Monday, December 23, 2019
The original article appeared in The Hindu, you can read it here
Read the unedited version here....
Call it a quirk of fate or destiny, two men from diverse backgrounds met when they were chosen to go to the US for a study tour by CSIR (Centre for Scientific & Industrial Research) in 1945. The mission, to study modern research laboratories in the US so that it could be replicated in India post- independence. It was an era where a young emerging nation was about to take birth. There was this abundance of energy and enthusiasm which came with the spirit to build a new world. One had studied at J J School, the other was an engineer trained at Roorkee. The former was the son of an artist from a humble background, the latter the grandson of Sir Ganga Ram. Life took them to the US, where they wanted to pursue their education to study design and architecture. The former, Achyut P Kanvinde, who studied Architecture and the latter Shaukat Rai who studied Civil Engineering. The duo came back and fulfilled their commitment by working with CSIR. The friendship which began then, resulted in a partnership – Kanvinde & Rai which survived over decades amicably. Where other partnerships floundered this flourished. It must have been pre-ordained as the two men complimented each other. Achyut Kanvinde’s (1916-2002) brilliance in designing and architecture was matched to perfection by Shaukat Rai (1922-2003), the Engineer who handled the project execution, management and business aspects. This gave Kanvinde an undisturbed environment to design. His son Sanjay Kanvinde who now manages Kanvinde, Rai & Chowdhury with his wife Tanuja says, “they complimented each other beautifully. Each recognised and valued the contribution of the other to pave for an egoless work environment. When Morad Chowdhury joined, it was twenty years after the partnership had begun. He was fresh air and blood for the firm. The same thing happened when I joined.” Morad Chowdhury joined the firm and became a partner in 1969. In the book Achyut Kanvinde – Akar, Chowdhury writes, “The two complemented each other perfectly. Charles Correa refers to Kanvinde Saheb’s sensitivity, the unique position he occupies in the history of contemporary architecture in India, and the partnership between him and Shaukat as that of high-ethical professional standards unparalleled in our times.”
It will not be an understatement to say that anything conceivable in brick and mortar was designed and built by the low profile soft spoken duo. There are no absolute numbers, but it could be easily above 500 projects covering schools, colleges, hostels, campuses, hospitals, temples, residences, office complexes, high rise, low rise…. The projects include – IIT Kanpur, Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai, IRMA Campus, GCMMF while those in Delhi – Ashoka Estate, St. Xavier’s School, National Science Centre, Cooperation Office, Embassy of Switzerland, Azad Bhawan, NDDB, ISKCON Temple, CCRT. Of these, Gandhi Memorial Hall, Azad Bhawan, NDDB office, National Science Centre and ISKCON temple make it to the list of modern heritage buildings of Delhi.
If one sees the wide spectrum of work spanning over five decades it gives interesting insights into the design vocabulary and how it evolved. Kanvinde Sahab, as he was popularly called was the quintessential modernist. The buildings he initially designed were typically straight faced geometrical ones. This geometry was in stark contrast to the ornate and carved Indian architecture which he trained in but later disdained. Though Kanvinde was a modernist since his days at J J, it was his study under Walter Gropius at Harvard which completely altered his core of thinking. As Kanvinde says in his writings, “it was Gropius who really exposed me to the power of technology on the one hand and the psychological dimensions of spatial concerns and realizations on the other.” There are stories of how Kanvinde’s passionate argument, rooting for modernistic structure in Delhi in keeping with the futuristic growth vision as opposed to the traditional ornate Indian architecture, at the conference on Indian Architecture held at The Lalit Kala Academy, New Delhi led to Pandit Nehru endorsing Kanvinde’s view on modern architecture.
This romance with geometrical architecture lasted all through his lifetime. Over the years, the geometrical shapes imbibed a certain fluidity, which made them almost speak. The structure using geometry simply fitted with the next like a huge lattice work piece or a maze to emerge as one holistic body. It is difficult to pinpoint a particular genre in which he was comfortable for he has covered the entire spectrum of buildings. Sanjay says, “the design would emerge from the site, topography of the land, the objectives in context of the area. It was a sum of everything.” Another feature which stands out is that Kanvinde Sahab had discerned the taste of the inhabitants of the space, then created the structure for them, so that they blended in well. Sanjay adds, “he would to great lengths to understand his clients. For the Balkrishna Harivallabhdas Residence 1962 in Ahmedabad, he often stayed with the family to understand them and their lifestyle so that the home would complement them. Similarly when he was asked to design the ISKCON temple, New Delhi, a pro bono project, he wanted to understand the philosophy of the organisation. They in turn presented him with 16 volumes of the Bhagwat Gita and he meticulously went through them,” Sanjay laughs saying, “For an architect who designed temples, he did not believe in Vaastu.”
Two other features which Sanjay points out is the emphasis on staircase in the buildings, it was given much preference. Similarly, the front or porch was designed such that it would add drama to the building. It also allowed for natural light to enter the buildings. Apart from staircases, covered verandahs & walk-ways connected various buildings allowing for light and ventilation. This is aptly reflected in the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru where the design allows for natural ventilation and light everywhere. The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts – Ahmedabad for dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai celebrates the dancer, her ethos and the arts of India. The building contemporary, intimately modern encompassing views of the Sabarmati river, with exposed concrete frame structure with exposed brick infill walls, fulfils the role to promote and preserve Indian art brilliantly without use of the ornate, carved architectural style.
Sanjay adds, “sustainability and environment friendly materials were a part of Kanvinde”s approach to buildings even before they became buzzwords. His own house – Akar built 1965-67 used local bricks and exposed concrete. The concept of using skylights, allowing for natural light to enter the building at all time of the day and using fly ash concrete was a part of the project.”
Another trait which can be seen when sees the spectrum of work was the deep friendship that he nourished with his clients who trusted him implicitly. Dr. Kurien of Amul was one such with whom he developed a keen friendship another was Balkrishna Doshi. Interactions with Dr. Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Corbusier, Louis Kahn enrichened the journey. The Mother Dairy booth that one sees omnipresent across the country was designed by him. The unique signature piece symbolic of India’s milk revolution. Ahmedabad as a city can be called his Karma Bhoomi as several of his projects find a place of pride.
As one takes a look at some of the prominent architects whose work enhanced the skyline of Delhi, one notices a link that they were all a close knit group of professionals. From Madan Mahatta who photographed the projects, Mahendra Raj who was the structural consultant for several of the projects to fellow architects…the group was not exclusive but inclusive to embrace young promising architects and sought to nurture talent and more importantly wanted good buildings and projects to dot the landscape of the country especially the capital.
NDDB Office at Safdarjung Enclave was built from 1978-83. It turns the idea of a conventional office building on its head. It is a very unusual office structure. Roof and terrace gardens which are a part of today’s sustainable world were incorporated four decades ago. The structure in itself with its stepped profile adds a very interesting visual drama. It also creates room for green patches and terraces along the way. A complex web of geometrical shapes has been incorporated into one cohesive building.
CCRT – The Centre for Cultural Resources & Training, Dwarka, Delhi was built 1993-96 for Ministry of Culture. The purpose of the space was it to function as a training centre for teachers emphasising art and culture. It has been conceived as a school with additional space for workshops in different cultural fields, a 500 seater auditorium and 250 seater puppet theatre. The clever use of ramp capped by a steel trellis, terraces and stilted areas give the building an institutional yet intimate feel. The purpose of culture and art is accentuated without the environs being forbidding or intimidating. Dholpur stone jaalis bring in light to the corridor while Molela clay tiles add the indigenous element. The presence of greenery along the building and open terraces, gives the structure a very modern contemporary feel and not that of a stifled old fashioned building.
Sanjay explains, “it seemed coming a full circle that my father who studied temples for his thesis at J J went back to his roots when he designed the ISKCON temple.” Sanjay explains, here in a departure from traditional temples which have heavy load bearing walls, Kanvinde used frame RCC construction. This allowed the Shikhara to be a hollow skeletal transparent framework, so that it could be lit at night to create a magical environment. The site topography was utilised to design the space which incorporates several buildings and utilities. The buildings flow upwards with the Shikhara at the pinnacle. Several symbolic details of temple architecture have been incorporated.
Wednesday, December 4, 2019
This article appeared of mine appeared in The Hindu,
Architects who were ahead of their times - The Hindu
Read the unedited version here...
Modernists ahead of their times
“For Ajoy and me the open spaces between buildings and open spaces around buildings was as important as the built up area,” says Ranjit Sabikhi, partner of The Design Group (1961-1991). The other partner Ajoy Choudhury passed away in 2017. This philosophy of urban design which balanced open spaces so integral to India, with the built up area through buildings which bordered around geometric minimalism created their unique design style. The partnership which spanned three decades saw several beautiful buildings – in Delhi these were Shakuntalam Theatre, YMCA Staff Quarters, Yamuna Apartments, The Syrian Christian Church at Hauz Khas, August Kranti Bhavan at Bhikaji Cama Place, Janakpuri District Centre, DLF Centre at Sansad Marg… while those outside Delhi included the Mughal Sheraton (now ITC Mughal) - Agra, Taj Bengal at Kolkata, ITDC Hotel at Varanasi, NDDB – Regional Training Centre at Jalandhar, NDDB staff housing at Noida, Indian Embassy Kuwait, Hostel for School of Paper Technology at Saharanpur and many more. Of these YMCA Staff Quarters and Yamuna Apartments make it to the list of 62 modern heritage buildings brought out by INTACH. However, the YMCA Staff Quarters was demolished a few years back. It was for the Hotel Mughal Sheraton that was done in association with Arcop which won them the first Aga Khan Award. Ashish Choudhury son of late Ajoy Choudhury says, “The Design Group had designed numerous private residences and an even larger number of projects, many of which were built.”
Sabikhi says, “Ajoy and I met at School of Planning & Architecture, Delhi, which was then called Delhi Polytechnic. We were all 1952 batchmates along with Raj Rewal, Ram Sharma… Kuldeep Singh and Morad Choudhury were a batch senior. I studied there for two years and then went on to Liverpool to do B.Arch. I worked in England for a few years before moving back to Delhi. Ajoy finished his studies and worked in Milan, Italy before moving back.” It is uncanny how each of these architects then went on to leave an indelible mark on the architectural landscape of Delhi. Choudhury adds, “my father did not set out to be an architect. He had done his Physics Hons at Delhi University and wanted to do a Masters in English Literature, but was convinced to take up architecture. Dejected with the slow pace of instruction after his first year of studies, he wanted to give up architecture. A meeting with Achyut Kanvinde, convinced him to take up an apprenticeship under him while pursuing his B.Arch.”
The Design Group began around 1961, Shiban Ganju was a part of the group initially and then went abroad. Morad Choudhury was a part for a few years and then joined Achyut Kanvinde.
Tracing their work Sabikhi says, “our first project was the YMCA Staff Quarters. We had a clear idea about what we wanted. It was built on a minimal budget. The choice of material was very limited in those days, it was brick and plaster. Because the cost was so low we could not do traditional things like verandahs and balconies.” The next project through the same satisfied clients was the bigger YMCA Institute of Engineering at Faridabad, set on 20 acres of land. The Institute curriculum based on the German system included training at the workshop and theoretical classes. The design was done to include this pedagogy. It included the academic centre, the staff quarters, hostel, the auditorium. The central structure was conceived as a pinwheel to allow for expansion later on. The academic centre, the staff quarters and hostels were built as separate units but connected through a system of covered corridors and verandahs. Sabikhi adds, “the design element of interlinking façade which was begun then was perfected at Yamuna Apartments.” The interlinking façade created a visual deception of open space thus could hide density. It also created a vast imagery of unstructured open space.
What stands out as common thread in their design is the clean clear lines with a stark minimalism, more Western in its concept than the Indian ornate architecture. The monotony of the starkness of minimalism broken by using simple design elements adding a fair bit of drama to the buildings. What gives the design its distinct uniqueness is the ability to include Indian cultural nuances and aspects which gave the modern contemporary architecture an Indian context. Such that the design was not alien to India but represented the modern or forward looking one. So far sighted that several of the designs could withstand the changes of time adapt itself well to it. Sabikhi says, “Since we were also teaching at SPA we undertook numerous field trips to Jaisalmer, Agra to understand and study traditional Indian architecture.” At ITC Mughal, three bridges connect the lobby to the rooms through a cluster of garden courts drawing from Mughal architecture yet modernistic. The Janakpuri District Centre though used colonial architectural elements. Sabikhi says, “our design was used to a large extent but then later, the land was parcelled and sold to developers who did not use our standard design control for the facades.”
Choudhury says, “My father shared with me that his favourite urban typology was 'low-rise, high-density'. It so happened that The Design Group did several projects that explored this typology."
Choudhury adds, " my father told me that design was, at one level, an exercise in problem solving and a response to the site and program. But there was always a strong underlying search for a design theme in their work." In Yamuna Apartments, the topography of the land was incorporated into the design. Levelling the land would have cost heavily and budget was tight. Thus the design balanced the heights so well that a block with three floors is beautifully comfortably connected to another one with two floors through a club house. And through hanging balconies on another side. The fact that students would have to walk long distances within the campus in the heat or cold resulted in the corridors connecting all areas including auditorium being covered at the YMCA Institute. Sabikhi says, “At Yamuna Apartments, which came up at the same time with Tara Apartments, I am happy that the framework which we planned was strong enough to absorb changes of the modern way of life. The design has been able to absorb the changes.”
The choice of material though limited, has seen The Design Group use natural material for finish so that maintenance at a later stage is not a problem. Exposed brick has been used, grit finish to red sandstone. Red sandstone has been used on the exteriors of The Indian Embassy Kuwait.
As Sabikhi says, “the difference between what we were doing then and what people do today is that we were not concerned with making money. For us, it was a dedication, a way of doing things. In designing space or concepts, to be able to convince our clients, of how we want to build.” Choudhury says, "my father once said that he did not know, when he started out, that one day Architecture would become a friend."
So did they ever think that the buildings will be a part of modern heritage? Sabikhi laughs saying no. Wonder what Ajoy Choudhury would have said? But seeing the spectrum of their work, given a chance, they would have still built on absorbing all modern technologies still being the modernists.…
The Design Group
Structural Consultant T S Narayanaswamy
Contractors – Constructed departmentally under the control of the Cooperative Society in true cooperative spirit
Landscape – Ravinder Bhan
Approximate Cost – Rs. 1.3 crores – 1975 -1980
Approximate built up – 23,711 m2.
Yamuna Apartments, the first cooperative group housing society in Delhi can be said to be ahead of its time as it was conceived and planned more like a mini township, self contained apartments with plenty of open spaces and pedestrian streets. The design has four radial streets which converge at the central point – a modern day take off on the traditional courtyard concept. The central point is an open meeting space while the top is joined to form a community centre. The staircases to each flat is separate giving it a private entrance yet connected to the mainstream. As Sabikhi says, “when I look back I realise they were practical realistic people who did not want anything fancy. We managed to put in a few basements.” The traffic was planned on the periphery and the inside area between the blocks was left for pedestrian traffic and for children to play. It still remains the same. Again a take off from a village concept with streets facing each other and closed to vehicular traffic.
Janakpuri District Centre for DDA, 1984
The Design Group
Structural Consultant S V Damle
Landscape – Satish Khanna
Area of Site –34.13 acres, 13.8 ha
Total built up area – 2,74,100 m2
Taking its cue from Connaught Place, the only commercial cum shopping hub for citizens of Delhi with a snob value attached, the Janakpuri District Centre was designed to be a self-contained commercial and shopping complex with recreational facilities, restaurants and underground parking space. The Colonial architecture with which Connaught Place is so identifiable became a reference point. Sabikhi says, “the double-height colonnade defines and ties together all shopping spaces. This then visually extends and relates to the landscaped courts and gardens of the District Centre.”
Monday, March 4, 2019
This article appeared in The Hindu
read the unedited version here...
Where Butter Chicken and Dal Makhni originated – Moti Mahal Daryaganj
Think of a Punjabi staple which is a byword in North Indian dish roster and the answer usually is Butter Chicken, Tandoori Chicken and Dal Makhni. It is a menu chart which no restaurant is complete. These staple were, introduced to Delhi and the world through this restaurant - Moti Mahal Restaurant at Daryaganj. The man credited with the creation, Kundan Lal Gujral. From what one can glean from written records, was that he ran a small dhaba in Peshawar in 1920s. He came to Delhi post partition and started a food business and the Moti Mahal restaurant happened in 1947. The cuisine history reads thus, to produce a lighter version of the heavy korma, chicken was grilled in the Tandoor. The tandoor was used for making bread but not for meat. This resulted in tandoori chicken. It was to find a solution for the leftover tandoor chicken that the butter chicken happened. To soften the chicken, it was marinated in yogurt and cooked, to the addition of makhni gravy - tomatoes, cream et all. Dal makhni was invented at Moti Mahal to find a vegetarian equivalent. Whole urad was used in the same makhni gravy, thus the unforgettable Dal Makhni was created. Thus, the repertoire found a permanent place in the North Indian cuisine lexicon. Of course, the spices used then were minimal and less elaborate.
The restaurant is not difficult to find, being located at the main road in Daryaganj. It is calmer and away from the hustle bustle of the main Daryaganj Road. However, there are signs of decrepit. Inside the décor is typical of the 70s/ 80s restaurant, with huge floral decorations, pink ceilings with decorations. The entrance though is nice with lots of green. The outdoor dining area is there, where Qawalis used to be held. A battery of Award hangs from the wall along with a photo of Gordon Ramsey who came here to learn how to make Tandoori Chicken.
The current owner Vinod Chadha says, “What I bought was the rental rights to this place from Kundal Lal Gujral in 1991 and what was there of the establishment. It was a khandar - ruin. During its hey days from 1947 to 1980s it was the toast of connoisseurs of food. It was the only establishment which served Tandoori chicken, Dal Makhni and Butter Chicken and people flocked. There was Ashoka Hotel, Gaylord and Moti Mahal. ” There are several reports of every President, Prime Minister, Film Stars having eaten here. Chadha says, “the food here was excellent, there are no two ways to it. I have myself eaten here several times and the food was just great. I do not know much about the origins as I was not there and it will not be right for me to speak about it.”
After Chadha took over, he bought the place from the owners, re-built and revamped it – air conditioning was installed and the menu revamped. So I query was the secret recipe of Butter Chicken, Tandoori Chicken and Dal Makhni given to you by Kundan Lal? Chadha says, “it was not needed as by then these items were being made everywhere. Restaurateurs had deciphered the signature dishes and replication had begun. I am veteran of the hotel industry, with degrees in Hotel Management and have travelled across the globe – all on 100% scholarships. I had worked in the Middle East, then at the Taj and finally for over 21 years at Gaylord Restaurant, Connaught Place. I knew how these dishes were made. I actually made it better, we improvised, today we cater to customers from across the globe. We have no branches anywhere.” The Dal Makhni is tasty, though slightly tangy and spicy for my taste buds but wonder of wonders it does not leave a heavy feeling in its aftermath.It is rich and creamy but not in the heavy greasy category. The masala used is special and Chadha does not reveal the secret of the Dal Makhni what he does say is “it is a mixture of whole urad, chana dal and rajma and is cooked in milk.” It is probably that which makes it so creamy and thick without the grease factor which one observes in other places. He adds, “I can assure, my food will not make anyone feel sick or having over eaten. It is light on the palette.” Curd is used instead of ghee to make the dishes lighter.
The place has its connoisseurs – Dabbas or boxes were sent out to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, actor Akshay Kumar got his dose of Butter Chicken and Chicken Tikka.
The menu is skewed towards non-vegetarian fare – 60% and the rest vegetarian. Chinese cuisine has been introduced to pamper the taste buds of children accompanying parents. The joint has 30 different ways to prepare chicken and a similar number of meat. They make close to 2 – 3 kgs of dal; 50 – 60 kgs of chicken – on daily basis . Marinating for dishes takes around 8 hours, 3 – 4 hours for some Chadha says, “we want to develop it further and were waiting for the heritage line to be completed before starting.”
Friday, January 18, 2019
This appeared in The Hindu
United Coffee House turns 75 - The Hindu
Read the unedited version here...
Flash back of 75 years...
“Archived dishes are a very big homework. We have an archival recipe record of nearly 400 – 500 dishes which we have served in our restaurant in the last 75 years. They are not original or authentic recipes but our adaptation of these to the taste of our customers and the time.” Says Akash K Kalra, Managing Director, The United Group, “of these around 150 – 200 dishes are on the menu all the time. We keep going back to these, bring it back to our customers, adapting it to suit their palette and trend of the day. I look at myself as a custodian of this heritage which I want to retain and take it forward,” finishes Kalra.
Despite this emphasis on food and cuisine from all over the world, it comes as a surprise to know that when United Coffee House started, food was not its focal point. It was more of a place to meet and chat – an adda of sorts – to enjoy a cup of coffee with snacks, to wrap up the day. As Kalra says, “this place was more of a hangout where people could meet. For many, this was a place to walk in on Sundays after listening to the Military band play and watching the fountains at Central Park to walk in here for a cup of coffee with snacks. It was a part of a Sunday ritual for many.”
The establishment of the first coffee house in Delhi in 1942 was the brain child of Lala Hans Raj Kalra (Akash Kalra’s grandfather), the son of a liquor baron who had a flourishing liquor business in Sialkot in Pakistan. The family moved to Delhi and were based in Chandni Chowk. They also owned a liquor bond and a liquor shop in Chandni Chowk. The first foray into hospitality came with the setting up of Esplanade Restaurant & Bar in 1938-39 to cater to the American GIs who had their barracks at the Red Fort. It proved to be very popular but since it was meant for the GIs it wound up with their moving out after the war in early 40s. Around that time, Hans Raj Kalra heard of an affluent shopping arcade in Lutyens Delhi called Connaught Place which had been built in the shape of a horse shoe to bring luck to the traders and its customers. Going there, he found little bakeries were the Memsahibs sold homemade goodies, equestrian shoe makers, drapers…However what it lacked was a Coffee House. Coffee Houses were “in” those days especially in England, and there was none here. He bought the place and opened United Coffee House. As Kalra says, “he called it United because it was a place where people could unite for coffee.” Thus Hans Raj Kalra also sealed the family business into hospitality moving out of the liquor trade they were in.
Initially in the 40s, the place was open from 11 am to 8 pm typically selling street snacks of Old Delhi. People would congregate for coffee. As Kalra says, “food then was commercial food and Bibiyana food or that which was made at home. No one would eat home food outside so it was only commercial food – omelette, chana bhatura, tikka...” Post independence in the 50s, the hours extended and by 60s it became a full fledged restaurant. The cuisine initially was a mix of the Old Delhi Kayasth food and Frontier Province Pakistani food. The menu expanded and during their life time, the place has served everything from commercial food, Bibiyana food, Madras Club Food, Bombay Club Food, Calcutta Club food, Anglo Indian, Khansama cooked Memsahib cuisine, newer variants of continental food, Asian, Mexican, Lebanese and of course Indian including popular appams and dals. Having been conceived in the British Era, there is still a fondness for the Old Raj cuisine especially British Club food – Cheese balls, cutlets, samosas, chops, cutlets…English breakfast. The Menu in itself very interesting offering a host of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes (breakfast, tea snacks, main course, starters and more..)
Though there is such a range of dishes available, Kalra says, “We are known for our keema samosa, cheese balls, tomato fish, chicken a la kiev. These have not been invented by us. But our variation is a huge hit, it is amongst our signature dishes.” Apart from these there are plenty of staples – the Chaplee Kababs, Railway mutton curry, Dak Bunglow chicken curry, Chicken Maryland, Coq Au Vin, Chicken a la princess.. Kalra explains, “my grandfather had the acumen to get some of the finest cooks of those times to work for us. With their feedback and my grandfather’s insight a dish would be perfected after much trials. For example a chef from Lucknow might add raw mango and bay leaf to a Dak Bunglow chicken curry which made the taste entirely different from the usual one. It is such little variations which adds to our dishes and taste.”
To commemorate the 75th year, a new menu will be unveiled in May. Classic dishes which have not been on the Menu for 20 – 30 years are being revamped and brought back. Kalra enthusiastically says, “Fuyong, Chow chows from Asian, butter milk burgers…amongst others. Again these dishes are being adjusted to suit today’s palette. So if a baked salmon was served with boiled vegetables then, today we would be doing it with braised Bok Choi.”
What works for the UCH is that it still retains the old world charm of the 1950s. The food has been adapted to suit today’s nuances but yet the ambience is one of relaxed uncluttered luxury. One actually feels one is back in time when one steps into the restaurant - the laid back era of fine dining, huge chandeliers, unhurried knowledgeable waiters, the attention and care to the patrons with a sense of discreet familiarity.
Wednesday, January 2, 2019
This article appeared in The Hindu
An ode to masalas: Sita Ram Diwan Chand - The Hindu
Read the unedited version here....
I am a self confessed Chole Bhatura freak. I have traversed distances across Delhi to savour the delights / pack them in. I have retraced these epic journeys to devour them time and again. But if there is one batch of Chole Bhatura which wins hands down as prima donna in Delhi, it is that at Sita Ram Diwan Chand at Paharganj. It is very easy to reach the place from the Metro station side, from where one avoids the Railway Station crowd. The streets are wide and it is quite comfortable to travel that far for well, a plate of the best Chole Bhature in Delhi. The cholas are small and melt in your mouth variety. It is mildly spiced. One can taste the myriad spices which explode in one’s mouth. In most establishment the only taste one can feel is “hot” with the overpowering dose of green chillies and ginger combination that camouflages all other flavours. The Chole is more “at home” kind of variety. Yet despite waxing eloquent about this humble typical Punjabi fare
Puneet Kohli, the young third generation person manning it today with his father Pran Nath Kohli says matter of factly, “they are the typical Punjabi Chole Bhature that is made. We do not know what is special about it. People seem to love it and keep coming back for more.” I prod him further, saying there must be a secret to it as thy have managed to survive nearly 50 years, on this one staple. He grins adding, “you ask those who eat it what is so special. They should be able to tell you. We feel it is typical fare but it sells in generous quantities. We have regular patrons who come to us and we have a special rapport with our clientele.”
The rapport is sure, for the establishment sustains itself on this one staple – yes the Chole Bhatura. The Bhaturas are light fluffy paneer bhaturas. It has people queueing for its delight from the opening at 8 am in the morning to its closing at 6 pm in the evening. Puneet Kohli says, “one thing we do not compromise on is the quality. The taste and method of making is still the same as started by my grandfather. The recipe for the masala is the same as is the method for soaking, boiling chick peas or the flour for the bhatura.”
It is difficult to maintain quality especially seeing the humble background the operation began. Puneet reveals his grandfather used to sell Chole Bhature outside DAV School, Paharganj in a push cart. The family came to India from Lahore after partition. His grandfather was called Sita Ram. Online research reveals it was his great grandfather who probably initiated this trade in 1948 selling chole bhature in a cart. Hence the name, Sita Ram Diwan Chand. Sita Ram continued this and in the 80s set up shop opposite Imperial Cinema. The taste was good, and people sought him out. By the 1990, he had managed to buy a small shop near Chanakya Hotel to sell. This became the legendary landmark. In 2008, the current swankier place opened. The décor and uniformed servers can give a Pizza joint a run for its money. The décor is youthful, with posters of the history, the operation is computerized, the red coloured brand logo is everywhere. The outfit delivers through Swiggy and accepts online bookings. The packing is done is trays for individual takeways. Packing is done expertly using a combination of foil and nice plastic boxes. A meethi lassi and kulfi has been included. Puneet laughs, “initially in 1970, it was sold for 5 paisa a plate. Today, we sell it for Rs. 65/- a plate.” The taste as regulars say is still the same.
So what is it that people keep coming back for more? The Bhatura is made with paneer, but the paneer is so light that one can taste it but cannot feel it. The bhaturas are incredibly light and are not heavy. After much prodding on the recipe, Puneet gives out these tiny bits of information, “we soak the chana – Kabuli variety for over 24 hours.” I have also heard that the chole is not soaked but cooked slowly overnight. Puneet scoffs saying, “how can you make chole without soaking it first.” I am still unconvinced since the size of chole is small. Usually when chole is soaked overnight it increased in volume and becomes lightly bigger. The chole is not pressure cooked but instead cooked in drums. No further trick works with Puneet who refused to budge in giving more information. The Chole is cooked with the garam masala which gives it the unique flavour. The garam masala is a special mix made using 14 ingredients. Puneet says, “it is combination of garam masala which gives it the unique taste. It is the play of the spices. We grind our own spices, buy the whole or sabut locally. It is ground in the factories. In the kitchen, the ratio of spice to the chole is added” What stands out is that like home cooked food. It is very palatable and one can easily go in for a second or third helping without feeling greasy and heavy. The food is made in a nearby factory and served at the outlet.
The chole bhature is served with picked carrots, pickled green chillies, with diced onions. Their version of aloo subzi is another killer. The gastronomical expedition is well worth the effort.
They have also come up with ready to eat Chole with a shelf life of 1 year. There is the chole masala and aloo subzi masala with instructions to make it. Chick peas or chole is sold raw as also Bhatura flour
The 14 ingredients of the special garam masala includes – salt, pomegranate seeds, black pepper, red chilli, coriander, cumin, long pepper, big cardamom, cloves, mace, nutmeg…