THE real India, they say, is in the villages. But it is here in the cities, and especially here in New Delhi, that you can sense the whole Indian experience - the history, the foreign influences, the religious distinctions, the traditions. The forces that shaped India also shape its culinary culture, says J.Inder Singh Kalra, culinary historian and restaurant and travel consultant.
``Since Mrs. Ghandi opened up travel for middle-class Indians, we suddenly see a change in the chefs of India as well as in the diners,'' says Mr. Kalra. He is sitting in the office of Manjit S. Gill, executive chef of the Maury Sheraton Hotel, sharing his observances of Indian cuisine.
``In the past, continental cooking was enough for any top restaurant or hotel chef,'' Kalra says. ``Today, it is not. Chefs are expanding their culinary knowledge, learning more about the foods of other countries as well as their own culinary heritage which goes back thousands of years.''
The Indian diner today is exposed to more regional cuisines - including Western-style fast-food franchises (nonexistent here 10 years ago) selling pizza, hamburgers, and vegetarian food.
The Maury Hilton features two top-class restaurants: Dum Pukht (the Moghul word for slow braising in a tightly sealed pot) dates its cuisine to the 1780s, while The Bukhara serves northwest frontier dishes on wooden boards.
``It is very important to develop our own cuisine,'' says chef Gill. ``And it is no secret that spices, freshly ground every day, are the basis of Indian cooking.'' The secret is in the blending of the individual spices for each dish, he says - though no two individuals may agree on the blend. Indian chefs may argue endlessly about the use of a particular spice or herb.
As for curry powder, Gill adds firmly, ``there is absolutely no concept or place'' for it in Indian cooking.
From the luxury of the Maury Hotel with its elegant dining, Messrs. Kalra and Gill guided this reporter through the famous bazaars of Old Delhi with all their noise, dust, tantalizing scents, and crowds of people.
Indians, one discovers, are dedicated nibblers and snackers.
Street vendors sell foods of all kinds, from chick peas to peanuts to chats (salads without oils), many kinds of fritters, kabobs, kaftas (meatballs), and crunchy things like chips and lentil wafers.
Here, too, the evolution of Indian cuisine can be seen. A street once lined with paratha sellers - and people lined up to buy them - now contains but three shops. ``People are cutting down on fried foods,'' Kalra explains. A paratha - a round or triangular bread stuffed with spiced potatoes - is shallow-fried in oil.
Also at the bazaar: Vendors selling huge mounds of nuts and sweets, as well as clothing, rickshaws, mangoes, bicycles, ice cream, black umbrellas, jewelry, books, silks, even false beards and marigold leis. A boy sat on the ground, playing a flute and trying to charm a cobra from a round wicker basket.
The most exquisite sweets were at 382 Chandni Chau, at a shop called Bikaner Namkeen Bhandar. Here there were piles of the famous sweets of Bengali, the rasgullas and rasmalis made of the creamy curd cheeses and flavored with rose water or covered with pistachios. Bengali sweets are known as the finest in all India. These were delicious, as well as artfully made and displayed.
One tray held sweets that looked like giant Hersey chocolate kisses, except that their silver coating was an edible silver paper called varq. Sweets of this kind are favorites on holidays such as this week's Diwali, the Indian New Year known as the Festival of Lights. Celebrated on the last two days of October and first two days of November, it's a time for businesses to close their accounts and start with a clean slate. Gifts and greeting cards are exchanged and, on the fourth day, earthen bowls are filled with oil, lighted in the evening, and set up in rows outside houses.
CLASSIC INDIAN COOKING
by Julia Sahni, (William Morrow, 1980, $15.95)
CLASSIC INDIAN VEGETARIAN AND GRAIN COOKING
by Julia Sahni, (William Morrow, 1985, $22.50)
MADHUR JAFFREY'S COOKBOOK - EASY EAST/WEST MENUS
by Madhur Jaffrey, (Harper & Row, 1989, $22.50)
THE VARIED KITCHENS OF INDIA
by Copeland Marks, (M. Evans & Co., 1986, $19.95)