It was the year of the Great Darbar, 1911. A young man from the outskirts of Delhi thought he spied an opportunity to earn a living. He moored a push-cart near Gate Number One of the Jama Masjid, and served dal as well as meat and potatoes with freshly made rotis. Business boomed: he was, after all, in the right place at the right time. Two years later, Haji Karimuddin – for that was his name – moved from his cart to a modest property nearby. Did he ever cherish dreams of grandeur? Did he ever foresee that his name would become immortalized? “I don’t think Haji Sahib could have ever dreamt that the next few generations would become synonymous with the business of purveying his food,” says Zaeemuddin, fifth generation family member, with a modest smile.
For the last century, the name Karims has been a byword for the food and culture of the food of the Muslims of Old Delhi. Haji Karimuddin could never have dreamt that eating out would become a lifestyle choice from about the 1980s onwards, or that urban sprawl meant that folks would travel 50 kms to the crowded yet atmospheric Jama Masjid area for the sole purpose of dining at Karims. And he certainly couldn’t have predicted the concept of inverted snobbery, in which tourists from the western world (and from South Delhi) would visit the parent branch of Karims for the pleasure of sharing a table with Afghan tribals, Kashmiri shawl sellers or a bearded patriarch with a bevy of burqa-clad ladies. He must be aghast as he lies in his grave at the stratospheric prices of the food in his restaurant; after all, from his cart, the food would have cost less than one hundredth of what it is today.
Delhi has several restaurants that are steeped in antiquity. Moti Mahal in Daryaganj remains, like neighbouring Karims, in a time warp. Not only is the menu untouched from 1947, but the décor is exactly what it was 64 years ago. Even today in the courtyard you can hear qawwali singers. There’s only one difference. In those days, Moti Mahal was virtually the only restaurant in Delhi (as opposed to New Delhi). Today, there are several branches of the restaurant, owned by rival partners, all with more or less the same menu plus a couple of thousand other restaurants selling a plethora of cuisines. Hence, while 50 years ago, you would go to Moti Mahal because there was hardly any other choice, today you’d visit it because you want the experience.
The way old-timers talk about their initial forays into the food and beverage business is like a trip into a city that no longer exists. Shri Nand Lal Sharma set up a dhaba in Pahargunj in 1928. It had no bricks or tiles. The River Yamuna flowed a short distance away, and wild animals roamed within sight. There is no record of the dishes that Sharma served, but in due course of time, his son built a three storey hotel on the site of the dhaba, and now his son manages the very popular Metropolis.
Geography seems to have gone awry: the Yamuna is nowhere near Pahargunj, the area abutting the New Delhi Railway Station, and every self-respecting wild animal has retreated from this urban jungle famous for its budget hotels among which Metropolis is virtually obscured. It is their rooftop restaurant that has brought the Sharma family name and fame. “A few old favourites will never be taken off the menu, the most popular of which is Chicken a la Kiev”, says third generation Prashant Sharma. It is hard to find this retro dish on any menu in Delhi today, but when Continental food (the name itself is a bit of a throwback to times bygone) first was unleashed in the city, Russian dishes occupied pride of place. It is possible that it was due to our political closeness with that country, but that doesn’t quite explain why great Russian standbys like borscht, pelmeni and pierogi never made it to our shores, only Russian salad, shashlik, chicken Stroganoff and chicken a la Kiev.
Expectedly, 1947 was a year when Delhi received an influx of refugees. A few of them have established themselves as salt of the earth sweet shop owners, principally Chaina Ram of Chandni Chowk for Karachi Halwa and Bharat Sweets, are both Sindhi owned and specialize in the sweets of that community. Standard Sweets, Roshan di Kulfi and Peshawar Sweets are owned by Punjabis who hailed from Pakistan and have all stuck to their core competence and have made Karol Bagh their home. By and large, they do not experiment with the sweets outside their area of expertise. “I would be dumbfounded if you asked me to give you a kilo of sandesh, the Bengali favourite” smiles Mohan Gidwani of Chaina Ram.
In sticking to tradition and, in the process, making a select few items over and over again for several decades, they have acquired excellence. Contrast them with the so-called multi cuisine brigade, a one-size-fits-all concept that reared its ugly head around the 1950s. Akash Kalra, the present owner of United Coffee House, the one restaurant in New Delhi that has painstakingly retained its glorious décor and remained with the original family, says that multi-cuisine started when Delhiites started to eat dinner at restaurants. “Before that, they would go to restaurants only for tea, coffee and snacks like samosas,” he informs us. Kalra, who is far too young to have been around in the 1950s, does have a sense of history and has carefully tracked the United Coffee House menus over the decades, retaining judiciously and adding cautiously.
To build a new restaurant, all you need is money; to retain an old, well-loved restaurant is far more difficult. Connaught Place, once the catchment area of gracious old dowagers, now has but three: United Coffee House, Embassy and Wenger’s. Standard, a first floor icon, was sold two years ago, reportedly to a banquet house owner, when astronomical sums were whispered around the city. Volga doddered on for years, with a handful of geriatric waiters, and finally sold out. It is now a glitzy branch of Levi’s. Imperial Hotel’s 1911 has masses of Darbar photographs and lithographs on its walls, but nothing in the way of a dish that has been on the menu from that year. Sadly, even Oberoi Maiden’s Hotel and its superb façade in a now unfashionable area of Delhi has a restaurant called Curzon Room that has, however, not a single dish from the original era remains. Says Silki Sehgal, spokesperson of the Oberoi group, “There were no computers those days, and no concept of archiving, so few records remain.”
Meanwhile, among the current crop of Japanese and Uzbeki joints, one wonders which, if any, will live to immortality.