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…