Monday, March 4, 2019

Moti Mahal Daryaganj



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

United Coffee House


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

Chole Bhature at Sita Ram Diwan Chand


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.

Box 1

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

Box 2
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…

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