Despite Delhi’s skill at make-believe cuisines (see: kulcha masquerading as pita bread), its African foods, while difficult to find, are as authentic as it's possible to be on this side of the Indian Ocean.
This is because its master-chefs run small home kitchens in the close, looping by-lanes of South Delhi neighbourhoods like Chhatarpur and Khirki, feeding their compatriots as well as people from other African communities with stick-to-your-ribs comfort food, made with home-like ingredients. At the Khirki Festival held at Khoj Studios this weekend, we discovered that sometimes, home means thick, deep yellow slices of fried plantain, fine cabbage salad in mayo, and crisp, deep-fried tilapia fish.
Say thanks to Angela, who chooses to share only her first name. The fish on the plate is a native of North Africa, and Angela is from a central African country, Cameroon. Food is, after all, “the best way to approach diversity,” as Radha Mahendru of Khoj, a festival organiser, said.
To most Indians eating at Angela’s stall, the flavours feel friendly despite being entirely new. “The fish is so crunchy that I am chewing on it until it soups up deliciously in my mouth,” says one diner, even before he’s quite finished swooning over the sweet-tasting plantain chips. Mila Samdub (one of bpb’s favourite Delhi photographers) pops around more than once for an Angela meal: first for a chicken-and-cabbage stew with pungent dried fish, served with sides of boiled sweet potato, yam and plantain; later, for the unusually vibrant flavour of the tilapia fry, in which Angela uses fish-heads, something most Delhi cooks don’t do. “The fish head has different surfaces that get cooked differently to develop distinct flavours,” he points out.
Angela preps, ninja-like, in fifteen or twenty minutes, having previously washed, cleaned and boiled her meat and fish. Each dish is made with no more than five ingredients. When visitors drop in to eat at her three-bedroom apartment in south Delhi -- her kitchen is open every night from eight to four in the morning -- she makes each meal fresh, she tells us.
Her words are like her fish: spoken in crisp sentences, rich anecdotes and warm, crackling laughter. In her black and neon-green track suit, she looks like she hit the ground running, literally. “I have travelled so much, have so many experiences that I can write my own Bible!”
Angela came to India in 2014, something of a long-distance swimmer herself. With her husband, a French national currently employed in Thailand, she spent much of the previous decade travelling on deputations with him -- to Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Burma, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, while her young daughter stayed back with her mother and family.
Crossing from border to border , her sense of the kinship between African and subcontinental palates helped: Indians also liked tomato curries, peanuts, gram, onions, garlic, and chillies. Around the world, “when I could not get my region’s food, I’d eat Indian food,” she says. (These days, she substitutes the leafy local vegetables from home with palak.)
It was during their posting in Sri Lanka in 2013 that she first met her friend Patricia, who had come to India six months before Angela, and whose own Cameroonian kitchen is something of a byword in their neighbourhood. Angela, having “grown small differences” with her husband, came to India in 2014. Here, she, like Patricia, started to cook.
“When you come abroad, you have nothing to give you money. That’s what pushed me to start this business.” She enjoys it. The cuisines of the world have always interested her, she says, and so also the food of Cameroon’s many diverse tribal communities, often different from what was made in her own Beti culture.
Her home kitchen employs a young man from Coté d’Ivoire as a server. “My diners are Tanzanians, Kenyans, Nigerians, Congolese. And even though Cameroonian cuisine is different from theirs, they come because they like my food,” she says. Indians don’t drop in, although she does, on occasion, send food out as take-away, courtesy an arrangement with an obliging auto-wallah.
So what is the food she misses most? The question hasn’t even arisen when she produces her phone from her pocket to describe the food in a picture that produces a misty glint in her eye. It’s ndolé (or ndolet), a painstakingly-prepared stew full of bitter leaves, peanuts, groundnut, goat-meat, dry crayfish, and served with rice dough. She made it two weeks ago, with the bitter leaves that her mother sent with an acquaintance from Douala.
“It’s an expensive dish, costing about $25 for a plate in restaurants, so it is only occasionally prepared for close family and friends,” she says. She doesn’t know when she’ll be able to eat it next. But when she heads back home next year to spend time with her daughter and pack her off to college in Europe or Canada, she’ll stay for “two, three, six months.” Then she’ll return to these parts, this time to join her husband, stationed in Thailand, with whom she’s been working out differences. All kinds of hollowness may be mended, in time.
Getting there: For inquiries about Angela’s food, call 9873494248.
Akshita Nagpal is a multimedia journalist based in New Delhi, India. She has reported and shot for Scroll.in, The Caravan, The Wire, and The Hindu.
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