Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Steakhouse, Jor Bagh Delhi : Lee Chongs Grocery Store, Cannery Row

Speaking to a colleague today, i.e post Christmas, I realised, how well marketed is Christmas is, it has a brand mnemonic, cuisine, Santa, gifts, involves children. It fuels a sagging economy. Everyone gets a gift. In India its normal in a household with school going children to decorate Christmas trees, sing carols, get gifts from Santa, buy marshmallows, Christmas pudding, Mince pies. As a contrast, Lohri a north Indian winter festival involves, rural population of Punjab, punjabi couples (newly married) and families in their first year of marriage (first Lohri). Rewri makers and wood cutters and sellers benefit. That's it.

This not about Christmas or Lohri this is about an afternoon, at a store in Jorbagh,(two days before Christamas and how it is similar to a store in John Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row and in that, Lee Chong's store(Lee Chong's Heavenly Flower Store).

Steak House : Jor Bagh Delhi

Located at the sanctum sanctorum of the New Delhi's Old rich District. In the tiny and full of character Jorbagh market. This was my fourth or fifth shopping visit ( incidentally I have been billed twice, in excess). The blue blooded Dilliwallah doesn't care or check their bills. The store was set up on 12-12-1963. A break away from Khub Chand and Sons ( a famous store in CP in the 60's, however the piggery by the name Khub Chand and Bros survives). The one act play that follows has the following characters:

The Lady (shopping for bacon and ham, spectacles, fair and professor like giving- free advice)
The Daughter (from the mother and daughter separate bill duo)
The Mother (from the mother and Daughter separate bill duo)
Bikram (the overweight food show host)
Cheese buyer (gives advise on buying cheese, specs blue round neck sweater)

Parthasarthi (bureaucrat shopping on way home from abroad asks for some credit to pay for Christmas pudding from the establishment)
Kuldip Shenker (the owner of the establishment)
Vir Singh (billing, been with establishment for 42 years)
Two uninterested and demotivating store attendants call them Thapa 1 Thapa 2 (largely responsible for uncourteous behaviour)

I had gone to the store for our Christmas food shopping waiting to be served in a brown skin and brown clothes. I was giving Wengers the pass this year and was ready for a more gastronomically interesting Christmas, this year. On the list was cheese (a Pondicherry Gouda), Ham, Sausages, Rum soaked raisin Cake, Christmas pudding and if possible a cured leg of ham.As you enter the store you get an unexplainable smell a blend of stale air, cured meats, matured cheese , yeast and groceries rolled into one.

Started with buying Cheese and overheard the The lady and The Daughter go.... If it wasn't for their ham and bacon I would never come here. The Daughter: The Le Marche at Select City Walk by Sugar and Spice cuts out great slivers of ham, great for sandwiches. The Lady : Sugar and Spice sucks. I added, no, there some great cold cuts stocked at their Khan Market outlet. The Lady: Oh shucks I was just there. Under their breath The staff here is so unhelpful and impolite.

At the cheese counter, I look, I hear, The Daughter tastes smoked Gouda I try and choose the smoked gouda and pepper gouda. I talk about the Flanders's Mozzarella, The Cheese Buyer, says Flanders has a shop at Meher Chand Market In Lodhi Colony and by the way Amul's Mozzarella is the best. He buys his cheese and leaves.

I spot a Bikram an Unknown Food show host,who I had seen on TV,he had been to the Santa Village at Lapland and had covered a restaurant and Spa which offered a meal, unlimited food and Spa @ Euro 300 ! Steep ! We get talking, he asks what are you buying, we discuss my quest for the perfect sausage, he says Calcutta, I ask, in Delhi, He says Pigpo Breakfast Sausage a few Shops away, deep down I don't agree as I have tried it, my quest still continues.

Meanwhile, The Mother says out, aloud, a recipe for Pork Chops (she is getting them dressed, like she is buying and then deciding on the recipe). Bikram suggests, marinate in salt and pepper half cook, smear apple sauce and roast. Kuldip Shenker (the owner), dishes out the right foriegn "expensive"brand of apple sauce bottles and the sale is made.

Me: Desperately looking for Christmas Cake Or pudding I am offered Indian Palco which I can buy from my Anda Breadwallah, or expensive imported cake at Rs 1100/- a pound. Finally I chat up with the establishment he dishes out Mrs Walia'sStuff, ( a relative of the Mrs Bhicoo Manekshaw who runs Basil and Thyme , who I ran into at this store once before i.e Bhicoo), from under the counter. Its the Christmas puddings packed in a steel container. I ask for one.

Parthasarthi: (the bureaucrat) who is buying Ritter Choclates overhears and begs for one as well. We both get one each. Parthasarthi discusses the exotic way his wife will steam and flambe it. However , he is short of some Indian currency and asks for credit as he is coming from abroad (no credit card ? in this day and age ??)

We all patiently wait to be billed, first The cheese buyer who see buys and leaves, Bikram (buys expensive Cheddar, baked beans and some other stuff), the lady, Parthasarthi, Me, The Daughter and The Mother with separate bills and I then move out. It was more than a visit to a store it was like a congregation of foodies, at the local shrine.

This was a slice of life from an afternoon at Steakhouse, so different from the proletariat and pedestrian places I hang out at. As a part of the experiences for a Salesman's guide to eating out under Rs 100/-. This was so different and so detached. I felt like the rich old Delhi Boxwallah albeit, for a little while, raised me from my middle age and middle class existance.

So why the name Of Lee Chang's Grocery in the title of my post. You need to read the Cannery Row by John Steinbeck to see the similarity in the two stores. The cult attraction, the conversation. the late evening hangout, the exchange of recipes and everything in between.

Chong's Grocery in Cannery Row By John Steinbeck

Lee Chong's is the first location we are introduced to in the novel, the hub of commerce in Cannery Row. Lee Chong's store is truly a "general store" in which you could buy, "clothes, food both fresh and canned, liquor, tobacco, fishing equipment, machinery, boats, cordage, caps, pork chops. You could buy at Lee Chong's a pair of slippers, a silk kimono, a quarter pint of whiskey and a cigar. You could work out combinations to fit almost any mood." Almost everyone in the area owes money to Lee Chong, but he is generous with his debtors because he has found they will usually pay him back rather than make the long trek to the next nearest store over in New Monterey. Its also said what you cant get at Lee Chongs Heavenly Flower Grocery you can at Dora's.

Unfortunately, there isn't a Dora's at Jorbagh.

The parting shot.

Today is Boxers or Boxing Day : Why is it called That ?

What the estimated price of Christmas pudding for a pound and two pounds at your favourite outlet ?

So Long !

I know a lot of you are reading, please do leave a comment its quite easy. Love and wishing you all a Happy new year. 2009 will be fine.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Kwality and Gaylord:The First Family of Restaurateurs (Restaurant wallahs)

It all began with ice cream. The British had a settlement in whats now Palika Bazaar and Iqbal Singh Ghai and Purshottam Lal Lamba started making hand churned Ice Cream, sold at the Regal building in Delhi. This was in Circa 1939 . In 1942 an American dropped in and tipped them to keep their business open after the late night show at Regal. This changed their fortune and friendship grew into family and Lamba married Ghai's sister and then what, they got into the restaurant business and started Gaylord. The "G" from Ghai and "L" from Lord. Thank goodness they did not call it Lordgay. But, those were innocent times and gay in the 40's in Delhi was an unknown word (in the current context). Though some historians feel Lord Krishna was termed as Gaylord in the indian context in an innocent way gay meaning happy.

PL Lamba started the Kwality resturant (misspelt as a marketing gimmick that Absolut vodka would follow 4o years later). I think Lamba meant Quality in the Punjabi way. Then came the partition of India and Pakistan and lots of family came and settled in various parts of India, there was a Kwality every where started in Bombay, Calcutta and at my last count there was or had been a Kwality in Mumbai, Kolkatta, Bangalore, Amritsar, Chennai, Nagpur, Chennai, Chandigarh, Patiala,Jamshedpur,Kanpur, Pune, Dehradun, Nagpur, Baroda,Goa, Agra, Mysore, Lucknow, Udaipur, Dalhousie , Vizag and some others I could not trace. All had some family linkage, brother, uncle cousin, son in law, old employee and so on. To the extent my friend and senior blogger Sandip Ghose tells me (he was in HUL, then HLL) that they had to buy the Kwality brand many times over as there was so many other claimants after the deal was done.

Meanwhile Gaylord made inroads abroad, 1946 to 1957, there was a Gaylord Indian Restaurant in Delhi, Bombay, London, Japan, Chicago New York. These were more stylised restaurants with a continental food experience, with a live band and an esoteric feel of a european fine dining experience. While Kwality stuck to the North Indian cuisine and popularised and immortalised the humble channa bhatura (the Pindi channa, a recipe of a halwai who came in from Rawalpindi and Lamba met in 1948 on a vacation at Mussorie). The dish is still a show stopper at Kwality, Delhi and in all their catering do's.

The story of Jay and Veeru progressed (Lamba and Ghai) expanded their footprint Kwality into Kwality Ice Cream amd the mantle from Pl Lamba was taken over by his astute son Sunil Lamba. Who further, expanded to Kwality catering besides expanding the footprint to 49 restaurants. Mean while the sons of Iqbal Ghai (Ravi and Sanjeev) were busy with Gaylord restaurants abroad, The Natraj hotel on Marine Drive (1960-1999)(which is now The Intercontinenal at the Marine Drive in Mumbai). It had the legendary RG's discotheque named after Ravi Ghai. They even started the Gaylord Ice cream with Yankee Doodle Ice cream parlours (though they now hold the Baskin Robbins franchise in India). Now have expanded to Mayfair Banqueting and Hot Breads.

So what was it that drove these men to develop brands which like the Moti Mahal which are faked in most cities in the world from Vegas to Kobe, from San Francisco to Sacramento, London to Birmingham there is Gaylord or even a Kwality everywhere in the world Krishan Kripalani has made a huge business out of Gaylord restaurants in the whole of North America without paying a cent in franchise fees to the Original owners. We think they had a tremendous vision to involve friends family and employees to set up businesses across India and across the world. Perhaps the only mistake of not registering the brand worldwide (there were hardly any systems to monitor it).

Kwality had a simple model make and sell Ice cream (a dream with cream) , and open restaurants with family for families to dine in.When Sunil Lamba came to handle the helm of affairs, his big ticket was at the Asiad Village in 1982. He opened a series of restaurants in the complex, Angeethi (frontier cuisine), Ankur (Indian Cuisine), Chopsticks (chinese cuisine), Tonic the bar amd another American fastfood restaurant, the name I forget. Which has been taken up further by his son Dhruv Lamba starting , Kwality express and Chopsticks express in Malls and Hospitals and Breads and More all over. Kwality also caters at the Delhi Gymkhana Club.

My experiences, began as a child at the Kwality restaurant at Vizag (aka Visakhapatnam), where the owner Mr Johar would call his waiters as Samosa, Bhatura and me and my brother Sanjiv found that very funny and even do so now. While my wife Praveen while growing up in Patiala and Chandigarh, had many fine dining experiences to share about Kwality.As we grew and met we had visited several Kwality and a few Gaylords all over India (like adding dot pins to the map of India).
So quite like a Sher -e -Punjab Dhaba there was a Kwality everywhere.Who can forget their first Choc bar, or the Mango Duet, the Choconut and the even now, prevalent, Kassatta (much copied but never the same)

Niloufer Billimoria my then boss at Times of India at Mumbai, many years ago perhaps in 1993 took us to the Gaylord (at Church Gate, Mumbai) and ordered a hearty meal of Waldorf Salad, Baked Alaska, Chicken Strogonoff and ended it with an ice-cream and she ordered coffee. As a dining experience we have had better experiences at Gaylord than at the Kwality which is largely remembered for the exhorbitantly priced Channa Bhatura and perhaps the butter chicken.

Add Image

I tip my hat to these extraordinary gentlemen i.e Ghai and Lamba who taught most of India how to use cutlery a serviette and the table cloth made of Damask and offered a fine dining experience and fairly good and sometimes great food at an affordable price for the middle and upper middle class India. In a recent Big fat Kapoor wedding a few weeks ago I savoured the Fish Orly and fat Kakori Kababs, the Biryani, Taar Meat and of course the Channa Bhatura. Impeccable.

Request anyone to give the current and exact price of :
A) Channa and Bhatura's at Kwality Delhi (as they are priced seprately) ?
B) The Price of the Kassatta ice cream (Kwality Walls) Currently ?

So Long !

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

St Stephens Cafe : Then and Now

I did not go to St Stephens college to study. However, like the children of a lesser God. I have visited the Cafe, (as it was and is called instead of the commonly called canteen) several times. The last I must have visited would have have been in circa 1985. When I was studying at KMC (lovingly called Karl Marx College, which was fashionable then and perhaps again with fall of capitalism).

I visited The Cafe at St Stephens college today with a colleague Shantanu. It was like shaking hands with an old friend, like the smell of a place I have been before. I was a little lost in the maze of corridors as we entered from the western side. The students and visiting students had distinct differentiators in the looks and clothing department. The students, gentlemen, wore, sweaters, sweatshirts, jeans (unwashed), floaters, slippers sandals and a sling bag, with an emphasis on mufflers and long scarves. Pretty much what they wore in the winter in my salad days (23 years ago). And the ladies very pretty much dressed in the same shaggy look as the unwashed men. The fashion for both gentlemen and ladies, is to flaunt their intellect and not their looks. They are the shishyas (disciples) of Amitav Ghosh,Upmanyu Chaterjee, Alan Sealy and Khushwant Singh.

We walked in through a large hall with rattan chairs painted yellow, read the menu on the notice board and calibrated my memory 23 winters ago. Its uncanny as we sat down, the old waiter "Bhaiyan" or Jadunath emerged from the kitchen and said, mince and scrambled, I said yes, with toast. This was exactly my or our standard order then (they offer it to the veterans I suppose). We absorb the atmosphere, a few foreign (White Caucasian) students with a Kinley water bottle on the table. Mahesh Rangarajan, the psephologist and political analyst immersed in finishing his Veg lunch plate of rajma and rice. More shaggy sweaters and mufflers. Some getting their order of chicken curry and rice. We get talking with Mr Varma, the college employee and manager of the Cafe. It's managed by the college and the hostel mess. No contractors here. Bhaiyyan brings in our order. Its two scrambled eggs each, three toasts each, two mince cutlets each and a nimbupani. All of this costs Rs 97/- for the two of us. Much below my Rs 100/- mark (for the Salesman's guide to eating out- Local exotica). This would have cost about under Rs 20/- in 1985.Its quite a large plate and helping.

The taste was just as I had left it 23 years ago, the brilliance in the mince and the quality of the nimbu pani. The mince was a potato cutlet with a keema embryo, nice. The toast and butter, as toast and butter is supposed to be. The scrambled egg had all the shortcomings it had even then, onions can never cook with the eggs and tomatoes, so you have crunchy onions, with a gooey, egg and tomatoes with a strong eggy smell, almost like a parsi home in the morning. And no, ketchup to dowse it. They served a feedble mint and tamarind chutney masquerading as a sauce. Listen how much can you talk and mince words and over analyse, a mere Rs 97/- lunch. However there is no price tag for these memories revisited.

When did the Stephens cafe slip in the lunch plate veg as well as non veg plate is something I forgot to ask. I would urge the more knowladgeable Stephanians and other children of a lesser God like me (visitors and guests to the cafe) to enlighten us. Well today i.e , December 03, 2008 the non veg plate was, chicken curry and rice at Rs 30/- and the veg plate rajma and rice was Rs 20/-. At seeing the punjabisation of the menu was almost like paradise lost. But, what the hell everything else was pretty much the same. The same waiters, Jadunath has been their since 1976, the rattan chairs have been there since I visited last. And more importantly the original menu of scrambled and mince was absolutely the same at the cost of repeating myself.

Filled to the gills we stepped out to the tea and nimbu pani stall in the memory of the two miles (3.2 km ) onSundays, so called cross country open to all students and ended here with free nimbu pani and a samosa. We had one each,what the heck.
Now for the parting questions,
Who is the owner of the Nimbu pani and Samosa stall, name please ?
Can someone also please tell when did the cross country stop and why ?

So Long !

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Jai Jawan : An Indian Army Soldiers, Food Guide.

Napoleon did say an Army marches on its stomach. The corporate jugglers often say that most battles are won on an empty stomach. Its hard to tell who is right.

The Indian soldier, comes, from largely a rural background and represents a large amount of diversity from the regions, states, clans, tribes. However the greatest leveller is the food in the langar. There are a few nomenclatures or terms of reference, I would like to clarify at the outset (using the language of an Indian officerspeak).

Langar :Cook house and dining hall for ORs, ie other ranks including non commissioned officers or NCOs). The cook is called langari.You see a world war two langari here.

Tadka group :A group of Jawans who are friends, who temper their food with Ghee, tomatoes, onions and chillies to make it tasty and sometimes edible.

Issue day : The day of the week when rum is issued to ORs on payment or free, largely coincides with the meat preparation day.

Badakhana: Feast which happens at the platoon, company and Battalion in a unit, to mark a celebration, event or a festival, with food drink and singing and entertainment.

Rations :The amount of cereals, meat vegetables and condiments issued individually or enmasse to the troops Langar.

Fresh: Loosely Vegetables, Fruit, Meat and eggs issued twice or thrice week.

Field Rations : Usually issued to High altitude areas, or Field areas, with liberal use of largely unpalatable or dated tinned food as in fruit, vefetable, meat (which needs definite intervention from the Tadka group). Sometimes experimental (packaged food) stuff from DRDO (defence research and development oraganisation), the same guys who contribute in putting together missiles and nuclear devices.

MOH: Meat on hoof, alive goats to be slaughtered at the unit level.

Wet Canteen :An institution to hang around, also called the Bania, stocks cold samosas, pakoras, sweets and mithai made few days ago. Stocks all spurious and cheap brands for easy and quick buys and 5 minute shopping at odd hours. A huge lifeline and help in far flung areas. Also extends credit on goods and is a moneylender.

A day in a soldiers life starts ( in field or in peace) with the smell of puris from the nearby langar. These puris are the size of a big tandoori roti and have salt and red chilli powder as the seasoning. These are eaten by the handfull with hot tea.A rare treat is Aloo ki subzi or petha subzi (pumpkin). In the field officers usually eat the same food with aloo and mirchi chips and sometimes anda bhujiya with lots of onions and green chillies. The soldier sticks to the puris pretty much all around the year. Breafast is between 7 and 8am. However, you eat, when you get a chance.

The tea at mid morning is namak para, shakar para or a sugary ball of gram fried and called a bonda. This sometimes supplemented by samosas, besan ladoo or burfi from the wet canteen. These are are usually paid by the person who loses a bet based on physical or mental prowess.The payback is stuff from the wet canteen.

Lunch is usually a hot meal, rotis with lots of atta stuck on them (they have to be clapped together to get the atta or flour off), subzi (vegetable any seasonal stuff depending on fresh ration, aloo gobhi, gajar, just aloo), and dal which is the langar dal. Vegetarian platoons get milk instead of meat and eggs and the Jats make great kari pakoda. There is sometimes egg curry but seldom meat, unless its muslim unit or sub unit. There is rice nearly everyday. So basic stuff , Roti, subzi, dal and rice. Most soldiers have all of it served in one utensil (quite like sai baba), rather than take aThali and eat it comfortably. Some just reat out of a saucepan or mess tin (put in the dal and subzi together) and scoop it out with rotis. Whilst there some who eat zestfully with supplementing with a salad of tomatoes, onions and cucumer with green chilli. Procured from the wet canteen or the nearest habitation and brought in by a dispatch rider. He is usually the lifeline of lesser the mortals with the outside world.

Evening tea is hurried affair and seldom consumed and usually nothing other than plain tea. Busy with games allocation of work or just plain "working" or fatigue.

Dinner on issue day adds buoyancy in the stride as issue days are usually coupled with meat ration or fresh ration days. Most persons take the effort to bathe and dress in mufti's the tadka group gets active. The ghee from home in the kit bag is taken out, the disptch rider has been ordered with the required condiments and masalas and we are all set. Rum is issued after the roll call. The menu tonite is Meat, usually a spicy curried meat with lots of gravy. Its a delight to eat it with the rajputs, they make it the spiciest best. Eaten with flour dusted rotis (now you don't care) and pretty much nothing else, although there is dal, subzi and rice. The treat is meat curry (hot) with rotis or just with hot rice. Sometimes there is kheer. Now is the time for idyllic bidis and sometimes drunken brawls. the day has come to an end. The guys who do not drink do the guard duties whilke the tipplers rest it out. Huge camraderie. There is a simplicity to this life. Sometimes too simple, pickle, savoury or sweet makes all the difference in and otherwise humdrum life. More on the Badakhana later.

Now a quick question to the army buffs what is this metal contraption called ?

So Long !

Friday, November 14, 2008

Cantonment food of the Mughals : Nahari

Imagine eating Shanks of Meat cooked to a tender mish mash of meat , gravy and flavours with rotis early in the morning for break fast. Welcome to the world of Nahari, Paya (Kharode in Punjabi and Trotter's Gravy or stew in English) Halim. Why in heaven would anybody start the day with a bang (meat, spices, fat) with thick rotis.

Most urban sensibility, would say, can't handle such stuff in the morning, maybe after a bout of mindless drinking, such spicy and flavour full food is okay. Hang on, Nahari at the crack of dawn was not designed for you and me. It was designed as Lashkari Khana (Cantonment food), for the robust medieval soldier of the armies of the Turko Afghans, Persian Invaders and armies on the move, an animal (a large one, could feed a few hundreds). The added flavour and the fix of carbohydrates would sustain the soldiers till the evening meal.
Nahari, the traditional early in the morning breakfast has a home in the Muslim residential areas. Its a dish cooked in Degh (as big as 500 litre water tank), shanks of beef (thigh), cooked to a consistency of a gravy or paste with over 36 spices and laden with fat called "ghee".The well known artisans are in Delhi, Lucknow, Bhopal ,Hyderabad, Mumbai and Kolkatta. I am sure there are hidden ones in Barielly, Kanpur, Aligarh and several other medieval cantonments of India.
My first and extreme experience was a few weeks ago in Delhi. The famous Nahari joints (cannot call them restaurants, which are based on the precincts of the walled city, each precinct has one famous one) apart from Karims are Haji Noora, Sarabati, Kallu Nahari, Siddique etc.I joined a group of enthusiasts from a community called eating out in Delhi. We met at the crack of dawn at 7 am at the metro station Pul Bangash took a short trek to Bara Hindu Rao area and not the hospital (headed to Filmistan, a road adjacent to the mouth of Bahadurgarh road) lead me to Haji Noora. He is known as the high priest of Nahari, has been around for nearly three to four decades in this avtaar I am sure its an ancestral art from the times of Babur and before).
We step into Haji Noora's cook house cum eatery, remove shoes and settle in with a melee of morning breakfasters, ranging from (us Discovery Channel types, is what we are referred to), to beggars, chowkidaars, shopkeepers, workers and enthusiasts. We crowd in, the Head of Nahari service Shaifuddin (serving it with utmost arrogance) asks with ghee or without. We say, without, its already swimming in fat. Head of Rotis, regards us with a little circumspection (Discover Channel Types you know), serves Rotis as they come out of the Tandoor (an army of people at the assembly line of rotis). After six Naharis and Rotis and a princely sum of Rs 144/- as the bill, we immerse in the eating.
My enthusiasm does not allow me to overcome the lack of hygiene (which reminds me of my grandfather and then, my mothers quote, Food- cooked by a muslim chef in hindu kitchen served on the table in english style). As muslims khansamas, are legendary in their cooking prowess, hindu kitchens are known for the cleanliness and the British in the pre partition India were known for the table service). The Nahari is at best a very spicy and a flavourfull gravy with very tender and pulverised paste of the meat and marrow. Its served in a chipped white enamel bowl, with Maida rotis which are nice. They have run out of Nalli Nahari and are soon running out of Nahari Its only 7.45 am The room has green paint and an old framed article from a hindi newspaper. All the workers clothes and belongings in nooks and crannies. Its an experience try it.

We walk out and have something sweet Suji (semolina) Halwa (like fudge) , with a piece of a massive Puri, its served as, some halwa on this bed of puri or Bhatura. Its sweet and its Rs 10/- per pop or person. Its well well below my under Rs 100/- local exotica (eating out guide of a salesman) this was at Rs 34/- a person. For nearly bRs 210/- six persons ate well. This is in October 2008 with an all time high inflation in India. Which goes back to my earlier post on cost of Muslim food, its got to do with the propensity to pay by the, largely muslim clientele and the economies of scale of large volumes in Muslim eateries in India.
Now, to all the Nahari enthusiasts, spot the Haji Noora outlets in pictures 1, 2, 3 or 4. Will write more on the food of the contemporary Indian soldier.
So Long !

Friday, October 31, 2008

Mystery of Motimahal : Spot the Original

Have been contemplating, who's photo should be the lead photo,
butter chicken or the man who created butter chicken.Now, like the Mona Lisa preceeds, Leonardo Da Vinci, similarly butter chicken preceeds, Kundan Lal Gujral. Surprisingly, there are more fake , remake, replicas, rehashes of Motimahal restaurants across
the world, than the Mona Lisa.

The story began percolating within me nearly a week ago when we visited, Motimahal restaurant in Daryaganj, New Delhi. This was a pre-diwali team lunch. The objective was to go to the real Motimahal and trace the roots of popular Tandoori cooking in India. The owner, took our order, rather we took his recommendations and ordered, butter chicken boneless, keema, brain curry and rotis and the vegetarians did a hit and trial of tandoori gobhi, daal makhni, kadhai paneer nad something else and rotis. Overall we loved our food, excellent service, 3-4 waiters to table of 10. We befriend the staff, the oldest worker for 41 years, Joshi, Ijaaz Khan 17 years and the owner Vijay Chadha..... Vijay Chadha..... Its meant to be owned by the legend and his family name should be Gujral.

Thats when I decided to dig deep and find out clarity in the maze and matrix of Motimahals all over India and the world over. We all know Kundan Lal Gujral worked in a restaurant in Peshawar called Motimahal started in 1920 with the partition, he set up shop in the tony precinct of Darya Ganj in 1947 and rest is history with visits and patronage from Bulganin, Kruchchev, Gorbachov, Nixon, Kennedy, Trudeau, Zakir Hussain, Maulana Azad, Shah of Iran and most importantly, Nehru and then his daughter Indira Gandhi. Catering by Motimahal was famous at banquets and state functions even Sanjay Gandhi's wedding was catered in part or whole by them. Gujral was a rockstar among statesmen and film stars, and was often visited by Sunil Dutt, Dilip Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, Nargis even Jackie Kennedy.

So then what happened, whats the problem, though I know the original genesis was in independent India, are all the Motimahal's in India part of the same group. With a comprehensive research, we find out that the biggest mistake Lala Kundan Lal Gujral made was that he did not register the trade mark and proprietary rights.

Original - One
The Original site at Daryaganj which was establisheed in 1947 and claims it has no branches is now owned by Vijay Chadha, who bought the tenancy rights in 1992 and also claims to be the original.

Original- Two
Then there is the Moti Mahal India Or Moti Mahal group, pioneered by Amrit Lal Kohli began with Moti Mahal Deluxe in Greater Kailash I in 1975 , South Extension, Noida, Ashok Vihar and so on followed. They claim on their website true decendants and blue (sorry butter) blood. (5/6) restaurants)

Original - Three
Moti Mahal Deluxe Hospiatality Limited owned by Ashim Gujral has Moti Mahal Restaurants and Bar directly owned or in the franchisee model (nearly 19 of them) across India, Jammu, Chandigarh, Mumbai Bandra West and so on. The food claimed to original, however is not obsessively puratanical.They also include sizzlers, continental and other cuisine in their menu.

Original -Four
Moti Mahal Management services Ltd, pioneered by Monish Gujral, who got immensely active in 2005 and has opened 52 restaurants primarily in malls across India with the brand name Moti Mahal Deluxe- Tandoori Trail.This group has the media's attention and share of voice. Newspapers and showhosts are eating out of his palm, without perhaps knowing the entire truth.

Original 100001
All across nthe world from Calgary to Warsaw, Singapore, Toronto, Melboune, Chicago, several in London there is a Moti Mahal all claiming to be the real Mc Coy. The real thing with the real lineage.

However, in our reserach Original Number Three and Original Number Four are as close in family name to the original and can claim to be the decendants of Kundan Lal Gujral and therefore of Moti Mahal. But hang on! it does not matter, if , its a belligerent rooster or a timid chicken, the taste is in the eating and in the sauce, if you like it and enjoy the experience thats the original one for you. I had to demystify things, I think I have come close.........
p.s parting shot can any one recognise amongst the two dishes (in the photos above) which is more authentic
p.p.s Hindustan Times Cafetaria (my previous employer the newspaper and not the Cafe) called News Cafe is catered by Moti Mahal (wonder which one)

So Long

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bengalooru mornings : MTR Vs Vidyarthi Bhavan

Waking up at the crack of dawn, hanging out with newspaper vendors and having(1/2) called " by two coffee" is definitely not a privilege of a newspaper circulation/ distribution executives job in any part of the world. However, soon after having the choice of an early breakfast at the local exotica with the team is certainly a privilege I definitely cherished.

The city is Bangalore, business is over and its only 6a.m. A brisk walk in Lalbagh and we are ready for breakfast. The option is hop across to MTR (Mavalli Tiffin Room), the high priest of Doasas and Karnatesque breakfast cuisine, or the highly recommended Vidyarthi Bhavan. Both have their huge following. MTR with the Discovery Channel and Vir Sanghvi crowd.Whilst ,SM Krishna (the erstwhile Chief Minister of Karnatka) often drops in at Vidyarthi Bhavan. I choose to go to both, we have to get up every morning in any case (we are launching Mint the business paper with Wall street Journal), we have to congregate for breakfast in any case. Kanan, my friend and then Head of Circulation organises a breakfast meetings with the team or vendors or distributors everyday. I get to sample local exotica. The only serious clause the price has to be under Rs 100/- per head which here in Bangalore is not at all difficult.

Amongst all the varied breakfast places we went to, the MTR and Vidyarthi debate was the most prominent with both places evenly poised. MTR is two storied has a smoky, old world look with waiting benches and and easy and relaxed waiters with barefeet, knee length hitched lungis. The dosas served with ghee and chutney (sambhar on request), The idli and khara bath (a kind of upma) are served with chutney and sambhar and when they run out of chutney and sambhar, which they often do at 9am.They serve these with a potata gravy (the kind eaten eith pooris in south India). The service is relaxed, there are some oldies and senior citizens having their weekly bash. This is heartland Kannadiga belt of Bangalore. Anyone who believes Bangalore is truly cosmopolitan, needs to do a reality check after visiting Lalbagh, MTR and Gandhi bazaar. The whole experience is very different from any other south Indian food experience ever before.The prices, idli, Rs10/- Masala dosa 20/- Kesari Bath/ Kara Bath Rs 20/- cofee Rs 15/- any which way you van eat very well under rs 100/-. They encourage you to visit their enormous and clean kitchen.Basically a place to come in regularly and when one is not in a great hurry. Relax ! is the tone.
Now Vidyarthi Bhavan, it comes highly recommeded by the locals, has a huge fan following, its the unglamorous but more talented of the two siblings. The take on dosas is very different, almost a thick caramellised crust. The tast lingers on for hours, the service is unobtrusive and prompt. Our waiter Vasu has spent over 20 years at the outlet in Gandhi Bazaar. We order idli , vadas and dosas and coffee its Rs 17/- Rs 9/- Rs 12/- Rs 6/- respectively. I remember I went with my wife Praveen, who was visiting Bangalore, we both ate very well for Rs 75/- in all. It was Ganesh Chaturti the whole of Gandhi Bazaar wore a very festive look. Decked with flowers vegetables and fruits. The restaurant is very ordinary, a blink and you miss it. Situated in about a 200 sq metres plot of land, squeezed between shops. Its long narrow hall, with a cash counter as you enter.

Both these places as you can see with the menu boards attached, offer a meal fore under Rs 100/- (definitely recommended for my Salesman's guide to eating out). My vote definitely goes with Vidyarthi Bhavan for the food, umm the taste lingers on and MTR for the experience.

My question to you, can you recognise the Vidyarthi Bhavan dosa out of the two attached pictures.

So Long.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Rekong Peo and Kalpa : Journey unlimited in US$ 65

Walking in the park with my Junkie friend Sanjoo in 2006, he mentioned a non stop state roadways that goes from Delhi to Rekong Peo (in Kinnaur, located on the Old Hindustan Tibet trade road/route). I had to go there. Tried a couple of times, something or the other came up.Finally, I and Sandeep Gupta walked into the sunset all set for a 20 hours, 800 kms and Rs465/ journey.

We left Delhi in the HPSR (Himachal Pradesh State Roadways) bus on Wednesday October 01, 2008 evening at 8.10 pm . Reached Rekong Peo with 5 halts (including nature breaks, meals, tea and temple halts and two tyre punctures) at 5.15 pm on Thursday 02, 2008 .Not satisfied with journey so far and the PWD rest house at Rekong Peo we went further 13 kms and a few hundred metres above sea level to live at the beautiful village Kalpa and the very nice Circuit House. Offering perhaps one of the best views of the Kinner Kailash range and the legendary Shivling, Parvati Kund, Jorkandan peak and the adjoining Raldang snow clad mountains.

We made the trip of 4 nights, 1800 kms and 12 meals and entertainment of IMFL and other miscellaneous within Rs 3000/ a person. This sounds unbelievable for the price of a night out at a pub we explored within ourselves and the world outside for US$ 65 (at current conversion rates) and enjoyed the whole experience. We ate well, lived well and drank well, it seems amazing. We did not start with a budget, somewhere half way in the trip we decided to beat the inflation and do it under Rs 3000/- and live to tell the tale.

Reekong peo is the District HQ of Kinnaur and Kalpa is the erstwhile District HQ and now declared aUnesco heritage village. It has a thousnd year old buddhist monastery which was burnt and then again rebuilt in the 50s. Kalpa was an outpost on the Old Hindustan Tibet trade road and route and strong junction on the Silk route.

Walking in the same park this time with Mr Chaterjee and and Mr Mehnditatta (as I fondly call them) , they mentioned about the Kinnauri Apsaras, mentioned in the Vedas and the Puranas, and their celestial beauty. We ratify that Lord Shiva, was right, to come to the legendary village of Kalpa as his winter abode. The women are pretty and easy to talk to. We even visited a local house to buy the local brew called Ghanti (bell, does ring a bell, made from apples, apricot and grapes) and the women wanted to chat up and next day in the village square they were again chatty. Kinnaur is the apple orchard haven and each house is allowed to make 24 bottles of local wine for their own consumption and for religious purposes.
Ghanti comes in two formats, light and strong, the legendary stuff comes from a village called Ribba. To test the potency, you dip your finger and then light the fire, the liquid burns and your finger is intact, thats strong and that retails at Rs 100/ a bottle and the light one is like a potent wine and does not light up retails at Rs 50/. We hated it and gifted the only bottle we bought to the Circuit house staff Joban Dass the housekeeper and Narendar the cook at Kalpa.

The main occupation in the valley is apple farming. The variety is the Royal Red and Delicious which are red and very juicy and very crunchy they sell at wholesale price ranging from Rs 800 to Rs 1200 for a cardboard box of 20 kg. This year the apple farmers were worried, as the size of apples is very small and they were red and ripe even at the size of a plum. Most attributed it to ecological imbalance and change in climatic conditions.

The ecological imbalance can be attributed to the creation or devastation (depends on how you look at it) of the several hydro electric power plants of HPEC (Himachal Pradesh Electricity Corporation) Jaypee Group who are collectively producing 3000 MW through several plants at Nathpa Jhakri, Baspa, Karcham, Wangtu and so on. Basically they are trying to harness the wild apaloosa of a 1500km long Satluj river. Block it , divert it, tunnel it. As a result the constant blasting has led to the place looking like a war torn territory and shaken the foundations of the mighty mountains. Resulting in landslides and silting of the river. It looks like a serious catastrophe in waiting.

WE were lucky to stay in the HP PWD Circuit house at Kalpa, with hot meals, hot water, warm beds and heated rooms, all for Rs 200/- a night, inclusive of tips we paid Rs 600/- for everything for two nights. We stayed in the old wing which was a wooden bungalow of the British era, with two bedrooms, two toilets, dining room and a lounge with glass windows with a view of the snow clad mountains.On the way back we stayed at Narkanda, HP Pwd Rest house another British era rest house spent two hundred rupees for dinner and stay of two persons for the night.

The food on the trip was average to poor as Himachalis are average cooks and could not savour the non vegetarian cuisine as I was a vegetarian, so no momos, thukpas and Khadus (mountain goat) and Bhedu (sheep). We stuck to the Aloo Paratha, Puri Aloo, Cutlets for breakfast and Rajma Rice, Roti, Vegetables and Dal for Lunch and Dinner. The locales made up for the lack of gastronomic appeal. As my grandfather often said, great locales, poor food, poor locales great food.

We did challenge ourselves to some degree, of our physical limits travelling 40 hours in a bus out of the96 hours we stayed out, walked for 11-12 hours and were shooting the breeze and sleeping the balance 44 hours. The last time I did anything close to the this physical exhaustion was when I drove down alone in an Opel Astra in 27 hours from Mumbai to Delhi (in 2000), while truckers take 72 hrs. It did rejuvenate me and makes me feel alive.
We got to do a day climb, to a peak called Chaka above Kalpa at about 15000ft. It had a water source called Chaka and a small lake. It was like a pasture land for the summers. Truly Lord Shiva chose an ideal place to relax through winter.

The highlight of the trip are the economic commercials, my companian Sandeep will be deeply disappointed (for all the hardship I caused), If the details are not shared.Transport 1215.00,Stay Rest Houses for three nights 450.00, Food, booze, guide and all other trivia, mineral water, choclates, ghanti etc 1665.00 in all Rs 3000.00 with some loose change to spare. Long live Bhola and Ghanti.
So Long

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Railway Journey Food :Towns Unlimited

This is how my parents travelled and visited dining cars in their train travel. Its a pity we let go of the fabulous institution of the railway dining car, apart from the contrived and over priced palace on wheels, which also have modern and tacky luxury coaches and dining cars, since they were converted to broad gauge.

Its seldom we see modernity and tradition being married together. I remember stories told by father about the luxurious rail travel, a travelling salesman from the late 50s- through the 60s and some part of 70s until he switched to air travel. Travelling with an orderly, always first class with bandobast for the chotta peg (scotch) and tin of cigarettes (state express 555). He was working for a english boxwallah company. The railway dining car, the dining rooms and the retiring rooms in towns and moffussil Casbahs were particularly luxuriant especially when travelling in first class. Its poor cousin would be the Kingfisher First Lounges in India today.

Food was nice and developed a fan following with many chefs, the railway food has been glamourised in the Raj era cusine and the Anglo India Cuisine, Railway mutton cutlets (with and without gravy), railway mutton curry at the Tiffin at the Oberoi. Th Oh! Calcutta Anglo Indian menu plagiarises the railway menu of that era. Even restaurants in London, the old and famous Coomaraswamy, erstwhile Chutney Mary and the three year old Sola Topee in Gurgaon glamourise and apes what is basically the erstwhile railway food.

Travelling up to Shimla from Kalka in first class in 1990, which is pretty much the current era, as a family, Dad challenged what would you like to order for lunch.We said get real we will get cold thalis. We got the option of tea in a set on the go (in the train) and fresh chicken curry and rice, served at Barog, railway station refreshment room. Yes it did happen. He got a wire sent through the railways with our order. He knew the beat and the system, therefore he struck a rapport with the old timers and extracted the last show of the Raj opulence for his family.

Many such stories, rendevous of my parents in the retiring room in Barielly, my dad travelling on work from Lucknow, my mom though married, finishing her final year at Miranda house. They agreed to meet at Barielly for sneaking a weekeend at Nainitalin the late 50s. The quality of retiring rooms was pretty good and the corporate world piled on to the government machinery (the retiring rooms, the dak bungalow, the circuit house, forest rest houses, PWD rest houses in the absence of decent hotels). I have exprienced some even in my time.

The railway restaurant in Barog and perhaps 300 others were termed railway refreshment rooms, were run by the Spencers chain (which is now acquired by RPG enterprises and runs retail chains). Spencers were always in the retail business, ran stores in the high street of urban India and also stores in Cantonements and Tea Plantation towns and hill stations (basically where there was a clientle). More importantly, the hotel and restaurant business with the Connemara in Madras (Now with The Taj), and of course the railways and the retiring rooms and the liveried waiters. The yummy continental food. One does see a hint of that even today, in a weak genetic strain.

In my research, on railway food I came across this mailway menu designed a few years ago. You can see the continental food lineage of the Spencers of Catering A-La-Carte items sold in the Pantry cars, Refreshment Room/Stalls (w.e.f 1.6.2003), one still sees roast mutton , chicken cutlets, tea and coffee in a set.the genetic code is still alive.

The railways and its peripheral facilities were used by lots of well to do people as a hub, to rest, change, recuperate, eat drink and meet. There are interesting films in the Hindi film circuit, which have the retiring rooms as the back drop of the story, especially the Rekha, Anooradha Patel and Naseeruddin film of the 80's called Ijazzat. A must see, which raises the nostalgia of train travel.The fantastic hotel on the beach (now receeded, and taken over by the Chanakya group of Patna) at Puri and Ranchi called the BNR Hotels... Bengal Nagpur Railway Hotel. All relics of the Raj, offerered unique and differentiated experiences.

Why did we let it all ago to immerse ourselves into the aluminium foil and styrofoam culture we eat and drink like this in the railways now Pictureses attached

Though a recent thread on recently made a mention of interesting foods on the various stations in the Indian circuit. There are still some hidden gems and experiences. Like my Grandfather said, good visual beauty and locales in the journey, usually bad food on the stations, bad locales and boring journey great food. Lucky to get both. My favourite staions are on the Kalka- Shimla railway line, including Kalka, awarded the cleanest station many time over, of course Barog (as mentioned before) and Sheogi, short of Shimla on a saddle awesome beauty.

Stations to visit and eat the following specialities (picked from

Pune - Tea, Misal, and Patties in the canteen Karjat - Batata vada / vada pav (Potato snack) Lonavala - Chocolate Fudge / Cashewnut Chikki (cashewnut brittle candy) Neral - Seasonal Jambhool fruit Khandala - Seasonal Jamoon fruit (plums) Solapur - Kunda (sweet barfi) Kolhapur - Sugarcane juice Miraj - Saar and Rice Hubli - Hubli rice (Curd rice (yogurt rice) with onions, chile peppers, and pickles) Mysore - Dosa Tiruchirapalli - Bondas in several variations Hyderabad - Chicken biryani Calicut (Kozhikode) - Dal vada Quilon - Rasam Mangalore - Egg Biryani Ernakulam - Fried yellow bananas Nagpur - Bhujia, and oranges Guntakal - Mango jelly Chennai Central - Samosas, idli, dosa Rameshwaram - Idiuppam (Rice Noodles) Agra - Petha (candied pumpkin) New Delhi - Aloo chat (tangy potato snack) Indore - Farsan Ahmedabad - Vadilal ice-cream Surat - Undhyo (mixed vegetables) Ranchi - Puri bhaji Howrah - Sandesh Amritsar - Lassi, Aloo paratha Bangalore - Vada sambar, fresh fruit juices Jaipur - Dal bati Gandhidham - dabeli Varanasi - Seasonal amrud fruit (guava) Gorakhpur - Rabdi (a sweet made of milk and sugar) Guwahati - Tea (Assam blend) Madurai - Uthappam (spicy lentil/rice pancake) Ajmer - Mewa (Mix fruit) Vasco-da-gama - Fish curry/cutlets Ratnagiri - Mangoes, dried jackfruit Vijayawada - Fruit juices Rajahmundry - Bananas Daund - Peanuts Tirupati - Ladoos, sevai Londa - Jackfruit Allahabad - Motichur ladoos Ambala - Aloo paratha Puri - Halwah Bhubaneshwar - Dal and rice Coimbatore - Sambar-rice, tamarind-rice, lemon-rice Dehradun - Salted cucumber Gwalior, Bhopal - Boiled chickpeas with chile peppers Surendranagar - Tea with camel's milk Anand - Gota (fenugreek fritters), and milk from the dairy farm there Khambalia Junction - Potato/onion/chili fritters Dwaraka - Milk pedhas Viramgam - Fafda (ganthiya), Poori + Alu-bhaji Pendra Road - Samosas Manikpur - Cream Thanjavur - Salted cashewnuts Bharuch - Peanuts Maddur - Maddur-vade Chinna Ganjam - Cashewnuts Gudur - Lemons Panruti - Jackfruit Virudunagar - Boli (a thick sweet flat bread) Sankarankoil - Chicken biryani Srivilliputtur - Paal kova (a soft milk-based sweet) Manapparai - Murukku Abu Road - Rabri Agra- Milk Bar,Rabri at Etawah, Samosas at Mecheda on the Howrah Puri route. Rice & chicken curry at Barog.Sitabhog & Mihidana at Burdwan.Langchas at Shaktigarh.Omelletes at Mirage.Chicken cutlets at the cafeteria in Howrah station.Gulabi Rewris at Lucknow.Pethas at Agra.

More on travel soon. Will be happy to know your favourite food experiences and favourite train journey.
So Long