Moti Mahal in Daryaganj in Central Delhi was, without any argument, once the city's best known eating place. It used to attract visitors from all over the world and was the favourite restaurant of former Soviet and Pakistan Prime Ministers Nikita Khrushchev and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, respectively. So impressed was Bhutto with the culinary skills of the chefs during an earlier visit that Indira Gandhi decided to get food served from here during the famous Simla pact meeting. Khrushchev would get handpicked dishes on the menu flown to Moscow for his official banquets.
Moti Mahal enjoyed the patronage of India's first PM, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who used to get catering done from here. So fond was he of the Peshawari cuisine that the owners had even set up a tandoor at Teen Murti House to serve piping hot naans and rotis to state guests at this august venue. In a rare gesture, the then Prime Minister had allotted an adjacent area to the owners — Kundan Lal Gujral, Kundan Lal Jaggi and Thakur Dass — to expand their business. The restaurant menu at the time as well as the placard outside used to make it clear that it had no branches anywhere and it was the sole restaurant to ensure that no one would misuse the name to start business elsewhere.
Feroze Gandhi, accompanied by his two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, as also the late Homi Jahangir Bhabha, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Dr Zakir Hussain, Raj Kapoor and even Mohan Singh Oberoi, the founder of Oberoi Hotels, frequented the place where qawwals would regale the guests while they were savouring their favourite tandoori dishes — Tandoori Murga, Tandoori Fish and a host of other items. The speciality dish was a huge "family naan", served straight from the clay oven as also the burra kabab. Such was the popularity of this restaurant revived in the national capital by the three refugees from Peshawar that no other restaurant, perhaps with the sole exception of Khyber in Kashmere Gate (also originally from Peshawar) was ever discussed threadbare, when it came to food and its quality. In fact, Moti Mahal brought in a new eating culture into the city, something with which the people here were totally unfamiliar.
Originally founded by Mokha Singh Lamba in Peshawar, the restaurant there was closed down during the Partition. Both Kundan Lal Gujral and Kundan Lal Jaggi, some years his younger worked as waiters for Singh, while Thakur Dass' family had a wholesale rice and pulses business across the road. My father, who did his schooling in Nausheran and Peshawar, used to go there sometimes and had very happy memories of both Moti Mahal and Khyber, which was owned by the Sethis. When the restaurant was revived in Delhi, he took me and my siblings and my mother very often to this delightful abode where people waited for hours to find a seat for an unforgettable gastronomic experience. It was one place where, while the likes of Shakila Bano Bhopali were singing qawwalis, you could see a whole lot of dignitaries and famous people struggling to get in.
Kundan Lal Jaggi, the only surviving partner of the original Daryaganj restaurant, recalls with gratitude the kind of unparalleled success he and others witnessed and has kind words for both his namesake, Kundan Lal Gujral and Thakur Das. He also expresses his immense gratitude to Mokha Singh, who allowed them to use the Moti Mahal logo. "Mokha Singh told me that he was too old to work and therefore would not like to be part of the business." In fact, he was a proud man in the good sense, who was unable to reconcile with his great loss during partition and therefore decided to accept what destiny had given him without any hesitation. Mokha Singh's inner turmoil and bitterness with the leaders was discernible when he turned down the offer to visit Mahtama Gandhi's samadhi at Raj Ghat. Jaggi recounted, "He told me that you go. Mera te sab kuch isne ujaad dita hai. Main nahin jawanga. (I shall not go there since he was responsible for the bad times that have befallen me)." Mokha Singh had initially gone to Bareilly and later shifted to Delhi in the Tilak Nagar area. His two sons, Inder Singh and Jaswant Singh also lived there. "We continue to have strong ties with the family and I even went to pay my condolences when one of Mokha Singh's sons passed away sometime ago."
Jaggi said that the reason behind the success of Moti Mahal was the unflinching desire to succeed amongst all the three partners who had bonded with each other so well after seeing horrific times during and in the aftermath of partition. He said that he had left his wife to stay with his in-laws in Sonam near Patiala and came to Delhi along with two former associates he had come to know in Peshawar. It was while he was roaming around in the Roshanara Road area that he saw both Kundan Lal Gujral and Thakur Dass by sheer coincidence buying a half bottle of whisky at a shop. They celebrated the reunion and Gujral told him that it was time for them to start a business. The trio had to fend for themselves and it was a matter of survival. Gujral's wife Prakash and Dass' wife Ram Vidai would earn some money stitching quilts outside the Delhi Cloth Mills. The three of them started looking for some place as they were advised that the best business to make a beginning was "roti" (food).
They first looked at a shop near Fatehpuri and subsequently came to Daryaganj where a Sikh offered to sell them a shop he had occupied in the area on the main road itself. The trio raised Rs 6,000, a princely sum in 1947, and started a teashop. He would toast the bread and Gujral would make the tea. He stayed in the shop itself, while Gujral and Thakur Dass would go every day to Roshanara Road. "We discovered that there were some food shops there that were doing good business and were fortunate that a meat shop opened nearby and the vegetable mandi was already there in the area."
Jaggi said that he recruited some more people he knew from Peshawar and soon the Moti Mahal restaurant took shape. The three were more than brothers and had divided the work. Jaggi was the hands on man, Gujral looked after public relations and Thakur Dass did all the shopping for provisions and raw material. The fame of Moti Mahal spread rapidly and people would come there to only eat, and eat, some very special food. Munshi Ram, the chief chef assisted by Madan and Hansraj created a magic, while Gian could produce a naan, which no one in Delhi had ever tasted.
Jaggi said that first they acquired new premises from Satyawati Mohata, who was from the Birla family, where Universal Automobiles was located. "Subsequently, Pandit Nehru directed the relevant ministry to grant a portion of evacuee property to us. He played a big role in giving us more confidence and we grew from strength to strength." He recalled that Bhabha would come especially from Bombay to have their food and had also been there days before he was killed in a plane crash in the Alps in the 1960s. Sardar Swaran Singh was a regular visitor and once brought Gohar Ayub Khan and Bhutto, who was the Foreign Minister at the time, to the restaurant. He said that when he served them the family naan, Bhutto told Swaran Singh that Kashmir was a disputed area and belonged to Pakistan. Cracking a joke with vulgar nuances, Singh conveyed to him amidst laughter that Kashmir was going nowhere and would always be with India.
Moti Mahal invented a number of dishes, chicken pakoda at the behest of Sucha Singh, a manager with the Firestone who was a regular customer. Butter chicken was started accidentally with some leftovers and innovative mind of a customer. Gatti pullao was similarly started. Dal makhni became a household name. The tandoori murga was unique since it was cooked in a clay oven, where the drippings from the bird and the smoke that got absorbed into the chicken created an unparalleled flavour. "There used to be at least 200 chickens (no broilers those days), which would go into the tandoor and it was a combination of spices and smoke that did the trick. The tandoori pomphret and burra were something which was a novelty to the palate.
Like all good stories that must come to an end, the association of the three partners who originally revived the famous restaurant came to an end in 1979. Thakur Dass left in the late 1960s, after an incident which created differences between him and the Gujral family. The remaining two partners bought out his shares and subsequently included their two sons in the business. At this stage, Moti Mahal had four partners — Kundan lal Gujral, Nand Lal Gujral, Kundan Lal Jaggi and Raj Kumar Jaggi. It was during this era that new associations began because of the sons. New players arrived on the scene and after Nand Lal's passing away, his widow Rupa joined as a partner. The relationship became untenable subsequently and although the two Kundan Lals remained the best of friends, they decided to sell off their business in Daryaganj. The restaurant in Daryaganj by the same name is presently owned by the Chadhas.
According to Jaggi, the Moti Mahal Deluxe restaurants have given out franchises and are run by different persons, including the grandchildren of Gujral, the Kohlis, the Naths and the Shroffs.
If we find the magic missing today, it is because the Peshawari cooks and masalchis have been replaced by those who lack the same kind of touch and dedication. It is also a story of changing times and palates but Moti Mahal Daryaganj of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was, without any exaggeration, Delhi's unsurpassable eating place.