The restaurant-scape of Delhi
Today’s Delhi encompasses Gurugram and Noida in its wake, and all three go to make up what is one of the largest food cities in the country. From strictly neighbourhood to completely international; from vegan, gluten-free, organic, locavore menus to pages and pages of seafood flown in from all over the world, Delhi has it all. From the uncle at the neighbourhood bakery to the chef who has done a stage in Noma, they all add a certain something to the capital’s cuisine.
In the early 1960s, when I was under 10 years of age, I used to be taken every other Sunday evening as a fortnightly outing to Moti Mahal, Daryaganj. I lived with my parents and younger sister in Connaught Circus and used to spend Sunday with close family friends in Maharaja Lal Lane, behind Oberoi Maidens Hotel. From there, the two families would drive off to Daryaganj to have Sunday dinner at Moti Mahal, at that time, under the personal supervision of Kundan Lal Gujral, a larger than life host. There used to be qawwals out in the courtyard and a female singer cum harmonium player who used to be the recipient of most of the tips: Re 1 and Rs 2 notes. One evening, as we were driving home, my mother commented, in a dazed voice, “Today, they must have made not less than Rs 20”, that being a princely sum for the entertainers of the Food and Beverage Industry!
It is only when I revisit Moti Mahal today, during daylight, do I notice the shabby surroundings and the furniture that looks as if it has survived that era, and I realize a truth: Delhi of the 1960s was not as concerned with deluxe furnishings as it is today, and Daryaganj was as eminently respectable an address as was, say, Maharaja Lal Lane or Civil Lines. Ratendone Road (the former name for Amrita Shergill Marg) was the southernmost extremity of the city! When my sister and I were invited to a classmate’s birthday party in an area called Defence Colony, it took my mother several days of poring over city maps to determine where exactly this address was!
Expectedly, Connaught Place was the centre of town, both geographically and socially. There were a host of rather imposing restaurants like Volga, Standard and Gaylord, now all defunct; United Coffee House and Embassy both icons in their own right today; and Kwality that has lost its heritage sheen after too many makeovers but whose food is still spot on. Volga, Standard and Gaylord all had live music and as children, we were not allowed entry. It must be said that my parents would have never dreamed of arguing with the management, hectoring them to let my sister and me in, and they were hardly in a minority: the day of the Self-Entitled Parent was still a few decades into the future! It was perfectly in order for an upper middle class family to go to eat chaat in Pahargunj or chole bhature in Karol Bagh, standing on the side of the road, and not looking over their shoulder to see if there was anyone they knew who would crow over them later. In the Delhi of those days, there was no food outlet that was considered infra-dig and conversely, no hotel or restaurant that was considered the pinnacle of everybody’s aspiration; the concept of food snobbery would only take root some 30 years later.
In hindsight, the single most important happening of that decade was 1965, when Delhi was bequeathed Oberoi Intercontinental.
As my father worked in a bank where he came into contact with customers seeking loans, Diwali and Christmas used to see our little flat filled with baskets of fruit. It is one of my strongest childhood memories that every time I would return from school, I would be assailed by the rose-like scent of Ambri apples from Kashmir, that were the predominant fruit in baskets that were gifted in those times. Now that I am married to someone from Kashmir, I have sniffed hard as I pass by fruit shops in Srinagar, trying to get a whiff of the incomparable bouquet of Ambri apples, but luck has eluded me so far.
The other memory I have is of the mithai that I used to get to taste during the festive season – then as now, between Diwali and New Year and beyond, as long as wedding season was on. Even the simplest barfi was studded with fat chunks of pistachios in it, and the barfi itself was a product of the goodness of the khoya. In those days, a halwai was proud to be just that. He used to have a steady source of fresh milk that he alone was privy to, and the enormous kadhais could be seen from the shop, with the halwai himself chipping in to perform all the tasks. When and where the sense of indolence has come into the food and beverage business in Delhi, I don’t know, but it is not one that has worked well for any end of the trade.
The other memory I have is of pedas that used to be liberally topped with the seeds of black cardamom. I suppose it stopped in the ‘80s and not just because of the rising price of black cardamom, but because owning a mithai shop ceased to be a trade and started to become a business – a way of making money. Also, once Delhi began its southward sprawl, mithai shops began to open in areas like South Extension and Saket, which were owned by people who had no connection to the neighbourhood or its residents, and hence who had no qualms about cutting corners to make a fast buck. That was approximately the time when every mithai shop owner started buying milk from various sources, and that is when quality started taking a nose-dive.
By the 1970s, while progress had set in, much remained the same. The café that dominated my consciousness was Bankura. I remember it as a sprawling space, adjacent to the Cottage Emporium of old. The kind of people who patronized it defined the 1970s for me: they were smart, elegant, wore ethnic clothes and chunky silver jewellery and seemed to belong to a particular club. The food served was sandwiches, cold chicken salad with a blanket of mayonnaise and salad vegetables (thick cut cabbage, carrot juliennes and onions). Far into the distance were the days of lettuce and, as for asparagus and broccoli, they were not even on the wish-list of those days.
On the opposite side of the road was Sona Rupa – a rather ethnic spot that was, in a sense, the diametric opposite of the careless elegance of Bankura, bordered by a flower shop. Sona Rupa was dimly lit, served a pastiche of desi food, of which I remember the oily but delicious chola bhatura with great fondness.
The 1980s belonged to one brand, and that was Nirula’s. Home-grown in a sense, though the owners had been educated in Switzerland, Nirula’s may have started out with a Chinese Room on the first floor of N Block, Connaught Place, where the soup bowls had white grains of rice picked out on the blue bowls, invisible to all, except those who held the empty bowls up to the light to see them. There was also an Indian restaurant, Gufa and an European one called Boheme. By the 1970s, Nirula’s dominated Delhi with their brand of fast food. An ice-cream parlour, a burger joint and a confectionery followed. Our college used to have wars with rival gangs singing the praises of Wengers and Nirula’s. The Nirula’s protagonists would taunt their opponents that Wengers had no ice-creams, no burgers and no pizzas, and the war would come to an abrupt end.
Everybody of a certain age remembers Nirula’s Hot Chocolate Fudge, sprinkled over with broken cashew nuts that did not lose their crispness even when the cold vanilla ice-cream melted under the onslaught of hot chocolate sauce. That, to my teenage sensibilities, alone was worth some kind of award. When Potpourri, the Nirula’s salad bar opened its doors, the fanatical followers of the brand used to make a bee-line there as often as possible. When the owning family sold out to a large conglomeration, all of Delhi shed a tear for an iconic brand that would never be the same again. But, by then, it was the Season of Change, for Volga, after having struggled manfully on for years, finally called it quits, as did Standard.
Not all change is for the worse: after the cardboard-hard pizzas that various national brands had brought to Delhi, with chopped onions, grated Amul cheese and capsicum masquerading as toppings, it was a relief to sink out teeth into the delights of the five star brigade who brought in Italian chefs from Naples and the surrounding region, who served us pizza the way it was meant to be enjoyed. I still remember my initial outrage at an unfamiliar foldable crust and toppings that melted on my palate.
The city and its food linger on in hidden corners. Chola bhatura sellers in Pahargunj, Karol Bagh and Sadar Thana Road keep the flag flying high. Mithai sellers make sweets catering to niche communities and specific seasons, whether Sindhi gheyar at spring, Punjabi pinni in winter, dhodha for wrestlers in Haryana or habshi halwa in Ballimaran. And thanks to Indian food getting a new spin, the entire country has shrunk small enough to fit onto our plates.