Sunday, November 25, 2007

Back to the Future - Breakfast at Karims

Ever since I moved to Delhi I have heard and read a lot about Old Delhi and its hoary past. It is variously known as “the walled city”, Shahjahanabad (It was built by the Mughal emperor Shahjahan over a period of 10 years) and sometimes by the name of one of its most famous streets - Chandni Chowk. It is probably one of the few “old cities” of the world which has a thriving residential and commercial population. The walls are crumbling and the 17th century havelis(mansions) have broken facades marred by shop signs, but it is still a hub of activity and home to about 5 million inhabitants.

Chandni Chowk, in particular, is very famous even outside Delhi as a hub of shopping, wholesale and retail trading and a place for great bargains;but in fact it is one of the principal streets of the area which leads from the Red Fort. Other than this, there are other lanes dedicated to different businesses – one for gold, one for silver, others for bangles and other accessories, stationery, spices, brass, copper, hardware – you name it. The labyrinth of lanes has havelis standing cheek-by-jowl and it’s impossible to negotiate a car in the narrow crowded streets. The preferred mode of transport is by cycle rickshaws, bicycles and two wheelers.

One of the most famous landmarks of Old Delhi is the Jama Masjid – a beautiful mosque built by Shahjahan in the 16th century, its azaans going out even today to call the faithful to prayer. It is actually Masjid -i- Jahan -Numa: “the mosque commanding a view of the world” and is popularly known as Jama Masjid referring to the Friday gathering for prayers (jum’a meaning Friday in Arabic). One of the largest mosques in Delhi, it's courtyard can accommodate 25,000 worshippers.

The beautiful steps on all three sides are made of red sandstone and it is one of the few mosques built on high ground giving it a really majestic aura.

Pics from Wikipedia – read more there.

And tucked in a bylane (see map) opposite the mosque is another veritable monument – Karim.

Karim’s present day avatar started out as a roadside dhaba (local eatery) in 1913, almost 100 years ago. But their ancestors date back to the time of Mughal emperors for whom they were the royal cooks. They used to prepare their secret family recipes in the environs of the Red Fort till the last emperor fell in 1857 after the Mutiny and they went into exile to escape the British rulers. The family lived in hiding in Lucknow till 1911, when they came back and set up their dhaba here under the aegis of Haji Karimuddin the grandfather of the current owner. There has been no looking back since – their mutton gravies and chicken kababs, delicious biryanis and earthy rotis and naans have attained global fame. Karims has found mention in BBC, Lonely Planet, Time magazine and even the National Geographic.

Today, they are a family establishment owning a chain of restaurants in and around Delhi. The most famous one though, remains the one near Jama, tucked away in the same alleyway where they originated so many centuries ago.

So I was more than happy when our dear neighbor A came up with a “Sunday breakfast at Karim’s” plan. Now I’m not much of a meat eater and mutton is a no-no anyway, what with it being difficult to digest for me, but there was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity for a foodie adventure like this!

So off we set off one chilly November morning, 3 kids in tow and met up with another couple at the Ashoka Road Metro station, where we parked our cars. We then took the Metro line and got off at Chawri Bazaar station. This was the first time I was travelling by the Metro and I was really impressed at how clean and efficient the whole system was. There is still a lot of the city left to be connected and it won’t be fully complete before 2025 but if we manage to run and maintain the network as it is envisioned, Delhi will really get less congested as more and more people start using it.

From Chawri Bazaar station we took three cycle rickshaws and made our way to Karim’s – we passed by the Jama Masjid and our eyes were automatically drawn to its high domes and slender minarets. I remember going inside when I was on a visit to Delhi with my parents at age 15 and gazing at the marble flooring in black and white.It was like travelling back in time.....the crowded streets almost empty since it was a Sunday, the old buildings reminding me of similar looking ones in the older areas of Mumbai.....cows sharing equal space with dogs and goats. After a short drive we stopped at a non descript looking street.

Karim’s now also has lodging and it was a bit confusing with many signs saying "Karim’s" all around. We entered through a narrow passage and found ourselves outside the unprepossessing restaurant – just about capable of seating 50 people at a time. Formica topped tables scrubbed clean with functional chairs to match. A cash counter which had a board above proclaiming boldly that they didn’t accept any credit card!

We didn’t have to wait long for two tables to be joined to accommodate us and we placed our order of rotis, sheermal, paya and nihari – the only items on the menu at that time of the day. The rotis are these huge, soft, almost fluffy yet slightly crisp rounds of flatbread, made with flour and egg and baked in a traditional tandoor (clay oven).

Sheermal is another type of flat bread which is made with milk and sugar, leaving it ever so soft and slightly sweet and tinged with a caramel brown colour. It was simply delicious and one could keep eating those circles with the waffle like tiny square impressions, without a break.

Payaa is goat or lamb trotters cooked to perfection over several hours and served in thin spicy gravy while Nihari is a stew made from beef or lamb, the pieces being traditionally prepared with spices and then cooked overnight or for 6-8 hours till really soft and tender. Nihari is now very popular in Pakistan where it was taken by the Delhi Muslims and is also known as a breakfast curry; a delicacy once enjoyed only by the upper echelons of society, for its rich taste and subtle variations.

Payaa as made in the South is very different; either in a tamarind based gravy or in a coconut based gravy. Here it was spicier (which surprised me) and also had more of the rich mutton flavor than any overpowering spice. The Nihari was thicker and a bit creamier though I don’t think it was because of any additional fat, rather the mutton stock itself thickening and reducing as the pieces cooked in it.

The service was warm and friendly with our waiter gently prodding us on to order some more rotis to mop up the gravy and then some more gravy to finish the rotis, till everyone was so stuffed they could hardly breathe. All in all, a really great foodie experience!

I think it would be a good idea to do this kind of breakfast only once in 6 months ……but I will definitely want to come back to Old Delhi and Chandni Chowk to explore it’s other treasures.


Happy cook said...

Yuppis when we were in delhi we too went to Karims twice in old delhi. But then it was for lunch and reallt enkoyed the food. It was a wonderful expirence, actually we had to look for the place

bee said...

yay. i see you on FBD now.

KayKat said...

Only visited Delhi a few times, never even heard of this local hangout :) But I do love that naan pic - it looks delicious!

Miri said...

Yaay!! Thanks Bee for that heads up, since I haven't even seen myself yet ;)

Miri said...

Karims seems to be an institution here....maybe next time you are here you can visit kaykat...