Much before Delhi was made our national capital, it was the food capital of India. They say that the city still deserves lengthy academic studies dedicated to its rich and varied gastronomic heritage, since the cuisine as always been an integral part of the city’s political and cultural history. Delhi’s food is a record, in its own way, what the city was made of - invading armies, of large-scale migrations. It is a symbol of the expanding city as a cultural melting pot.
So on a recently balmy Saturday afternoon, I decided to explore this side of the national capital. I planned a comprehensive food trail, that would take me to some of oldest eateries and restaurants of Delhi, many of which are as much a part of Delhi’s cultural heritage as some of its historical monuments are. I also wanted to see how these old establishments are coping with the changing hospitality landscape of the city and the competition posed by a growing number of international restaurant chains.
My quick research first led me to the old town, to the bylanes of Delhi-6, which over the years have become byword of great street food. One of the oldest restaurants of the city, Karim’s, established as far back as 1913, is located here. Doubtless a meat-eater’s paradise, Karim’s only has a handful of vegetarian dishes on the menu. The flavours you taste here will transport you back to the early decades of the 20th century. Zain-ul-Abedin, the owner of the restaurant, is part of the fourth generation of his family, which has always run this business.
He says: “It was Zarin Musharaff, the mother of Pervez Mushraff, who was quite surprised and happy when she tasted the delicacies here. ‘It is the same taste I experienced years ago,’ she said. The specialty of Karim’s lies in keeping the dishes authentic. We don’t believe in the fusion culture of food.”
The forefathers of Abedin had worked as chefs for the Mughals. “We give the recipe to our chefs. These recipes were prepared by our forefathers more than 100 years ago and we do not believe in experimenting,” he says. “Our forefathers worked in the Mughal kitchen. The idea was to bring the flavours of the Mughals to the plate of the common man and we have succeeded in doing so.”
Another popular haunt for lovers of heritage food in old Delhi is Moti Mahal restaurant, which was set up in the year of Indian Independence by Kundan Lal Gujral. The chefs here still claim to have invented some of India’s most popular dishes like Tandoori Chicken, Butter Chicken and Dal Makhani. The place boasts equally grand clientele, having in the past served figures like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Zakir Hussain among many others.
A few miles from Moti Mahal, in Chandni Chowk, there’s the renowned Paranthe Wali Gali. This narrow alleyway, where there’s hardly room for a two people to walk beside each other, houses four parantha joints, which are all owned by one family. Some forty varieties of paranthas are on offer here, including something called the Banana Parantha — a fine example of fusion cuisine.
30-year-old Ashish Sharma, is part of the fifth generation looking after this family-owned establishment. Though the restaurant teemed with customers throughout my visit, Sharma tells me his business goes rapidly up when Delhi hosts some international event. The Commonwealth Games, for instance, were a big draw. “The influx of tourists in the country during Commonwealth Games 2010, helped boost my sales. People from abroad tasted the varieties of paranthas cooked here and we were happy to
serve them,” he says.
Keeping my food trail going, I then went to the storied Bengali Market, which is a heaven for sweet lovers. Few of us now remember that the Bengali Sweet House here was first launched as a tea shop by Bhim Sen and Banwari Lal. “In 1937, my uncle and grandfather started a tea shop where they also sold milk to people. Slowly it expanded and became a full-fledged sweet shop,” says Satish Agarwal, the present owner of the restaurant.
Now it is a family restaurant, which has served food to famous personalities. “People visit my restaurant especially for its channa bhatura, which is famous mainly due to its masala. We also get constant orders from abroad for the channa masala,” says Agarwal. He later lets me in on a family secret: “My father tells me that a cook from Lahore willingly prepared the raw masala to be used in channa for us and we use the same recipe till date.”
Right next door stands Nathu Sweets, which itself became operational in 1939. It offers similar dishes as Bengali Sweets, but the focus here is on sweets and bakery items.
Nothing still could match the old-world charm of United Coffee House (UCH) in the very heart of the city. Located in the inner circle, in Connaught Place’s Block E to be precise, this restaurant can never fail to fascinate the visitor. Its Victorian décor and majestic chandeliers will bring you face to face with a bygone era. For me, it simply transported me to another century.
“The restaurant was designed by an American architect, who had spent his life in England and understood the times of Renaissance, Rembrandt and Victorians. Some of the logos which are on the tapestries and the emblems were designed and patented for UCH by him. Except for maintenance and minor touch-ups which we need to do from time to time, the place looks exactly like it did five decades back.”
Akash Kalra, the owner of the UCH, had interesting things to say about the restaurant’s interiors. He said, “The restaurant was designed by an American architect, who had spent his life in England and understood the times of Renaissance, Rembrandt and Victorians. Some of the logos which are on the tapestries and the emblems were designed and patented for UCH by him. Except for maintenance and minor touch-ups which we need to do from time to time, the place looks exactly like it did five decades back.”
So what were the crowds like in those days? I asked him.
“In those days, when it was established in 1942, a number of people from diverse backgrounds were coming here, like writers, artists, politicians and sahibs, their families and friends from abroad who were visiting them in Delhi. We continue to serve customers of all kinds. On one side you will find the traveler who comes to us after reading about us in a travel magazine, or for the writer who wants to relax with his coffee and writes his stories and then there is the group of friends who want to chill with a couple of beers to celebrate their re-union.”
The food here, like the décor, is grand in its own way, with a wide variety offered in the menu. “Apart from our full service lunch and dinner menu with a strong global menu with a repertoire of over 400 dishes, including regional Indian, Continental, European, Asian and Mediterranean cuisine but it is our tea-time that rules the culinary chart of UCH menu providing relaxation time to people to sip their coffee, indulgently and enjoy their evening snack,” says Kalra.
To keep abreast with the current trends where new restaurants with innovative food varieties are coming up, UCH has opened a branch named UCH Rewind in the newly opened Mall of India in Noida. The restaurant offers a variety of tea, coffee and savouries.
Having tasted an assortment of delectable food, it was time for me to go home but not without having something sweet. I was in Connaught Place and there could be nothing better than taking a bite of a pastry at the lovely bakery and confectionery called Wenger’s. Established in 1926, the eatery still has a loyal customer base. People come here for their fix of favourite pastries, cake and breads. Spoiled for choice and after setting my heart to almost every pastry, I picked up Chocolate Wave which was the softest chocolate pastry I’d had till date and devoured it till the last bite.
At the end of it all, I was proud and happy that I’d experienced a nice heritage food walk curated all by myself. I was happier that the city I live in hosts a variety of vintage restaurants which have still retained their original flavour and cuisines. Thanks to their uncompromising taste, the upsurge of foreign restaurants in the city has not been able to overshadow their decades-old legacy. I recommend that everyone should atleast once try out the authentic cuisine these restaurants offer and keep that legacy alive. May the aroma stay with you like it has stayed with me. Bon Appetit!