Moti Mahal, the gem in Delhi’s palate
Anyone who was born in Delhi or has grown up here in the last 45 to 50 years or more is familiar with one name—Moti Mahal—when it comes to North Indian cuisine. Most Delhiites know the name Moti Mahal since there are so many franchises all over the capital but for me and many others like me, there was just one–the Moti Mahal, which functioned from Darya Ganj (not the one which functions from there now).
The Moti Mahal where maximum number of foreigners visiting Delhi would come to have a taste of Indian food and where elegant waiters, many of them with handle bar moustaches wearing Pathani suits—Salwar Kameez and a turban wrapped around a “kulla” (a cap type head gear) would serve the best of Tandoori dishes and of course Dal makhini which every restaurant now has on its menu. Though Khyber, another very good Indian restaurant would serve food as good as Moti Mahal, it was the latter which became synonymous with good eating in Delhi for many years.
There were very few five star hotels till the late seventies and the ones which were there were not known for great cuisine. Moti Mahal, brought the Peshawari food to this city and in no time put everyone far behind. The restaurant which served the best Tandoori Chicken and fish was always packed on all days. There were two outlets next to each other in what was once an evacuee property. One of the outlets had a gate which had fish revolving in a glass case on top. The entry led to an air cooled section of the restaurant. The other outlet more spacious than the first also had top Qawwals singing in the evenings. Sheela Bano Bhopali and many like her were regular performers there.
No one could ever miss a fat cheerful man with a big moustache who also sometimes had a glass of whisky in hand greeting the visitors. He was none other than Kundan Lal Gujral, one of the three owners of Moti Mahal, Darya Ganj. His public relations was superb and he personally made it a point to look after his guests, particularly those who knew him from the Peshawar days.
My father, a doctor by profession had done his schooling in Peshawar and used to frequent Moti Mahal and Khyber there. The Moti Mahal there was owned by a gentleman named Mokha Singh and was more in the dhabha mould. It would allow those who wanted to have a drink or two to also sit inside. The Khyber was more up market and the Sethis observed strict discipline there. Kundan Lal was an employee of Moti Mahal and would also serve the customers regularly.
When Partition took place, the Sethis managed to get a place in Kashmere Gate from where they started their business. But Kundan Lal Gujral who was very enterprising took control of Moti Mahal in Delhi along with two partners. Mokha Singh who also had come to Delhi was paid a princely sum of Rs five hundred per month by his old employee for using the name. Needless to say, the entire staff of Moti Mahal, Peshawar also had moved into the new establishment. The masalchis and the chefs with their recipes introduced a new flavour to the people of Delhi.
Being a regular visitor to Moti Mahal since my childhood, I can tell you that the aroma of the spices was so good that it made you eat more and more. The same kind of Tandoori chicken has never been replicated by anyone in this country. The one served in the Moti Mahal franchises is good but not in the same class because the cooks did not leave their recipe with those who replaced them in the franchises. It was only in Butter Chicken that the Peshawari, another restaurant in Darya Ganj served a better dish but for Tandoori delights it was always, Moti Mahal and Khyber, which also is not a patch of what it was once.
The legend of Moti Mahal grew internationally and the Russians in particular were so fond of the food that when Khrushev was the Prime Minister, food used to be flown from the Darya Ganj Moti Mahal for official banquets in Moscow. It was during this time, that the Dal Makhini was perfected by the chefs of the restaurant. Every item was served with vinegar pickled onions and green mint chutney.
The presence of Moti Mahal was so overpowering that very few people ever got to hear about Karim or Jawahar though the Connaught Place restaurants like Embassy, Wengers, United Coffee House, Gaylords and Volga served excellent food too. For mutton lovers, it was always, the National, a dhabha in the outer circle of Connaught Place that was the last word though others like Kake-da-Hotel, Bhape-da-Hotel and Royal served nice food as well.
While Moti Mahal was on top, it continued to be a major landmark in Delhi. Even in DUSU elections, the restaurant was the final place where supreme councilors who used to than indirectly elect the president would be dined.
But my impression about Moti Mahal began changing in the mid seventies when I was in college. I could see deterioration setting in. The food quality deteriorated. Many staffers started leaving and Kundan Lal Gujral himself appeared more absorbed in his glass of whisky than in customers. By the mid eighties, the Darya Ganj Moti Mahal had no resemblance to what it was during my school and college going days. Franchises in South Extension and GK-I were doing well but the quality was not the same though in comparative terms, they are amongst the better franchises of Moti Mahal. Less said of the Khyber, the better. For Connaught Place, it is Embassy with its Dal Meat, which has kept the flag flying.
Of course times are changing and the food preferences of people are also bound to change. Many international food chains have made it to Delhi and there is cuisine of every variety available here. Five stars also have very good restaurants and great food. But for someone like me, there is nothing that can still beat the Moti Mahal at Darya Ganj as it was till nearly three decades ago.