24 October 2016

Stringy cheese and the taste of childhood: On Nirula's and the 1990s

An NRI aunt came to visit us in Delhi after a long time. This particular aunt used to come to our home all the time back in the 80s and 90s, accompanied by my two cousins, and we always had a routine we adhered to. She had to hit up all her favourite eating spots—Hyderabad, where my mother's extended family lives was great for the home-cooked meal, but not so much with the eating out options—and what my aunt wanted was Indian food, your daal makhani, seekh kebabs and naan and Indian Chinese food. If they didn't have American chop suey on the menu, she did not want to go there, no matter how “fine dining” it may have been.

Well, lucky for us, her hosts, back in the day we had a one-stop shop we could take her to and keep us three kids happy as well. Nirula's was the answer to “shall we go out and eat tonight?” or where I went for my very first outing with friends from school—Jurassic Park and our pooled money going into pizza for after.

This is the very same pizza I order some weekends to chase away that gloomy Sunday night feeling. The weekend is over, you've probably had to much to drink the past few days, this is also the day your maid doesn't come to work, so you're sitting in your unmade bed, having watched television till the light outside your curtains turns from bright to dark. And there you are in your flat, still in your pajamas, with all the lights off because you haven't turned them on yet, and what could be a better pick-me-up than some nostalgia food from a simpler time? I guess that's one of the nice things about living in a city you also spent your childhood in. Nostalgia is always just around the corner. The pizza itself is not as spectacular as any of the fancy new delivery-only gourmet pizza places that have popped up all over the city, but the stringiness of the cheese, the crispness of the capsicum, the rubbery give of the mutton sausage, the weird in-between crust—they're all incredibly more-ish, even though that description makes it sound supremely unappetising.

I may have also had a weird anthromorphised crush on Michelangelo


Some people went for hot chocolate fudge (abbreviated coolly to HCF) but my heart belonged to that very underrated menu item—the ice cream soda. Vanilla ice cream, a squirt of the syrup in the flavour you wanted and topped off with foaming club soda, it was everything you wanted in a drink and dessert.

What my aunt wanted—which was to eat like she was in the 1980s again---we could no longer provide for her in 2016 though. There are about a zillion places to eat out in Delhi, but Pot Pourri, the “fancy” salad bar with paper placemats and table service has vanished. And definitely RIP the Chinese Room, with its dim lighting and crispy noodles and sweet corn soup with bits of shredded chicken swimming in a thick broth, which you spiced up using the vinegar on the table, thoughtfully scattered through with marinated green chillis.

What's going to happen to Nirula's then? One more piece of our past is breaking off, only to be glimpsed sometimes as “quick service” at petrol pumps, hospitals or the highway. And the last time I ordered pizza from there, my partner looked at me quizzically. “Really? This is the pizza you wanted?” he asked, as I tore open the mustard packets and added strategic dots of the condiment to my slice. It really wasn't the pizza I wanted though—that pizza is still stuck in 1989, when none of my family felt like eating “home food” and we went on an excursion to Connaught Place, placed our order at the counter, and the bubbles from the ice cream soda tickled my nose. 

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