, which are present in all New Delhi hotels, I took one look down the entrance hall and gasped.  What was this serenity in the air, the almost fabricated silence that was so far removed from the chaotic streets outside?  A smiling attendant in crisp uniform welcomed me to the hotel as he tended to a few flickering candles floating in large marigold tubs.

The tapping sounds of my heels against the marble floors resonated and echoed throughout the wide hallways and high ceilings as I walked through the quiet resort.  The hallways were dimly lit except for the occasional spotlights that illuminated doors and passageways.  I felt like a special guest invited into a secret society, as numerous staff escorted me down the long corridor that faced the large outdoor reflection pool.  It was night time, and the smooth glass-like surface of the pool was gently lit up in hazy spots of soft yellow from the glow of the guest room lights above.  Time seemed to stop in this exclusive space that was a secret and mystical world far far away from reality.  I almost felt unworthy of being in this peaceful world, this modern monastery, this temple of luxury, that the Aman group had just opened a year ago.

Once inside of the large restaurant space called The Aman, the decor transformed from zen minimalist to modern Mughal architecture.  Soft outdoor lights seeped through the jaali screens into the hallway, casting fine geometric patterns onto the floor.  We walked by the Naoki counter, a counter- seating only restaurant that serves contemporary French kaiseki cuisine.  The Japanese chef said that it was his dream to work at an Aman resort, and he seemed genuinely happy to be fulfilling this dream.  I, on the other hand, felt like I was sleepwalking through a fantastical dream of my own, and feared that this elegant world would disappear when I woke up.

We had dinner at The Aman restaurant which mainly offers a selection of Thai and Indian cuisine.  We rested our backs against large plush cushions inside spacious white leather banquettes and took in the majestic sight of this luxurious dining space.  The food menu offered an amazing selection of international fare, from Italian pastas and French charcuterie to Moroccan stews and Thai soups.  Since the executive chef was Thai, we decided to order heavily on classic Thai dishes for our meal. Meanwhile, my jaw dropped in sheer awe and excitement as I perused the wine encyclopedia.  The 40 page menu listed some exclusive wines that I could only dream of ever tasting.  1978 Domaine Leroy premier cru Les Chevenottes, 1995 Chateau Mouton Rothschild and a Spanish 1986 Magnum Unico-Artisit Label by Bodegas Vega Sicilia.  Oh, if only…

Instead, we had 2 great glasses of white wine.  The Mercurey by Domaine Faiveley from Burgundy had a light and fruity flavor with a noticeable citrus undertone.  I was impressed with the glass of Placet white Rioja by Alvaro Palacios, which had a sweeter refined flavor that was more mellow than the Burgundy white.

We started our meal with tom kha gai, Thai coconut soup with chicken.  The soup had large meaty chunks of delicious oyster and eringi mushrooms, and the chicken had a tender milky texture.  The broth wasn’t too heavy or creamy as many tom kha gai tend to be, and it was easy to finish the whole bowl.  It was one of the best tom kha gai soups that I have ever had.  It was far more polished and sophisticated than any that I have ever tasted before.

Yam nua, beef tenderloin Thai salad with chiles, cucumbers, lime and Thai herbs, was mediocre.  The texture of the meat was quite tough, but since the majority of Indians do not consume beef, I imagine it’s quite difficult to import good quality beef. Otherwise, the sour citrus flavors and tangy spices in this salad dish were delicious.

Tandoori chicken, perhaps the most quintessential chicken dish in Indian cuisine, was excellent here at The Aman.  The yogurt and spice marinade was rich in flavor and aroma, and the meat was grilled to perfection.  It was a well-groomed and genteel version of Tandoori chicken, unlike some of its robust and full-bodied counterparts that I’ve had in the states, but I really loved the cleaner and more elegant flavors of the spices in this dish.  The lotus root and mango pickle, pickled red onions, and mint-coriander chutney that came with the chicken were all outstanding.  These 3 condiments could have made a great meal just on their own.

The pad thai came beautifully served in a thin egg sheet wrap, and was plated tableside.  I couldn’t believe that I was having one of the most delicious pad thai dishes in the middle of India.

There were an astounding 13 choices on the dessert menu, and we started with an Indian dessert for our first course.  Pistachio kulfi was served on glass noodles with a rose and saffron syrup.  The chopped pistachio nuts added a great crunchy texture to the thick dense Indian ice cream.  The glass noodles reminded me too much of Japanese shirataki noodles that are usually eaten in savory dishes like sukiyaki and nabe, and I couldn’t fully enjoy this plate.

We also ordered a yogurt and mango terrine with raspberry and mango coulis.  The light and airy mousse terrine was delicious, but I was more fascinated with the 3 dimensional chocolate ribbon and the plating of the fruit coulis that looked like a Joan Miró painting.

With the wonderful staff’s attention to detail and their impeccable service, my short time at the Aman Resort was like a heavenly dream come true.  I felt like I was floating peacefully and slowly through a Shangri-la paradise where everything was just perfect.  I wanted to stay there forever, but that was an impossible wish.  I had to leave the beautiful resort grounds to go back out into the harsh reality of the crowded and polluted streets of New Delhi.  As I drove by the Presidential palace, I observed its grandeur and majesty, but still longed for my Aman palace.

Aman Resort, New Delhi

Lodhi Road, New Delhi 110003
India

tel (91) 11 4363 3333

Random trivia: Did you know that marigold flowers got their name from ‘Mary’s Gold’?  Early Christians offered these bright yellow and orange flowers in place of real gold when worshiping statues of the Virgin Mary.  In India marigolds are considered auspicious, and can be found everywhere- as garlands hung around statues of Hindu gods, and at weddings and festivals.

Wasabi – New Delhi, India

Any Iron Chef fans out there?  I’m not talking about Iron Chef America.

Growing up in Tokyo, I used to love watching the original Iron Chef on television.  Back in the 90′s the show was a huge hit in Japan, where people all over the country tuned in every week to watch a brave newcomer battle one of 7 distinguished Iron Chefs.  The show featured chefs from all types of cuisines- Kenichi Chin who was a master of Chinese cuisine, Rokusaburo Michiba who represented traditional Japanese kaiseki and French chef Hiroyuki Sakai to name a few.  Sadly, the show ended in 1999, only to be replaced by a more westernized version called Iron Chef America that I haven’t been able to embrace.  I saw it coming when I watched in sheer horror as future Iron Chef America Bobby Flay jumped on top of his wooden cutting board with his filthy shoes while pumping his fists like a drunken baboon in a premature victory cry against Morimoto in an original Iron Chef episode.  What a disgrace for any chef to contaminate his sacred wooden cutting board where once living animals and fish are prepared for our nutrition.  And what irony that now both Flay and Morimoto are resident Iron Chefs on the American show.

There are a lot of things that bother me about Iron Chef America.  Chairman Dacascos’ exaggerated acting, for one.  It makes me feel very uncomfortable when I see his adrenaline pumped dilated pupils stare into the screen as his robotic limbs flail about in a mechanically uncoordinated dance.  His animated persona at the beginning of the show gradually wanes with time, and by the end of the meal his presence starts to disappear from the screen as he squeaks his refusal to eat dessert, claiming that he is watching his waistline.  And why do they always put English subtitles for Morimoto, even when he’s speaking English? I only watched 2 episodes of Iron Chef America and I was done.

Although I have a disdain for Iron Chef America and for Morimoto, who probably started off as a humble chef in Japan but has now transformed into an arrogant Americanized celebrity, I applaud him for making it big here in the states.  America is the land of opportunity, but it’s not every day that a foreigner achieves huge success and becomes a household name.   After all, Morimoto is an extremely talented chef whose creations make me drool with excitement.  Morimoto has restaurants in New York, Florida and Philadelphia that are all doing well.  You would think that his next venture would be in London, Paris or even Dubai.  Did you know that he has a restaurant in New Delhi, India?

I went to India a couple of months ago to visit my brother who lives in New Delhi.  Although I was looking forward to spending my first day eating dosas and curries, ironically my very first dining out experience in India was lunch at Morimoto’s restaurant called Wasabi.  I joined my sister in law who was meeting some friends there for lunch.  Wasabi, a contemporary Japanese dining restaurant, opened in 2008 in the lower level of the Taj Mahal Hotel in the center of New Delhi after a successful run of the same restaurant in Mumbai.

The restaurant was small and quaint in size, though grand and a bit clamorous in decor.  Dark red lamps hung over the open grill flanked next to a blood red painting of roses.  I didn’t mind the geometric lines and contemporary furniture so much as the fluorescent purple glow that the ceiling lights cast onto my food.  3 Japanese sushi chefs stood poised behind the sushi counter as they greeted expatriate business men and Indian madams for the lunch service.  I talked to the head sushi chef who told me that their fish was flown in from Tsukiji twice a week.  I also asked him how he found living in New Delhi, and he chuckled nervously as he shook his head from side to side (in a western gesture of ‘no’, not the Indian gesture of ‘yes’).

Our amuse was a pickled lotus root served with kuromame and a garnish of parsley leaf.  I was nervous about eating at a Japanese restaurant in India, but this dish exemplified simple authentic flavors of sweet and sour in a typical manner of understated beauty.

Even the salad was good at Wasabi.  I made a vow not to eat any raw vegetables while traveling through India, but this was obviously an exception.  The simple vinaigrette was refreshing and tart, and the dried bonito shavings were flavorful.

I couldn’t believe that I was eating sushi in New Delhi- and excellent sushi at that.  The sushi lunch set came with 2 types of tamago (egg) which were both soft and spongy, spicy tuna rolls, ikura and an assortment of fresh fish flown in from Tsukiji the day before.  My favorites were the chu-toro (fatty tuna) and hamachi (yellowtail) which tasted as good as anything that I would get in Tokyo, and the salmon, scallop, squid and mackerel were all fantastic.  Although the restaurant is called Wasabi, I didn’t expect freshly grated wasabi to actually be served with my sushi.  I felt like I was in Japan, and the fact that I was in this chaotic city of New Delhi hadn’t quite sunken in.

Our fellow Indian diners weren’t feeling adventurous enough to try raw fish, so they ordered teppan yaki grilled prawns for their lunch set.  The prawns were plump and sweet, and the soy garlic sauce that they were sauteed in was marvelous.  The large and extensive menu offered an array of grilled meats, fish and tempura, and I was impressed with the variety of choices that Wasabi offered.  Even more impressive was the beverage list.  They had a complete and comprehensive sake and tea list that featured fine selections from Japan.  The sake list was divided into categories like junmai daiginjo and honjyozo, and teas like kukicha, sencha, genmaicha and gyokuro filled up a whole page on the menu.

Green tea mousse cake, in a strange glow-in-the-dark color, was fluffy and light.  Its subdued sweetness and delicate flavors reminded me of patisseries in Ginza.

In this city where the residents are predominantly vegetarian and do not drink alcohol, I initially wondered how this restaurant could survive.  The small bar to the left of the entrance, lined with rows of whiskey bottles, practically screamed sin.  However, even at lunchtime on a weekday, the restaurant was bustling with customers and the small private dining room was quickly taken by a group of 6.  Sushi seems like an alien concept to the Indian community, but I saw that there was a high demand for this type of cuisine in New Delhi.  The growing Indian economy and business industry attracts foreigners with a taste for global cuisine, and this is exactly the type of place that they seek for business lunches, fancy dinners and a special dining experience.  I thought it was clever and brave of Morimoto to pinpoint this specific niche in a part of the world that seems the farthest from Tsukiji.

Wasabi

The Taj Mahal Hotel

1, Mansingh Road
New Delhi – 110 011
India.
Tel No.: (91-11) 23026162

Random trivia: Did you know that the lotus root, which has 9-10 holes, is considered to be an auspicious vegetable?  It is believed that through these many holes, one can see through to a positive and prosperous future.  Also, each lotus flower seed cup contains many seeds, which is believed to represent fertility.