Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Indian Coffee House - Connaught Place

This article appeared in The Hindu Serving a legacy - The Hindu
Read the unedited version here....

Indian Coffee House – Delhi – India’s first home grown chain of coffee house turns 60

Today, CCD, Costa Coffee, Starbucks and other such franchise outlets are the order of the day. Long time before these became “in” and fashionable, a chain of home grown coffee shop established itself as one run by the common man for the common man. Though there was nothing common about it as it was patronised by the literally who’s who of Delhi be it politicians, journalists, economists, thinkers, activists (perhaps they considered themselves as common then!)  Run purely on a cooperative basis, it established itself as a joint for excellent coffee and snacks. The outlets served no lunch, breakfast routine but served tiffin or snacks the same item throughout the day. There was excellent South Indian coffee with a couple of variations, idli, dosa, vada, sandwiches, toast….The word spread and it soon became a popular adda for anyone and everyone. The hallmark of cooperative movement, there were no workers or managers, everyone worked shoulder to shoulder. The year was 1957 and the date was October 27th. The place, 10 U B Bunglow Road, Jawahar Nagar.  Following its success, a branch was opened at Janpath in 1964. Soon it was allotted space by NDMC at the Central Portion where Palika Bazar stands today. Here it really soared given the ideal location.  

In Delhi, the Indian Coffee Houses tasted success and started operating canteens all over Delhi in various Government offices. It also opened branches across North India, now there are around 10 outlets in the North. The canteen was frequented by Raj Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia amongst others.  There are stories of how in the early 70s before Emergency, a van from Indira Gandhi’s residence would come to pick up idli, vada, sambhar and coffee for visitors and functions regularly. Then for a rupee, one could get vadas, idli and coffee to boot!

This was demolished during the Emergency. The Indian Coffee House was also operating at Mohan Singh Place since 1969. When the Connaught Place outlet was demolished without advance notice, it was forced to shift the entire operation to its current place, Mohan Singh Place. Most regulars swear after that it could never regain its erstwhile glory. A little sign on the outside of Mohan Singh Place proclaims, Indian Coffee House.
Mohan Singh Place is known for its excellent economical denim jeans made within few hours. The Indian Coffee House is located at the top floor of the building with a lift. The space is clean quite nice almost like a canteen.

So what started this cooperative chain of coffee houses?  One can go back to the heady days of cooperative movement when this venture was thought of as a measure for retrenched workers to find employment. As Narayanan Kutty, an old member of the Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative  says, “In the year 1957, the Coffee Board decided to close down its propaganda department  and close down its Coffee Houses. The late Com.A.K.Gopalan, leader of the Coffee Board Labour Union and late Smt.Subhadra Joshi, M.P, the late Pt.Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India,  all of them advised the retrenched employees of the Coffee Board to form their own  co-operative societies.   The retrenched employees welcomed this idea and form their own cooperative societies known as Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative Society Ltd. The first was formed in Delhi.”

P D Pradeep, Manager, who has grown from the ranks says, “anyone who joins the establishment as a worker has to go through the rank and file starting with lowest. This ensures no one is a boss but everyone is a worker. So when there is a shortage of hands, it is not uncommon to see Managers chip in shoulder to shoulder.” The liveried bearers remind one of Railway dining halls.. Pradeep says, “everything is made fresh. We do not buy off the shelf masals but make everything from scratch.” The coffee powder is procured from the neighbouring India Coffee Board. In other parts though, the chain procures beans from Wattal, in Wayanad. This is roasted and powdered in house for use. Filter coffee decoction is brewed in a huge steel coffee filter. For sambar, the spices are roasted and ground and no sambar powder is used. Coconut chutney is made using fresh grated coconut with roasted chana dal, ginger, green chilli. As I speak to Pradeep, there is sense of pride of being a part of such a cooperative spirited venture. This is a sense I have got from people who were and have worked in establishments run on a cooperative basis.

Pradeep tells me the interesting formula worked out by the establishment, “1 kilo of rice and 250 gms urad dal without husk gives 35 dosas. Similarly 1 kg of potato with 1/2 kg onion gives masala for 18 dosas, 1 kilo rice and ½ kg urad dal makes 50 idlis and 1 kilo of urad dal gives around 50 – 55 vadas.” Any variation, the cook is taken to task. The reason if it is more, it means quantity is wasted, if lower then the customer is short charged.” Amul butter is used for butter dosa and Amul cheese for the sandwich. The prices are still common man like.   

The Indian Coffee House reflects another era where unity of people under cooperative banner to build business and the country was paramount. They are still relevant in today’s world where Amul gives the best of MNCs a run for their money. A little more effort, a little more care, more vision…the Indian Coffee House could be pioneering coffee chains not only in India but even abroad!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Triveni Terrace Café – where the who’s who rubbed shoulders with nobody – sans any attitude.

This article was published in the Hindu 

A brush with kadhi-chawal: the history behind Delhi's Triveni Terrace ...

Read the unedited version here...

Usually design defines a space, at times a persona or personality shapes the space, in a rare combination the design, persona and space come together to create a beautiful confluence. Triveni Kala Sangam can be called one such space. The brainchild of Sundari K Shridharani, her struggle as an artist made her dream of a space where artists could display their work, perform for an audience and teach their craft. The feisty lady embarked on her journey to fulfil this dream. So charmed was Joseph Allen Stein with her panache and perseverance that he designed the place free. He gave the brick and mortar shape to her idea. The place still runs on the same ethos. The Auditorium and Gallery is rented out to artists at very modest prices, the classrooms where 12 disciplines of performing arts are taught is given free to the Gurus. This translates into moderate prices for the students. The open space, the calm environment is soothing. All of this was planned consciously and executed intentionally. What was unplanned but happened naturally and became a very popular hub was the Triveni Terrace Café. So popular did it become that Mrs. Shridharani, much to her consternation, would discover that after giving a tour of the place to visiting journalists explaining her objectives, they would feature the Café prominently. This would infuriate her more than anything else. Despite this popularity, it is to Triveni’s credit that they have not milked it or promoted it to their advantage. It was and still is a place where people can eat good food at very reasonable prices, simply soak in the environment and enjoy themselves. True to its culture, no customer is nudged to leave or disturbed if he wishes to stay. This still holds. The Café with its competitive pricing also made art more accessible. Anyone walking into the Café would also wander and see the artist’s work on display. Art, music and dance was not elitist but plebeian for everyone.

The Café started because the Institution when it began in 1963, needed some form of refreshment. A little cart vendor offered tea / coffee initially. Then Mrs. Puran Acharya, who was also close to the art fraternity offered to run the canteen. She started the famous snack concept of pakoras, cutlet, chai and coffee. A couple of years down the line, by mid 60s she started offering lunch as well. Lunch was the traditional Punjabi fare of hearty paranthas, kababs, palak paneer, kadhi chawal… The alu paranthas and kababs soon developed cult status and today are a part of the “heritage menu”. The Terrace Café simply grew in popularity, it was the place to hang out like a adda for all artists. It was frequented by Hussain, Kishen Khanna, Vivan Sundaram, Pandit Ravi Shankar, ambassadors and Stein himself. With no other option to hang out excepting The Indian coffee house, all of who’s who descended there. A symbol of discretion, the Terrace Café has never displayed any photo of any celebrity eating there. For them everyone was and is equal. This system continued and then in the 80s it was taken over by Mrs  Kamala Ranjit Rai. Of which in the later years Mrs. Minna worked on the menu introducing her carrot cakes which were very popular. The menu was the same with some twists. The afternoon lunch and a range of snacks in the afternoon and in true canteen style closed in the evening with no dinner. In 2012, Mrs Shridharani passed away, later Mrs. Rai’s family also wanted to move on with their business and not concentrate on the canteen. The hunt began to give out the space to some similar thinking group to run the Canteen. Finally The Melting Pot Food Company who run the Lota Café at the Crafts Museum and Roots Café in Gurgaon were approached. “The Lota People” as they are referred to started operating the same. The Terrace Café is housed at the far end of the Institution. It is an unpretentious, non-air conditioned, with few seating indoors and an open patio providing for more seating in a Terrace like environment overlooking the open air theatre..


The new team not only energised and invigorated the place but made it more contemporary, attracting the younger generation as well. Udit Maheshwari, Chef- Manager at Terrace Café says, “we modernised the kitchen, which was more of a home kitchen. The Café is open for breakfast and lunch. We introduced dinner – from 6 to 9 and now are open on Sundays.” The food is delicious, portions substantial and affordable that patrons eat 4 – 5 times a week.  Udit elaborates, “we have kept the heritage menu and have added some new ones. We fine tuned the original menu of paranthas and kababs.There is mint flavoured nimbu paani, parval kababs, pumpkin kababs, thate idli topped with ghee roasted chicken which is a huge hit. The Kashmiri Tarami - mini Wazwan vegetarian served only for dinner as thali includes dum aloo, yellow paneer, khatte meethe baigan, mooli and akhrot chutney, lotus stem crisps with rice . Ragi bread sandwich is a new addition and very popular.” All my cajoling for the recipe for the vegetarian kabab only elicits the princely gem from Udit that, “the pumpkin kababs are made with ripe pumpkins and chilka moong while it is mattar and parval in parval kababs”.  The dessert section includes a cake topped with aam papad and served with raw mango chutney, the beetroot halwa and gur kheer are popular. Traditional Indian ingredients and recipes have been recreated with a modern twist.  It has managed to hold its quintessential aura which still spreads by word of mouth publicity. One that sees the old and the young enjoy in comfortable silence.