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New Delhi: A Princely Feast for a Pauper's Price

<em>Thali</em> — an array of South Indian dishes served on a banana leaf — is one of the delicious and inexpensive choices at Naivedyam in New Delhi's trendy Haus Khas village.
Philip Reeves, NPR
Thali — an array of South Indian dishes served on a banana leaf — is one of the delicious and inexpensive choices at Naivedyam in New Delhi's trendy Haus Khas village.

If you're rich and dumb enough, you can squander several hundred dollars on a meal in New Delhi these days, just as you can in any of the world's capital cities. But a deeply fulfilling South Indian vegetarian lunch can be purchased for a tiny fraction of that sum.

Delhi has many very good South Indian restaurants: Sagar Ratna in the Ashok Hotel, Sarvana Bhavan in Janpath and the Banana Leaf in Connaught Place, to name but a few.

My own recommendation is Naivedyam, a dark and eccentric haunt in Haus Khas village, a neighborhood so richly endowed with clothes boutiques, jewelry stores and art galleries that it can reasonably claim both to be one of the city's trendiest places, and a good hunting ground for foreign visitors searching for trophies to take home.

The restaurant is located down an alley and up a small flight of black marble steps on which, for some reason, stands a black marble cow sprinkled with flower petals — testimony to the animal's holy status for Hindus.

When my wife and I ate at Naivedyam recently, I ordered a thali, an array of dishes served on a banana leaf, placed on a large round metal tray.

The thali consisted of numerous chapatis (unleavened bread), one pappadum (a wafer-like bread), basmati rice, two vegetarian dishes — sambar (a cross between spicy vegetable soup and a stew) and rasam (a thick brew of dal, tomatoes and spices) — yogurt and pickles.

My Indian friends say this type of food tastes better if you eat it with your fingers. They're right, though I have no idea why.

We also ordered a tangam paper masala dosa, a very large, crispy pancake made of rice and lentils stuffed with spiced potatoes and served with chutney and sambar. To wash down our food, we ordered a fresh lime juice with chilled soda water and one lassi, a yogurt drink served at Naivedyam, pleasingly, in a half-pint mug, like English beer.

The bill for this feast? 249 Indian rupees (about $6), including tax.

Had we also tried uthappam (a thicker variant of the dosa), or idli (spongy, steamed rice cakes), or vada (fried lentils and flour batter seasoned with chilies), I guess we could have pushed the total into double digits.

There was, of course, no alcohol. But this was lunch, not dinner. And the absence of booze at least relieved us from having yet another "discussion" over whether to drink beer, or to opt for wine — which in India usually turns out to be wildly overpriced, poorly kept and, all too often, downright undrinkable.

Naivedyam — 1 Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi 110016, India. Telephone: 91-11-2696-0426.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.