The Leela Delhi

My Mint column about The Leela Delhi here.

  • Culture
  • Posted: Thu, Oct 27 2011. 9:23 PM IST
Is anyone listening to the guest?
The hospitality industry spends countless hours training employees to act on certain principles: enhancing guest experience, prompt delivery of services, warm welcomes and goodbyes, among others

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

  It was 12.45 when I walked into the new Leela in Delhi to check in. I had scheduled a business lunch at the hotel’s Qube restaurant at 1pm and was worried I’d be late. All I wanted to do was go to my room, drop my bag, wash my face and get to the restaurant in 10 minutes. I said as much to the smiling young lady who came to greet me.

“Sure, ma’am. Please sit down and make yourself comfortable. I’ll get the check-in form.”


Small bites: Try the fresh salads from Egypt, Morocco and all over the Mediterranean, at The Qube, at the new Leela in Delhi

Small bites: Try the fresh salads from Egypt, Morocco and all over the Mediterranean, at The Qube, at the new Leela in Delhi


Minutes ticked by. I sat on edge, wondering what I should do to hurry them up. A waitress asked if I’d like anything to drink. Someone got a jasmine garland ready. Five minutes passed. Finally, the lady in red escorted me to my room and continued to fill up the forms, till I told her, for the fourth time, that I was late for lunch. Would it have been different had I walked into the lobby and started yelling for an express check-in? Yes, of course. Hotel staff is trained to deal with problem guests and I wasn’t behaving like one. But I had a distinct need that the hotel didn’t hear, let alone fulfil.

The hospitality industry spends countless hours training employees to act on certain principles: enhancing guest experience, prompt delivery of services, warm welcomes and goodbyes, among others. Consistency is key. So they embrace rules and uniforms. Always welcome a guest this way; always ask a guest these questions; always wish them a warm goodbye.

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

The challenge for those in the service sector is to train employees not just to deliver service consistently, but also to discern and act on unusual requests, both stated and unstated. A man checks in with a headache and doesn’t want to be escorted to the room; he wants to go to the spa. A woman with low blood sugar comes in with one pressing need: food. How to get her to ask for it, and even if she does, will the front desk staff stop the check-in formalities to run to the restaurant and get bread? These are not crises, but the way the hotel staff intuit and respond to these needs will enhance or diminish the experience for that particular guest.

For this, hotels have to teach their employees not just consistency but also flexibility. Rather than impose a uniform welcome for all guests, receptionists have to customize. And customization involves figuring out guest needs at that moment in time by looking and listening, something that is hard to do in a busy hotel.

Listening is a key skill for all hotel employees, and it can be taught. For example, hotels could institute a simple rule. Any staff member who welcomes a guest should not leave the guest’s side for the first 5 minutes. That’s all it takes: 5 minutes. It’s no use asking the guest to “be comfortable” and then walking away, even if it is to get the check-in form. If you want to delve into psychology, you could call this “fear of abandonment”. We all have it, and it influences our behavioural responses, ranging from how we react when a spouse walks out in the middle of a quarrel to why we keep asking the doctor questions so that we can keep him near our bedside.

Hotels, spas and restaurants can factor in this fear of abandonment into enhancing the guest experience. Some spas do this. The massage therapist is instructed to keep her hand on the guest’s body at all times, even when she is walking around to the other side of the table. Similarly, hotels can give their front desk staff a simple diktat: Do not, under any circumstances, walk away from the guest in the first 5 minutes. That’s all it takes to draw out the guest and get a measure of his state of mind. Is he tense? Is she in a hurry? Do they have a specific need that needs to be addressed? Rather than instructing each guest to sit down and “be comfortable” (how I hate that phrase), the staff should be taught to converse with the guest and find out their psychological state of mind. This can have dramatic effects on the guest experience.

I stayed at The Leela Palace anonymously in July, paying what was then the standard rate of Rs. 13,963 per night. It was a fine experience, except at the beginning and the end. I enjoyed my lunch at The Qube. The salads from Egypt, Morocco, and all over the Mediterranean were fresh and beautifully presented in small plates. A butterfly danced on the glass wall that separated the restaurant from the garden. The tables were nicely spaced and two of the long tables were full of Punjabi ladies who lunched and then paid with wads of cash. The cutlery was stylish, yet easy to handle. The nouveau Indian music—sitar and drums—was at the correct volume. The staff was uniformly courteous, with nary a misstep.

I am conflicted about this hotel’s decor. I like that they don’t conform to the minimalism that has taken over the world. I like that they use what architect Rahul Mehrotra calls “local assertions” in their design. I like their Kovalam property’s pared down “assertions” most. But ornamental Indian isn’t for me. The Leela Delhi aesthetic is maximalist with baroque overtones: gilt-edged mirrors, crystal chandeliers, large potted (plastic?) plants, carpets with a faintly Aubusson touch, and flowers everywhere. The liftman told me that the hotel buys 3,600 roses daily. They are arranged artfully all over the hotel. The wood-panelled Club-level floor is stunning. I loved the self-designed wallpaper and upholstery; and the antique prints and photographs that are framed off-centre: a simple idea but so very chic.

When I checked out, I got a rude shock. I had booked for two days through a travel agent and then cancelled the first night. The hotel insisted on having me sign a credit card payment for the first night as a “pre-authorization”. The duty manager, Varsha, said she would do her best to waive the charge, but it took two weeks and two emails for it to happen. I can understand hotels doing this during peak season, but The Leela wasn’t full. The hotel eventually returned the money, but the damage was done. Next time, I’ll be more careful when I book The Leela because they don’t allow me to be flexible.

Shoba Narayan sees the triumph of the minimalist aesthetic as one of the triumphs of modern Japan. Write to her at

Dosa-do and Dosa-don’t. For

The worst dosa I ate was at the Hampton Chutney Company in Amagansett some fifteen years ago. I was arguing with my best friend, Jennifer. I’d like to think it was something important like nuclear non-proliferation or artificial insemination, but it was probably something totally mundane like where we would go for dinner. Jennifer being of a mulish disposition stopped listening when we reached Amagansett Square. Guessing correctly that hunger pangs were at least partly responsible for my shrillness, she stalked off in search of sustenance.

I lay down on the cool grass and stretched. Elm and chestnut trees rustled in the wind. White buildings with wicket gates masqueraded as stores behind me. Little girls in frilly frocks threw a ball nearby. The traffic on Main Street was reassuringly clogged. The sky was blue; the air was sweet. Someone was roasting corn nearby. I closed my eyes and sighed.

“Here, have a dosa,” said Jennifer, handing me a wrap.

As peacemaking gestures go, this was right on. Jennifer knew I loved dosas. It is hard for anyone who grew up in India not to.

I nodded in acknowledgement, bit into the dosa-wrap, and gagged. My tongue encountered roasted butternut squash, roasted beets and goat cheese in rapid succession. Now, there are many places where roasted butternut squash would taste sublime (well, sublime may be pushing it as I consider it to be a fairly insipid vegetable) but inside a dosa is not one of them. I tried Jennifer’s dosa. Inside was the equally weird combination of grilled Portobello mushrooms, roasted onions, spinach and goat cheese. These weren’t dosas. They were imposters.

Dosas are commonly described as South Indian crepes, but the description doesn’t do them justice. It is true that they are round like crepes but dosas unlike crepes are savory. The batter is different. In South India where I come from, dosas are almost a religion. We have them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most households prepare and store a big pot of dosa-batter as insurance against unexpected guests. When all else fails, the sentiment goes, there is always dosa.

The nice thing about dosas as opposed to their cousin, the idli (which are steamed dumplings) is that the batter is fairly fool-proof and easy to prepare. The traditional recipe calls for one part urad dal (white lentils) to two parts rice. You soak the dal and rice separately for a few hours before grinding them together along with a teaspoon of salt. Indians typically use a type of rice called Ponni parboiled rice, widely available at Patel Brothers and other Little India outlets. But the nice thing about a dosa is that it isn’t finicky.

In New York, I’ve walked to Kalustyan’s on a whim, bought a bag of urad dal and ground it with two parts of the Thai jasmine rice to make excellent dosas. The uptown branch of Fairway sells parboiled rice in the Spanish foods section which gives the dosas an even more authentic taste.

A good dosa has to be thin and even; golden brown and crisp on the outside and soft inside. The skillet has to be coated with sesame oil which imparts its slightly nutty flavor to the dosa. Saravana Bhavan and Pongal in downtown Manhattan serve wonderful dosas. In the Bay Area, numerous outlets including Komala Vilas (KV), and Udipi Palace do just as well. Like I said, it is hard to mess up a dosa; unless you happen to be Hampton Chutney of course.

The idea of filling a dosa with sacrilegious ingredients like tuna and spinach probably from the masala-dosa, which as it turns out is one of my favorite Indian dishes. In Bangalore where I live now, there are legendary restaurants that are short on ambience but turn out extremely flavorful masala dosas with insouciance. The masala dosa originated in the nearby princely town of Mysore and is known throughout India as the Mysore masala dosa. Its distinctive taste comes from a fiery red sauce that is brushed on the inside before serving.

In Bangalore, I go to a roadside dive called Nalas for my Mysore masala dosas. There are no seats, only tiny bar-tables where patrons stand and eat their food. I elbow my way through the crowds outside, wait in line before the cashier to place my order. There are just four types of dosas on offer—the plain dosa with no filling, the masala dosa with a potato-and-onion filling, the Mysore masala dosa with its spicy coating and the benne dosa or butter roast served with a dollop of butter on top. When it is my turn, the cashier looks up disinterestedly. With four items on the menu, he hardly expects patrons to surprise him.

“One Mysore masala,” I bark and hand over the equivalent of a dollar. He gives me a white chit which I take to the counter a few feet away. Behind the counter is an open kitchen with a giant flat pan on which ten or twenty dosas are prepared at one time. My white chit joins the queue. I watch the four men work in tandem. They are wearing white banians (or undershirts) and dhotis (like sarongs) to allay the sweltering heat inside. One man pours the batter and makes perfect circles. Sesame oil is sprinkled liberally making a pleasant sizzling sound. The waiting populace smacks its lips. We watch the man flip the circles so that the batter cooks on the other side. A minute later, he flips it back again before inserting the potato-and-onion filling to some. The dosas are plated, coconut chutney is offered as a condiment before each plate is handed out. We each retreat to a corner table to greedily devour our dosa.

I break off a piece with my fingers—you have to eat dosas with your hands; there is no other civilized way for this is a dish that makes a mockery of accoutrements like a fork and knife. I dip the piece into coconut chutney and chew. There is crispness at first followed by the fiery coating and then the soft comfort of lemony potatoes and onions. Each bite is a play of tastes and textures, and like other great dishes of the world a meal onto itself. I finish my Mysore masala, both sated and satisfied.

Recipes vary for the red paste inside a Mysore masala. Some cooks use a powder made with channa dal, sesame seeds and dried red chilies, somewhat like za’atar but a lot more fiery. Indians call this “gunpowder” or chutney-powder even though its Tamil name is “milagai-podi.” Like za’atar, the powder is mixed with oil—sesame not olive—and smeared over the inside of the dosa. Another recipe calls for fried onions, tomatoes and one green chili, which is then ground to a paste. I actually like the tangy tomato paste better than the gunpowder.

Another joint I frequent in Bangalore is called Janata hotel in Malleshwaram, the Brahmin bastion of old Bangalore. This is a world removed from the gleaming towers of Indian IT that have brought fame to this city. Here, vegetable vendors pushing trolleys still stop before homes and yell their wares in a sing-song mix of native and English, “Cauliflower, carrot, thakkali (tomato), bendekai (okra).” The sari-clad lady of the house ambles out and the two get into a spirited slanging match over the price and freshness of the vegetables. Outrage is feigned on both sides at the prices, stern words exchanged before the vegetables change hands. Other wondrous creatures trawl the street. There are the ‘knife-sharpeners’—men who carry a sharp wheel on their shoulders and sharpen kitchen-knives on demand. They make a strange hooting sound and the ladies immediately know to pull out their blunt kitchen knives. The hunched man sets up his wheel-stand outside her kitchen and runs each individual knife over the wheel which he runs with a lever by his foot. Sparks fly and the knife comes out shiny and sharp. Most homes in this neighborhood eat dosas for breakfast and dinner.

For breakfast, the kids usually have the hearty uthappam before heading to school. Select chopped vegetables—onions, green pepper and tomato– are sprinkled on the batter after it is poured on the skillet, the more nutritious to make it my dear. Uthappams are thicker than dosas since chopped vegetables enhance (or detract from depending on your point of view) the batter. At night, the seniors in the multi-generational joint family have light plain dosas that are easy to digest. Restaurants in this neighborhood cater to this exacting crowd for whom taste is a way of life and value for money is paramount. The Janata hotel scores on both counts.

You walk in and sidle into a bare marble-topped table sans menu or silverware. Eventually a waiter comes to you and gazes expectantly. “What do you have?” you ask even though you know exactly what you are going to have, having eaten the same thing on every visit. But one of the pleasures of eating at old-style Indian establishments is listening to the waiter recite the menu. The waiter takes a deep breath and begins, “Plain dosa, butter roast, masala dosa, butter masala, rava dosa, rava masala, Mysore masala, onion uthappam, tomato uthappam…..” At this point, you interrupt to give your order, “I’ll have the butter masala.”

He nods and plonks down a stainless-steel glass of water which you, being raised on bottled, wouldn’t touch anyway. After that, it is just ‘time-pass’ as Indians say, till the food comes out.

It is amazing how a dollop of butter can transform a dosa (or indeed any dish). A butter masala is for those times when you don’t want to go spicy. It is pure comfort food. Crisp dosa with a potato filling served with melting butter on top. Coconut chutney optional. Janata Hotel is an institution in Bangalore.

I would be remiss if I finished my dosa exposition without mentioning the rava dosa. Rava or Sooji is plain old Farina or cream of wheat. The batter is made with equal parts rava and rice flour and is a favorite of those who like extra-crispness in their dosa. The rava dosa batter requires a special talent in pouring it over the skillet. First of all, the batter is watery. Deft pouring gives the dosa the appearance of a fern-frond, albeit a round one. The ladle shouldn’t touch the pan. Instead you drop the batter on the pan like Jackson Pollock did his paints except more densely. Most South Indian cooks spike the rava dosa batter with cumin seeds and diced green chilies. If you add onions to this, it becomes and onion rava; if you insert the potato filling, it becomes an onion rava masala dosa and if you top it with butter, it becomes of course, the butter onion rava masala dosa, the mother of all dosas. Purists dislike this overload however—it is like adding too many ingredients to a hamburger. Less is more here.

My grandmother made the best dosas in the world. Of course, right? Part of the reason was that she rationed out dosas to her ten grandchildren, which made them irresistible. Come summer holidays and all the grandchildren were sent to our sprawling ancestral home. There was no camp when I grew up. Instead my grandfather marshaled our activities and my grandmom fed the crew. On most days, breakfast comprised dishes that are easy to mass-produce—upma, pongal, idlis and occasionally even toast. Dosas are painstaking to prepare for ten hungry grandchildren because you have to make each one individually. Dosa days were therefore, as rare as a summer monsoon.

Dosa mornings in our household always involved a bit of jostling. We would troop, all ten of us, into the dark cavernous kitchen lit only by the slanting rays of the early morning sun. We would sit on the floor, stainless steel plates in front of us and wait for the dosas. It took a lot of skill for us younger children to get first in line. Usually it involved bribing the elder kids with marbles or offering to do their chores; abject pleading worked as did threats of squealing to the elders about their midnight jaunts to catch the late-show movie. There was always the threat of being out-maneuvered by an even more Machiavellian cousin or sibling. My grandmother didn’t realize all this. Indeed, she beamed proudly as she watched her bathed and powdered grandchildren with slicked-back oiled hair take their seats in an organized fashion on the floor. I was usually fourth in line. Being the only girl in a family of boys, I had nothing to offer as bribe to get ahead. None of my cousins were interested in my cooking-set or wooden dolls.

My grandmother oiled the two skillets and we were off. We all watched her as she poured a ladle full of dosa-batter on the skillet. The soft flesh in her fore-arm shook slightly as she spread the batter into perfectly concentric circles. A spoon full of sesame oil; a comforting sizzle; an indescribable aroma. Deftly, my grandmother folded the dosa in half and set it on the first two plates while the rest of us watched greedily. Waiting for my turn probably added to the taste of my dosa as well waiting for my next one which would only come after all ten kids had been fed their first dosa. Each of us devised techniques. You had to eat slowly or you’d be done with your first one before the dosa even hit the sixth of ten plates. Although I didn’t realize it then, it was my grandmother’s dosas that taught me the basics of civilized eating, of taking small morsels, chewing each bite, savoring each mouthful and conversing with your neighbors in between. Well, conversing was probably pushing it because most of our spare time in between dosas was spent plotting how to hasten the process or steal from neighboring plates.

When I grew up and became a student in America, my dorm room always had two things: a bag or rice flour and a box of farina or cream of wheat. Whenever hunger pangs hit me at midnight, or when I missed my homeland too much, I mixed equal quantities of both with just enough water and a pinch of salt to make dosas in my tiny skillet. If I had onions or green chilies, I would add them to the mix. Mostly, I cooked the dosas with olive oil since sesame oil was hard to get in South Hadley, Massachusetts in the late eighties. I am not sure if it was the sizzling sound or the smell but soon enough Jennifer would emerge out of her room followed by Celia and Marf (Martha). “Line up, guys,” I would say, revelling in my grandmother’s role.

And I would cook dosas for them.

Delhi Journal. For Gourmet Febraury 2007


Rickshaw rides in Chandni Chowk

For some reason, well-meaning Delhi-ites always try to dissuade you from visiting Chandni Chowk. I don’t think it is because they are ashamed of this old crowded part of Delhi. Rather, they only see the logistical hassles involved. It is like New Yorkers dissuading tourists who say they are going to drive to the Hamptons on Friday evening. You know it will be great once you get there but you also know what a hassle it is TO get there.

For the record, Chandni Chowk is a must-see. Don’t listen to the concierges, tour guides, friends and well-wishers who tell you to “postpone it to the next trip when you have more time.” That said, there is a way to do Chandni Chowk. Leave early but not too early– the shops won’t be open. The spanking new Delhi Metro will whizz you into the area in a few minutes from Connaught Place in Central Delhi. I left my hotel by car at 10 AM and was at Chandni Chowk in fifteen minutes. The same trip an hour later would have taken an hour. I got off near Red Fort. No car will enter Chandni Chowk unless it belongs there. The lanes are too narrow. My driver fixed a rickshaw for me (like a tuk-tuk and just as wobbly) for a grand sum of Rs. 50 (about $1.3). I ended up tipping the man almost double mostly because he didn’t ask for a tip. And then, I sat back, got my camera out and prayed.

The streets are very narrow and four rickshaws, countless pedestrians and several cows all jostle to get through. There is an informal clicking noise that rickshaw-wallahs make with their tongue. It serves to signal their impatience with the stalled traffic in front and a horn. But I forgot all this at the wonderous sights around me. In Chandni Chowk, I saw the Delhi that I had read about in history books. The Delhi unvarnished by the modernity that India is racing to embrace.

Sights of Chandni Chowk
I am not sure that I would eat the food in Chandni Chowk but I know Americans who have and survived. They follow the rule of, if it is fried it is fine. The shops are tiny but they offer a plethora of foodie delights. There is fresh paneer that will make its way to the city’s top hotels by noon. There are countless dry fruit stalls selling mounds of almonds, pistachios, walnuts, figs and dates. Delhi homes serve these on winter afternoons, salted and fried in a little ghee as an accompaniment to piping hot tea. There are chikkis or peanut-brittles, made by crushing and stirring peanuts in carmelized sugar. My husband is addicted to these so I bought a bag. There are shops boiling milk in large vats till it reduces to almost quarter its size. This condensed milk is the stuff of Indian kheers or hot milk puddings. There was an old man frying puris that truck drivers gulp down with hot potato saag and a glass of freshly churned lassi (buttermilk). In the middle of a tiny crowded lane, I saw an open home. I peeped in and was transported to Arabia. There was a young boy playing ball in the courtyard– a sight so incongruous and therefore memorable.

Hotels: The Imperial and the Shangrila
There are some hotels that I just don’t get. The Claridges in London is one; the Raffles in Singapore is another and the Imperial in Delhi is a third. My husband loves the Claridges. I just don’t see what the fuss is all about.

The Imperial is one of those Delhi hotels that everyone loves. All my friends told me that I must stay there. But frankly, I was a little underwhelmed. The service was polite but just that. Nobody extended themselves. When I asked the receptionist for some scotch-tape, she told me to walk across to the bell-desk for some. A gentleman beside me was arguing with the receptionist who had just informed him that he could use the house-phone to contact a guest. Why can’t you just ring the room for me, the gentleman asked. My room was a standard room with all the right trimmings– Porthault linens, Fragonard toiletries, reasonable size, forgettable decor. The food was decent but nothing I would rave about, like I would rave about Bukhara at the Maurya Sheraton or Masala Art at the Taj Palace.

But…. Yes, but…and here is where I sort of see my husband’s point of view. The Imperial has something which fewer and fewer hotels have these days. It has character, not so much in its rooms but in the public areas. The Imperial has a wonderful collection of British art about India—lithographic prints by English artists on Indian themes. I happily spent an hour walking down the main lobby peering at prints of Tipu Sultan offering his two children as hostages to some British Lord and prim English ladies having tea. There are walls filled with swords and other war memorabilia and archival photos. All of this adds to the whole ambience. Character, history, call it what you will, but it is something that you cannot fake.

Round the corner from the Imperial is the Shangrila, the new kid on the block. The Shangrila has no history or character but the service is ever-smiling and gracious and the breakfast buffet is the best in town. Make sure you ask for dosas (crepes). They aren’t displayed but the chef will make them on order. I didn’t know that I could do this. After a full breakfast, I longingly watched waiters bear crispy golden dosas to the nearby table. They looked really good, especially laced with some tomato or coconut chutney and sambar. The Shangrila offers great views of the boulevards of Delhi and on a clear day, you can even see India Gate at a distance. I would stay there again.


Delhi Restaurants:

Everyone in Delhi has an opinion about Veda and most of it is bad. Established by Chef Suvir Saran who also runs Devi in New York City, Veda, everyone agrees, scores high on decor. It looked like an Indian boudoir. But the food, and the prices. Delhi matrons throw up their hands in disgust. I went to Veda with low expectations and consequently I was pleasantly surprised. The food is modern Indian, tasty and best of all, light. No Mughlai sauces, no smothering of spices, no fiery chilies that beat the daylights out of your tongue. Service was sympathetic. By that I mean that the waitstaff will think for you. I ordered several dishes. That’s too much, said the waiter. Take out the mushroom-dish; its not in season. I would go back.

I wanted to visit Diva for three reasons. It is one of the few stand-alone Italian fine-dining restaurants; most of my foodie friends rated it as serving consistently good food; and the chef, Ritu Dalmia is a Delhi woman who has previously dabbled in, of all things, granite quarrying. If you suddenly crave Italian in New Delhi, Diva is not a bad place to visit. It is located in the popular M Block market where you can shop for everything from bejewelled shoes to shawls. The cool minimalist confines of Diva are refreshing after the chaos and cacaphony outside. Service is good-humored. I found the food a trifle too salty but that may be because Indians prefer it that way. Risottos, pastas, soups, breads, a wicked molten chocolate cake. These are the staples of Diva.

Delhi is a meat-lovers city and Bukhara restaurant therefore is a shrine. I met Chef J.P. Singh who is refreshingly free of the marketing savvy that accompanies most young chefs today. He was clearly nonplused when I dropped in and introduced myself as a journalist. Get him behind the tandoori counter however and he is transformed. Singh and 16 chefs under him marinate and cure meats and chicken all day to be served at Bukhara’s dinner-menu. No wonder Bill Clinton ate four meals in a row at this restaurant. His daughter however has the dubious distinction of having a vegetarian dish named after her: the Chelsea Platter.

Stars of India: Jewelry: Forbes Life magazine

n New Delhi, shopping for one-of-a-kind jewelry is as much an art as the pieces themselves.

When I was born, the story goes, my father bought a gold coin. Eager that this family tradition be continued, my mother repeated the story to my husband just as I was about to deliver my daughter in a New York hospital. My husband bought some cake instead, which we shared with all the nurses. And therein lies a difference between the Indian culture I was born into and the American one I adopted: Indians buy gems and gold to celebrate an occasion; Americans buy food or foliage.

Indians are obsessed with jewels, largely because of the dowry system, which is slowly disappearing, although the culture that surrounds it is not. Even now, when a daughter is born, congratulations to the parents are usually followed with a jovial, “Ah, now you’d better start collecting jewelry.” Because a woman’s worth was literally measured by the amount of gold and diamonds she brought with her to marriage, jewelry became an insidious part of her self-esteem. At parties and weddings, women still scrutinize one another competitively and hit the jewelry stores the next day to acquire new baubles in an effort to keep up with the Patels. Nowhere is the subcontinent’s love affair with all that glitters more apparent than in New Delhi, its capital and richest city, which boasts thousands of jewelry shops–most of them honest–offering some of the best shopping of its kind anywhere in the world.

To be sure, Indian jewelry is an acquired taste. Some love the Moghul-inspired designs–even the simplest examples of which have delicate filigree work in which gold foils are shaped into intricate, almost Arabic designs–while others find them gaudy and too ornate. Gems are set in multiple ways: The highly popular kundan jewelry, for instance, is created through a champlevé technique, in which the craftsman hollows out a recess in the gold, fills it with a mineral such as cobalt oxide to give it a blue color, embeds uncut diamonds, rubies or emeralds into the recess and seals them in using fine gold foils (kundan) instead of the traditional gold rim or claw. Sometimes red-and-green meenakari enamelwork is embossed on the back and sides of these necklaces using traditional Indian motifs like peacocks, tree vines and flowers.

Polki diamonds are rough diamonds that are set using kundan-like techniques, but they have a white rather than multihued visage. Temple jewelry, in contrast, is chunky and dramatic, with rows of uncut rubies and emeralds.

It can be difficult, if not impossible, to find such intricate designs anywhere else. But quite apart from its exotic native styles, India is popular among jewelry consumers because of price. Gold is more expensive there than in the United States because Indian jewelers use the 22-carat variety, but labor is cheap–hence the savings. Knowing you’ll find something both unique and reasonable makes the quest for a great piece almost irresistible, and it’s best to start at the top: Greater Kailash, which carries the most shopping cachet of any Delhi neighborhood. The jewelers here have the latest designs and competitive rates. One of the biggest is Hazoorilal and Sons Jewellers, which covers a full block. The store can custom-make pieces–if, for instance, you want a Cartier, Bulgari or Tiffany look, a Hazoorilal designer will sketch your desire in a matter of minutes and create the piece in a few days (unless it is wedding season, October through March). The staff scours the country for traditional kundan, bikaneri and polki jewelry from Calcutta, Mumbai, Gujarat, Jaipur and the South, and the store also sells “hallmarked” gold jewelry, pieces certified by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). A kundan necklace that uses unpolished diamonds can cost up to $6,400; a smaller set, about $3,000.

A 50-year-old entrant into the jewelry scene of Delhi, M. Rajsons sells certified diamonds, and specializes in platinum and gold jewels with various finishes: frosted, rhodium-polished and oxidized, to give the gold a coppery, pinkish or silvery hue. It was wonderfully ornate kundan, polki and meenakari pieces from $1,000 to $10,000.

From Greater Kailash it’s a half-hour car ride to Connaught Place, the geographical heart of the city and a rabbit-warren of shops, bookstores, ice cream parlors (Nirula’s is a favorite) and restaurants. Directly across, Janpath Road is lined with roadside stalls selling snuffboxes, pashmina shawls, handmade sandals, Kashmiri carpets, handicrafts and other souvenirs. Amidst these tiny stalls offering souvenirs for a song, spacious, air-conditioned showrooms sell millions of dollars worth of branded and other jewelry.

The Delhi branch of Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri is a sparkling granite-and-steel showroom in the heart of Connaught Place. Although the prices are a tad high, the shop is perfect for those with limited time who want to pick up something from an authentic, trustworthy source.

Another popular jeweler is Mehrasons Jewellers, which has showrooms in South Extension, Karol Bagh and Connaught Place. I have a soft spot for this particular shop because it’s where my mother-in-law bought me my first gold necklace–a beautiful piece with blue-and-red peacock enameling. The store also sells the Enchanté line of diamond jewelry, as well as pieces by Indian jewelry designers such as Reena Thakur. In the early 1990s, Mehrasons became famous for making a replica of the legendary Koh-i-noor diamond.

One shop that I like in the ultrachic, self-contained Hauz Khas Market is K.K. Jewels, specializing in innovative designs exported and sold all over the world. While the store offers traditional styles, its designers also cater to Western tastes with clean lines and simple embellishments.

With three showrooms in different parts of the city, you can hit a Khanna Jewellers shop no matter where you are staying in Delhi. Although it’s famous for sumptuous wedding necklaces–ranihars, as they are called locally–it also makes smaller party pieces.

Poking around in South Delhi, you might want to consider adding unique pieces of Indian jewelry to your collection–things like a gold waistband, diamond nose ring, pearl bangles or a navratna (nine-gem) ring, which you won’t find anywhere else. But for these traditional pieces, the best place to go would be Chandni Chowk, the ancient heart of Delhi’s jewelry trade and a must-stop for anyone interested in Indian jewelry. The narrow maze of lanes cannot accommodate much traffic, so most people walk. Fruit sellers ply their wares; cows chew on billboards meditatively. Colorfully dressed Punjabi matrons descend en masse to buy jewelry for family weddings. Hairless old men cart them in wagons down Dariba Kalan street, lined with jewelry shops, many of which have been owned by the same family for generations. Boys in briefs run from shop to warehouse, bringing diamond solitaires and the latest polki cuts to their demanding clientele.

Bhagwan Dass Khanna Jewellers is a favorite of old Delhi families and now exhibits all over the world, including at the JA New York jewelry expo. The shop is usually manned by the genial Naresh Khanna, who promises to “take care” of you. If you desire diamond solitaires, he will send you to his shop in South Delhi; if you want traditional designs that aren’t altered to suit foreign tastes, he will pull out a few choice sets from his cabinet. Watching over it is the incense-shrouded photograph of the shop’s patriarch and founder, Bhagwan Dass.

A world away from the mazelike alleys of Old Delhi are the broad boulevards of the embassy area, with most of the city’s five-star hotels. The Oberoi and Taj Palace each have stores in their shopping arcades where quality jewels can be bought for a slightly higher price. Here as elsewhere, it’s better to shop with a local. But even if you go alone, most salespeople speak English. Each piece comes with a price tag, so be assured that it hasn’t been marked up for a foreigner.

Finally, a word about bargaining: Since jewelry merchants make their profits through volume of sales rather than individual markups, they will stubbornly refuse to reduce prices. This means that bargaining is more attitude than act: It may not get you a discount, but it will get you the jeweler’s respect–and therefore access to the higher-quality stuff that he keeps at the back and brings out only for bona fide customers. It is all about posturing, and first impressions are key. When I go shopping, I try to simulate the quiet swagger of the Godfather, or a British schoolboy. I cast a withering eye over the jeweled offerings in the display case and ask him peremptorily if he has anything else to show me. As the salesmen stir themselves, flip the lights reluctantly and begin pulling out jewel-boxes from the recesses, I casually pull out a gemologist’s kit from my handbag (bought for $17 on the Internet) and set it on the counter. First, I take out a magnifying glass, then a triplet loupe and finally, my pièce de résistance, paint thinner. Having bought gems all over the world, I say, I know about unscrupulous jewelers painting their gems to hide flaws. While I am sure that this particular shop is honest, having been recommended it by my friend Queenie, I have brought some paint thinner just in case. By this time, all the salesmen in the shop are galvanized into action, fawning around me with their choicest pieces, switching on additional lights so I might see the jewels better, plying me with Diet Coke and effusive praise.

That’s how it’s done in New Delhi.