Fit for an emperor: Old Delhi's most enduring restaurant Karim's celebrates its centenary

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It can be difficult for customers not to stop and gaze awhile at the action taking place in the open-sided kitchen of Karim's restaurant. Waiters hurry along with orders, cooks stir huge stainless-steel pots and others busy themselves grilling kebabs that sizzle on long skewers.

Perhaps most distracting of all is the two-man tag team making the fluffy, circular bread; one rolls the dough into a ball, the other flattens it into a disc then leans forward to press it inside the wall of the tandoor oven. After a few moments, he uses a long hook to prise loose the soft bread.

If there is a rhythm to the operation, they've had time to get it right. The restaurant in the heart of Old Delhi celebrates its 100th birthday this year – a testament to the enduring nature of the food it produces and the mesmerising walled city within which it is located. "The reason for its popularity is the formula of the cooking," says Zaeemuddin Ahmed, the restaurant's director and a representative of the fourth generation of the family to have worked here. "It's the same as during Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar's time."

The story of Karim's supposedly dates back to the middle of the 19th century and a man called Mohd Aziz, who is said to have been a cook in the royal court and plied his trade in Delhi's Red Fort, in what would turn out to be the last days of the Mughal empire. In 1857, the British authorities aggressively crushed a series of uprisings against their rule and broke up the court.

The emperor's sons were killed and the old, frail monarch was sent to exile in Rangoon. He died there in loneliness and grief in November 1862. A skilled Urdu poet, one of his final verses had declared: "How unlucky is Zafar! For burial, even two yards of land were not to be had, in the land of the beloved."

The break-up of the court meant that those associated with it rapidly had to look for alternative means of employment. Aziz ran off to the city of Meerut and later Ghaziabad, in Uttar Pradesh. Though stripped of his patronage, Aziz still taught his sons to cook the royal food he had created for the emperor, insisting that it was their heritage.

In 1911, the year the British authorities celebrated making Delhi the new capital of their empire, one of Aziz's sons, Haji Karimuddin, came up with the idea of cashing in on the people celebrating the visit of King George V and Queen Mary. Setting up a simple stall outside the gates of the towering 17th-century Jama Masjid mosque, he offered just two dishes – mutton with potatoes and lentil curry. Two years later, he was able to open a small eatery in a nearby alleyway that could cater for 20 people. He named it Karim, one of the 99 names of God in Islam. It means the bountiful and generous one.

Since those early days, Karim's has expanded and there are now 13 outlets across the city, operated by various family members. Yet it is the original – still just a step from the Jama Masjid but which nowadays seats up to 300 people – which most strongly lures visitors.

Seated at a clean marble table beneath a whirring fan, Zaeemuddin Ahmed says the spice mix, or masala, originally devised by Haji Karimuddin is the one still used today. It is, he says, a closely guarded secret. Every evening, his uncle takes a series of wooden boxes upstairs to an office where he fills them with a carefully measured mix of spices. In the morning, these boxes are taken downstairs and handed to the cooks to prepare the various dishes.

"The reason people like to come here is because the taste they get here, they cannot get anywhere else in Delhi," says Ahmed. "You cannot fool the current generation. They understand value for money."

There are more than 40 dishes available at Karim's, from the simple, such as seekh kebab – prepared with minced meat with spices – to the slightly more adventurous, such as fried brains. Those who give 24 hours' notice can order an entire roasted baby goat.

While in India, such cooking might typically be described as Muslim food, Ahmed says that 90 per cent of Karim's customers are non-Muslims. Many Hindus do not like to cook meat in their own homes, he adds, but relish the opportunity to eat it at a restaurant.

Several of the dishes on the menu – the marinated burrah (goat) kebab, the slowly cooked nihari (beef) stew and the seekh kebab – were among those offered in the early days of the establishment. "These are from the royal court," he says, highlighting the back-story that the restaurant has promoted to the world.

Pamela Timms, a Scottish writer based in Delhi who is writing a book about the food of the walled city, says Karim's has been highly successful in marketing both itself and the food of Old Delhi to a global audience. "That is their major achievement – they have put the food of Old Delhi on the map," she says. "If someone comes to India from abroad and visits Old Delhi, they will usually go to Karim's, even if they don't eat the street food."

Indeed, Karim's has prospered not by being the most affordable restaurant in Old Delhi – by Western prices it is cheap yet it is affordable only to middle-class Indians – but by having become the most established. By the standards of Old Delhi, it is also very clean.

The walled city of Old Delhi, founded as Shahjahanabad in the 17th century by the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan, is a place like no other. With a warren of narrow lanes and alleyways, it is easy to lose oneself amid the crush of people and shops. Bicycle rickshaws remain perhaps the easiest way to navigate.

Other parts of Delhi have been changed and modernised – shopping malls are scattered along the city's southern fringes – but inside the walled city, it can sometimes appear little has changed. Different areas of this world within a world are home to trades that have existed there for generations – one part specialising in printed paper, another in gold, another in textiles.

Ahmed says that for many of its customers, Karim's is an unshifting fixture. He tells of a customer who came several years ago and who recounted how he once, many decades before, lived nearby before moving to Pakistan in the aftermath of the partition of India, on the basis of religious demographics. "He said the morning after his marriage, he had brought his new bride to Karim's for their breakfast," says Ahmed. "He was very emotional. He said the food tasted exactly as he remembered."

Another former local resident was Zarin Musharraf, mother of the former president of Pakistan, who grew up in a house in the nearby Daryaganj area, where Pervez Musharraf was born and from where the family moved to Pakistan at the time of partition. In 2005, when Musharraf visited Delhi, his octogenarian mother accompanied him and visited several of her old haunts, including Karim's. "She was shivering. She was very emotional," says Ahmed, recalling the police and security guards who filled the restaurant that day.

On a recent Saturday evening, several of the restaurant's most popular dishes – the kofta lamb meatballs, the fried brains and the potato and lamb – were not available, having sold out earlier in the day. Instead, a waiter brought me a plate of burrah kebabs, a dish of minced lamb with green beans, a bowl of chicken curry, a rack of seekh kebabs and a plate of delicious bread. The kebabs were impeccable. The seekh kebabs were gently seasoned and juicy, while the marinated burrah kebabs were spicier and the exteriors slightly charred. The chicken curry was tasty, made sweet by onion and tomato.

At an adjoining table sat 24-year-old Mohammed Sameer, who works at a car-parts shop in the east of the city, and who had come with an Afghan friend. Sameer had visited Karim's every Saturday evening for the past five years. "It's the best place in Delhi. All the meat here is very good," he enthused as he tore into a bowl of lamb stew.

Outside in the courtyard, standing around the open kitchen and watching the chefs busy at their work, was another customer, Yusuf Kapadia. He and his wife, Insiya, live in Gurgaon, the modern satellite city south of India's capital, and had come to Old Delhi for a day of sight- seeing. They were ending their day with a dinner at Karim's, a place they had visited three or four times before. "McDonald's and KFC," said Insiya Kapadia, "are fast food. This is real food."

For more: karimhoteldelhi.com/restaurants.html

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