The ancient art in New Delhi’s National Museum may get all the credit, but if you want a truly multisensory tour of India, the National Crafts Museum’s Cafe Lota is the place to go. For decades after its establishment in the 1950s, the Crafts Museum, despite its stunning collection of textiles, sculptures, and other handicrafts, was largely neglected. Since 2013, the museum has experienced a renaissance, thanks largely to the opening of its cafe. Nestled in the museum’s courtyard among replicated village scenes built by craftspeople from all over India, Cafe Lota serves hard-to-find regional specialties, using often-overlooked traditional grains to showcase the ingenuity of the country’s diverse cuisines.
Upon entering the courtyard, visitors are greeted by rows of terra cotta horses, made by craftspeople especially for the museum. The horses guard a Village Complex, built in 1972 for the Asia Trade Fair and since relocated to the museum premises. Consisting of 15 different structures, including houses and shrines, the Village Complex was created by regional craftsmen using materials sourced from those areas. The courtyard walls showcase murals in indigenous styles from all over India, including a Mithila painting from Bihar and a painting from the indigenous Santhal people of Jharkand and West Bengal.
Inside, visitors can see examples of the over 30,000 artifacts in the museum’s collection, including rare handwoven saris from the 19th century and gold and silver work. They can also look out for the museum’s artist residency for traditional craftspeople as well as periodic interactive sessions and cultural events, including dance and music performances. But the real star of the show is in the courtyard itself: Cafe Lota. Built to resemble a typical outdoor roadside restaurant or dhaba, the cafe is open-air, shaded by a roof of dried natural materials. The menu embodies the same authenticity, using local grains such as ragi or millet to re-create dishes from India’s vastly diverse regional cuisines. The menu includes traditional dishes such as Uttarakhand indigenous black bean curry with bhaang or hemp chutney (don’t worry: it’s not psychoactive) and playful fusion food, such as amaranth-crusted Amritsari-spiced “fish and chips.” In an increasingly standardized culinary culture, where industrial crops such as wheat and rice have overtaken traditional regional grains, Cafe Lota and the Crafts Museum remind visitors of the diversity and ingenuity of India’s farmers, craftspeople, and cooks.