What It Costs To Fill Your Belly In New Delhi

Dec 18, 2013
Originally published on December 18, 2013 5:28 pm

Just how far does a dollar go? We'll try to answer that question as part of an occasional series on what things cost around the world. In this installment, NPR's Julie McCarthy takes us on a gastronomic tour of New Delhi and tells us what you can buy for $5, $20 and $100.

With over a billion people, India's $1.7 trillion economy is as varied as its culture. But if you still think of it as a land of endless bargains, then you'd better think again.

The currency in Asia's third-largest economy took a nosedive this year, and the rising inflation that followed is taking a bite out of Indian wallets: Everything from fuel to clothing to food is getting costlier.

Outdoor street markets are the most economical way to shop in India. Like Europeans, Indians usually shop several times a week, but their purchasing power is dwindling: Wholesale vegetable prices have risen 18 percent from a year ago.

Still, there are lots of interesting options, no matter your budget. Here's a sampling:

What you can get for $5 or less

Street food is big in India, where people love to grab snacks on the go. It's delicious, diverse and cheap. Dishes such as chole bhature (a Punjabi dish of chickpeas in a spicy sauce), chaat (various savory snacks usually incorporating fried dough) and aloo tikki (a North Indian dish of boiled potatoes served as a small cutlet) run about 30 to 40 rupees (50 to 60 cents) a pop. Six servings is a feast for two. Throw in a couple of Cokes (20 rupees each), and you've barely spent five bucks.

For a snack with a more colonial flair, try a full service of high tea at United Coffee House, a venerable establishment with the Victorian ambiance of the British Raj that dates back to 1942. Tea plus a tray of finger sandwiches, cakes and cookies costs about $5.

Spruce up your table with a small bouquet of flowers. Flowers are surprisingly expensive in Delhi, but you can still manage a sweet spray for $5.

To slake their thirst, many Indians reach for the country's signature beer, Kingfisher. A six-pack will set you back just under $5.

What you can get for $20

Abbondanza! We picked up several days' supply of vegetables and fruit: tomatoes, potatoes, coriander, pomegranates, oranges, onions, garlic, ginger, eggplant, cucumbers, peppers, apples, melon, pineapple and a basket to put them in. But tomatoes are up 122 percent from a year ago, while the lowly onion has soared 278 percent.

Have date night. Start with dinner: a South Indian thali — a meal served on a platter that includes dal, vegetables, roti, rice, yogurt, chutneys and pickles. Add an order of panchavarna uthappam, vegetable-filled dosas garnished with chutneys. Total bill: $10. Afterward, hit the multiplex: Two tickets will cost you another $10.

Tuck into the signature dish — and a libation — at United Coffee House: $10 Chicken Meringue (pan-grilled chicken sauteed with chopped onions and finished with dark rum) and $10 for a glass of imported wine.

And speaking of vino: $20 is usually the cheapest price for a bottle of imported wine. But seizing on the rising disposable income of young Indians, the world's biggest champagne maker, Moet Hennessy, has launched Chandon India, its first home-grown sparkling wine. At about $20, it's a lot less expensive than imported Moet, which runs about $75.

What you can get for $100

For fine dining, one can splash out with the tasting menu at an upscale restaurant like Indian Accent, one of the most innovative restaurants in Delhi. Starters include baked fish in Amritsari (ginger, garlic, fenugreek) masala butter with Japanese whitebait papad for crunch; and meetha achaar (sweet, pickled) Chilean spare ribs with mango chutney. Kulfi (reduced milk) sorbet with pomegranate juice cleanses the palate for main courses such as black pepper prawn with cucumber raita or a special mutton dal. For dessert: ginger ice cream atop a treacle tart that's a lot like pecan pie. It's about $100 per person for the nonvegetarian option with wine pairings, and only $45 without the wine.

For at-home cooking, you can stock up on food staples for a couple of months: 5 kilograms (about 11 pounds) of rice, 5 kilograms of roti flour, 5 liters (1.3 gallons) of olive oil, 5 kilograms of sugar, honey, maple syrup, ghee (clarified butter), 100 bags of tea, a 10-ounce jar of Nescafe coffee, a jar of peanut butter, orange and mango juices, and soy milk.

Discover the chef in you with cooking classes and put some of those staples to use. For about $100, cooking instructor Neeta Khurana will give you a tour of a fresh vegetable market and a spice shop as a prelude to hands-on preparation of Indian dishes. Afterward, students feast on the fruits of their labor with Khurana and her family. She's one of many Indian women who teach courses that introduce students to authentic local markets and cuisine.

If you want to come see it all firsthand, pick up a six-month, multiple-entry tourist visa for a little more than $65. It's a bargain (if you're American, that is). The British pay twice that — $136 — for the same type of visa.

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