The spirit of Diwali is on a high in Old Delhi. Also referred to as the walled city, the place is known as much for its landmarks as for its food joints that are steeped in history. A source of pleasure for food connoisseurs, the eateries, at one time, had celebrity clients who added to the excitement of the area. Still frequented by people from all strata of society, each outlet has a story to tell.
It is 6am and Mohammed Zainulabadin is measuring a mix of spices and transferring them into wooden boxes. These will be handed over to the cooks to prepare the various dishes at Karim’s, located near Jama Masjid mosque’s Gate No. 1. "Since it is festival time, customers begin trooping in early to have their favorite foods," Zainulabadin, the fourth-generation member of the Karim family, remarks.
The ingredients that go into the food are a closely guarded secret of the restaurant that specialises in Mughal cuisines. Founded in 1913 by Haji Karimuddin, it is famous for a variety of dishes including mutton and chicken kebabs that melt in the mouth, the irresistible mutton burra, exotic biryani, and aromatic rogan josh.
The owner reveals, "The USP was originally devised by my great grandfather Karimuddin. Our popularity lies in the same culinary skills and the spice mix used even today. All our dishes have a different recipe, aroma, colour and taste. Among our signature dishes is the burrah (goat) kebab and succulent seekh kebab that date back to the Mughal period."
The lineage runs from the time when Mohammed Aziz was a cook in the court of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar at Red Fort. As the emperor’s rule ended, Aziz moved out of Delhi. He taught his sons, including Karimuddin, to cook the royal food, asserting that it was their heritage.
Karimuddin moved back to Delhi in 1911 and started a small eatery serving aloo gosht (mutton with potatoes) and daal (lentils) with rumali roti (flat bread). Two years later, he established a restaurant, naming it Karim.
It soon became synonymous with the area. Several dignitaries, including former presidents Dr. Zakir Hussain and Dr. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, were patrons of Karim’s and often ordered its food at Rashtrapati Bhawan. In 2005, when former Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf visited Delhi, his mother, along with other family members dined at Karim’s.
Though the décor of the restaurant has never been majestic, the food is always lauded. Karim’s has since opened several branches across Delhi.
Parathe Wali Gali
History takes over at the Dariba Kalan area in Chandni Chowk as one walks past Gurudwara Sisganj Sahib. Unable to resist the whiff of pure ghee, weary festive shoppers, head towards the restaurants selling mouth-watering deep-fried parathas.
Originating in 1882, the first establishment Pt. Gaya Prasad, Shiv Charan named after the owners, enticed the foodies so much that within a few years the network expanded and several paratha shops opened in the vicinity. As the popularity of the restaurants rose, in 1911 the lane was named Parathe Wali Gali.
While the variety of stuffing in parathas was then restricted to potato, cauliflower, radish and sugar, it now includes paneer, peas, carrot, and banana. Served on steel plates, the feast is incomplete without a glass of sweet or salty skimmed milk.
Rajiv Sharma, the fifth-generation restaurateur recalls the stories heard from his elders. "We were often called to former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s residence to prepare paranthas for the family. Also, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose fondness for food and sweets is well-known, visited us a number of times when he was minister for foreign affairs."
Time worn pictures of former prime ministers, along with the owners, adorn the walls of the eatery.
The story is the same at Pt. Kanhaiya Lal Durga Prashad Dixit Parathe outlet. Pictures of former defence minister Babu Jagjivan Ram, former governor of Jammu & Kashmir Dr. Karan Singh, celebrity chef Vikas Khanna, and Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor and director Imtiaz Ali during their visits to the place, adorn the walls.
Abhishek Dixit, the fifth generation of the family, says: "Ranbir and Imtiaz came to our restaurant while shooting for Rockstar in 2010. They devoured rabri and green chilly parathas."
Dixit points out the tradition prevalent in the olden days. "People would sit cross-legged on the floor and food was served on pattal (dried broad leaves of Sai or Banyan tree stitched with tiny wooden sticks). More than a century later, all that has changed, but the tradition of serving parathas cooked in pure ghee remains the same."
Also, people now have to wait for their turn during lunch and dinner rush hours, especially during the festive season.
Nataraj Dahi Bhalla Corner
Right opposite the Parathe Wali Gali there’s jostling and shoving at a tiny kiosk. Established in 1940 by Pyarelal Sharma, the Nataraj Dahi Bhalla Corner is doing brisk business.
Chandni Chowk is famous for its street food. And the squishy bhallas (a deep-fried piece of dough that is soaked in water) at Natraj, are a rage. So is the daal-filled aloo tikki served with sweet and tangy chutney. Unlike the plain yogurt usually added to the chaat, the diversity at this outlet reflects in its sweet yogurt. Unmindful of weather conditions, people gorge on the delicacy standing on the pavement.
"Even though a few years ago a large seating arena was constructed on the floor above the tiny shop, the charm of this food is witnessed only on the street," the third-generation owner, Jatin Sharma acknowledges.
So, what special is done during Diwali?
"For us, it is festive time all the year round," he reasons. "Earlier, extra stalls were set up during the festival to cater to large crowds. However, the Covid-19 pandemic marred the celebrations last year and we are now keeping things simple."
Giani’s Di Hatti
At the outset of Chandni Chowk’s wholesale market Khari Baoli, shoppers are relishing a glass-full of rabri-falooda standing on the footpath. Unlike at some eating joints, the festival of Diwali holds a special significance at Giani’s Di Hatti. "Every year, we add items such as dal halwa, pinni and pista burfi to our menu," the owner Kuldeep Singh informs.
Giani’s history dates back to Pakistan. Singh’s grandfather Giani Gurcharan Singh arrived in India after Partition in 1947. Leaving his life’s earnings and memories of homeland behind, he carried his skills and experience of making rabri-falooda, shakes and desserts with him to Delhi.
To earn a living, he set up the shop in 1950. Adopting the popular traditional recipes, he maintained the quality of ingredients that go into the rabri. Residents in the neighbourhood loved the taste and within no time people from afar began visiting Giani’s to have a taste of the delicacy.
Singh informs, "Apart from rabri-falooda, my grandfather had perfected the art of preparing mango, banana, pineapple, and rose shakes. The items became so famous that Bollywood personalities including Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Shashi Kapoor visited to fulfill their sweet cravings."
Giani’s is a renowned brand, but the recipes remain unchanged. Over the years, Giani’s has re-invented itself into a chain of outlets, with a presence in swanky malls and upscale markets. Reaching out to a new set of high-end clients, it now also offers a variety of ice creams and fruit shakes. The company has numerous outlets across the city and franchise models in other states.