I spent my Eid week off in the hustle bustle of Delhi, the capital city of India. Delhi is brimming with old-world charm, and I was last here over a decade ago to shop for my wedding trousseau.
Apart from the chaotic markets clamored with colorful, exotic ware and bargain steals, Delhi is also known as a foodie destination. One of the landmarks of the city is Karim’s of Delhi, located in the heart of Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi and at a walkable distance from iconic Jama Masjid (one of India’s largest mosques built between 1644 to 1656 by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan).
Karim’s of Delhi (or Karim’s Hotel as it was originally named), was established in 1913 by Haji Karimuddin. He was the son of Mohammed Aziz, a cook in the royal court of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. However, when the Emperor was exiled, the royal chef left Delhi for Meerut, and later Ghaziabad.
Years later in 1911, the chef’s son Haji Karimuddin moved back to Delhi with an innovative idea. The Delhi Darbar was being held for the coronation of King George V, and he wanted to cater to the crowds of people coming for this royal ceremony.
Haji Karimuddin set up a ‘dhaba’ (small Indian street-side restaurant) in 1913, under the name of ‘Karim Hotel’ in Gali Kababian, near Jama Masjid, Delhi.
The menu was restricted to just Alu Ghost (a mutton and potato curry) and Daal (lentils) that were served with Rumali Roti (Indian flattened bread as thin as a handkerchief).
“I want to earn fame and money by serving the royal food to the common man”. – Haji Karimuddin (Wikipedia).
The art of royal culinary cooking was passed on to his son Haji Nooruddin and his grandsons, and today the restaurant is being run by the fourth generation and boasts of many branches across Northern India.
“Karim’s had transformed from a local purveyor of aloo gosht into a monument. It was visited by princes and prime ministers, eulogised by journalists, studied by historians, and patronised by tourists.” – Hindustan Times.
Dining at Karim’s
I had the pleasure of visiting the original branch in Chandni Chowk. The restaurant is buried behind a chaotically narrow lane of local shops and street hawkers, and a blinking neon signage on a decaying hotel building points out a narrow alley that leads to Karim’s.
More than the signage, it is the mere popularity, and the historic significance of Karim’s that has this rather modest restaurant filled with foodies. We even met a big troupe of international tourists, hiking on local rickshaws who came to pay homage to this foodie destination.
The alley leading up to Karim’s features retro signboards and two open kitchens on either side where kebabs are being grilled on open flame, and large steel pots are being meticulously stirred up exhuming the scent of decadent spices.
We got to Karim’s a little past 7, which is rather early for Indian standard time for dinner yet the place was overflowing with diners. We were ushered to a table at the back-end of the restaurant. The interiors are nothing fancy. Vinyl-white table tops that have the look of being over-scrubbed one too many times, and rickety chairs that have fostered the needs to well-fed clients predominate the space.
A few clippings of accolades from the press adorn the walls, and the staff are in a hurried frenzy serving up dollops of dishes carefully balanced on skillful hands.
Proudly Mughlai, the menu is varied yet the number of choices are limited to around a dozen for the main-course. We ordered the Mutton Korma and from their ‘Special’ section, we tried their ‘Mutton Kebab Makhni’.
The portion sizes here are quite generous, and one serving can easily suffice between three adults (or two gluttons). The korma was dense in flavors, you can taste the fried onion and sauteed whole spices in the deep brown curry. The meat was well marinated, and included portions of succulent marrow.
My favorite was the Mutton Kebab Makhni. The kebabs were divinely soft, meaty and beautifully spiced with a subtle mix of exotic spices. The creamy gravy was literally the icing on the cake, and I delved right in with freshly baked naan bread.
The service is fast, albeit rudimentary. The staff look a little frazzled and ultra busy, and you can’t really blame them with the maddening rush they need to cater to.
Overall, our historic dining experience in the heart of Old Delhi was well worth the muggy hot rickshaw ride. The place is a relic of the past, and has a certain charm that cannot be exuded in even the finest of dining places.
My family and I had a memorable time in Chandni Chowk, and also indulged in steaming hot cups of Masala Chai and Shahi Tukda (an Indian version of Bread Pudding) at a nearby stall in the alley leading to Karim’s.
Hope to be back someday soon, and try out more of their regal dishes.