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10.07.2018

If, for you, home-delivered food spells quick, unhealthy and non-participatory, Bela Gulab Juhi Champa Chameli is not your jam: it’s a boutique meal delivery business that makes pan-Indian cuisine, and takes only two orders a day, a day in advance. When I got in touch, I got the sense that the man on the phone would give some of himself with the food, but I wasn’t expecting a portion of his soul. And though I was the Expected Enthusiastic – buoyed by a bounty of very positive Instagram reviews, mostly from a community I would describe as analog– the gentleman matched me note-for-note.

I soon realized @belagulab, who is photographer Kaushik Ramaswamy when out of the kitchen, was keeping pace to be polite. It was like after a quick hello, he had already set up shop in my kitchen and made a trip to my terrace to inspect what he could he could hand-pluck, easily, never skimping on pleasure and insight. When eating his meal, I had to stop myself from turning and checking that he wasn’t in my kitchen.

There is palpable labor that goes in to the Bela Gulab experience, and I’m not using ‘experience’ to add fluff to what usually constitutes a straight-up phone order. The same voice takes you from menu suggestion to food arrival; the feeling is akin to a sturdy hand holding you through a hike you’ve heard has a great view but don’t have the right shoes for.

Through the two days I’m in a relationship with BG, we’re on email, on Whatsapp, and the phone; at many points, I feel we’re on the same page about cultural affairs, though we only talk in greens and grains. When Monday 1pm finally arrives, our interactions almost slice through from digital to real, but alas (or maybe it’s fine), I get to my residence a few minutes too late. I make do with a far sighting of the chef in an Uber, presumably on his way to meet other needs, promises and friend requests first-hand.

I feel sad that our communication may come to an abrupt end with the arrival of six large steel bartans, clad in kantha-embroidered cloth, carefully wrapped to keep the food warm as an infant on a November night. Thankfully, like the plot-changing message you sometimes wait around for after a stormy altercation, he calls again, sweetly reminding me to dress my salad. I’m not one to stop either, so I text after lunch, when things really could end, asking when he’d be by to pick up the dishes. He hasn’t replied yet, and I’m not exactly waiting by my phone, but it’s been about an hour.

When I sit down with three other hungry people, we unpack the meal box-by-box, punctuating the process with daily chatter. Soon, we are silenced by a fragrant cloud of mustard. “Fish will be the centerpiece,” I recall Mr BG saying, and here I see the promise flap to life: a near half-kilo of steamed sole, bathed in a gold mustard and coconut curry, glimmers on the dining table. We tacitly agree that its natural to arrange all the other dishes around the star, and soon we have it: a sole protagonist, a yellow daal as its sunny BFF, Kashmiri palak with fennel and dried ginger for sex appeal; and for comic relief (my personal second-favourite) – a cucumber and peanut salad with fresh, shredded coconut.

“It’s ghar ka khaana with the kind of love that doesn’t go in to a lot of people’s ghar ka khaana anymore,” the gentleman opposite me, a slow eater, finally declares. The others generally agree, but have their own take, of course – a lady who’s just returned home after her underpaid daily teaching job calculates the costs, and suggests it cost about a third less than BG charges. Someone else cuts her short, saying that she’s got the imagined “target group” all wrong. The schoolmarm bites on the star anise that dots the large pateela of basmati rice in response. For bites to both create and silence dining table discourse, BG is also effective.

Overall, there is unanimous love for the fish: like a true star it shines best when mixed well with the others, but might be a bit overbearing if you were to meet for one-on-one coffee the next morning. All the other dishes are seasonal and would happily make everyday pleasures – if you’re lucky enough to have everyday be marked by care and mind, sense and sensitivity. It’s also, refreshingly, not the kind of meal that makes wants you to lie around in a decadent food coma afterwards. It’s more like the kind of thing that gets you to also do something you care about, to pass on some of that good-friend energy; to stop and smell the bela and the gulab.  And if you really get in to it, the champas and chamelis too.

Getting there: See Bela Gulab Juhi Champa Chameli’s Facebook page for menu and information. Orders are taken a day in advance and must be for a minimum of Rs 3,500 (meal for 4), delivers through the NCR.

bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its meals.

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