I have mentioned before that one of the great open secrets of Delhi’s food scene is that some of the best food from other regions of the country is available in the canteens or dining halls of the various state bhawans. Now, you may be wondering what a state bhawan is. Delhi, as you know, is the capital of India, and all the state governments have headquarters in the city that combine office space as well as lodging for state bureaucrats visiting the capital or attached to the central government. They also have staff canteens that feed the employees of the bhawans—drawn from the state—the food of home. Many of these canteens—though not all—are open to the public; at some—as at Samridhi, it’s more the case that nobody stops the general public from eating there. These canteens run the gamut in aesthetic. The Bihar Bhawan, for example, has a full-on restaurant, a branch of the popular Potbelly; Goa Niwas also has a restaurant (Viva O Viva) but it’s decidedly less fancy. At the far end of the continuum is Samridhi, the canteen of Kerala House, as basic a dining establishment as you can imagine. It is functional and cheap but serves very delicious food.
As I noted, it’s not always clear what these establishments policies are on who can dine there. Samridhi has a sign in the dining room that reads “Kerala House Staff Only” but I was manifestly not a Kerala House staff member and nobody looked at me askance. Maybe there’s a “don’t ask, don’t get told no” policy in place. That said, I have never seen someone visibly foreign eating at any of the lower-end state bhawan canteens and I’m not sure what the policies are around that.
I can tell you that when you show up for lunch you will encounter a long line. (The entrance to the canteen, by the way, is from the rear gate of Kerala House.) The day’s menu will be scrawled on a board behind the cashier and if, like me on this visit, you’re dining there for the first time you may be taken aback by how low the prices are. The basic veg. thali runs just Rs. 50 (or <$1). This gets you rice, a papad, a pachadi (in the raita family), a thoran (stir-fried veg), sambhar and a veg curry—and bottomless refills on the lot. For another Rs. 50 you can choose to add on one of the extra dishes special to the day. These seem to rotate—there were some people in line who’d come hoping to find specific things that weren’t on offer that day. There were four special dishes on the day of my visit: a fish fry (mathi/sardine), a meat fry (buffalo), a fish curry (vattah/trevally) and a chicken “roast”. Because of who I am and how low the prices are, I got them all. This profligacy—which confused both the cashier and the others at my table (you dine at communal tables)—plus a bottle of mineral water ran me a total of Rs. 270 (or <$4).
The cashier will give you a receipt which will have a number on it and you will have to wait till the number is called. At that point you will be granted admission to the dining hall and directed to a table with an available seat. A server will look at your receipt to see what you’ve ordered. A thali will then be plopped down with the basic stuff on it and a bit later someone will show up and serve a big ladle-full of the day’s veg curry on your rice and then bring you your special orders. If you are the idiot who ordered all four specials your table-mates will probably regard you with great suspicion before you even start photographing all your food. Service is brusque and harried and it’s not the kind of place where you can ask questions about what you are eating—this is my way of asking any Malayalis who may be reading to forgive me for giving generic names to the components of the basic thali.
You stay alert when the servers come around with refills of the basic thali. Sometimes they ask you if you want more of anything, sometimes you have to ask them for more, and sometimes they just slap a fresh layer down without anyone asking anything of anyone else. You eat with your hands (though I suppose you could bring cutlery if you’re not comfortable doing that but are comfortable with being regarded with even more suspicion). When you’re done you go out to the back where there are sinks to wash up. And then you fuck off. There are a lot of people waiting to eat and you don’t want to slow them down by lingering.
For pictures of the space and the food launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for a few more thoughts on the experience and to see what’s coming next.
The food was all very good. All prepared without any frills and with no pretensions to being anything but hearty. I enjoyed it greatly. I did, however, feel a bit of uneasiness about my presence there. This was not because I’m not a staff member and was worried I would be thrown out but because the prices suggest, and the profile of the vast majority of the people eating there confirms, that a canteen like this one is really aimed at lower-salaried government employees. Now it didn’t seem like the food was in any danger of running out but I do wonder if they would put their foot down on the dining policy if too many outsiders began to show up. Now you might say that they might instead welcome the business but it also doesn’t seem—in keeping with Kerala’s long communist history—like the place is being run as a profit center. In sum, I felt—perhaps unnecessarily—that I was a bougie foodie taking advantage of something that was not meant for me. I’m not sure though if that will stop me from going back on my next trip (the missus will be with me but most people in Delhi assume she’s from one of the northeastern states anyway).
Up next on the food front: a review of a far fancier and far less Malayali dinner at Hyacinth in St. Paul. After that I’ll have a write-up of a meal at another state bhawan, one a bit further up on the fanciness front (the aforementioned Viva O Viva). And then I will get started on the Los Angeles reports from late December and early January.