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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

 

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Arts and Entertainment
Ella Henderson's first studio album has gone straight to the top of the charts
music
News
<p>Jonathan Ross</p>
<p>Jonathan Ross (or Wossy, as he’s affectionately known) has been on television and radio for an extraordinarily long time, working on a seat in the pantheon of British presenters. Hosting Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for nine years, Ross has been in everything from the video game Fable to Phineas and Ferb. So it’s probably not so surprising that Ross studied at Southampton College of Art (since rebranded Southampton Solent), a university known nowadays for its media production courses.</p>
<p>However, after leaving Solent, Ross studied History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of the UCL, a move that was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of his career. Ross was made a fellow of the school in 2006 in recognition of his services to broadcasting.</p>
TV

Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new

Life and Style
fashion
News
Paul Nuttall, left, is seen as one of Ukip's key weapons in selling the party to the North of England
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Brand labelled 'left-wing commie scum' by Fox News
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC's Antiques Roadshow uncovers a TIE fighter pilot helmet from the 1977 Star Wars film, valuing it at £50,000
TV

TV presenter Fiona Bruce seemed a bit startled by the find during the filming of Antiques Roadshow

News
people

Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Sport
Steven Caulker of QPR scores an own goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool
football
Arts and Entertainment
artKaren Wright tours the fair and wishes she had £11m to spare
News
i100
Life and Style
Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh been invited to take part in Women Fashion Power, a new exhibition that celebrates the way women's fashion has changed in relation to their growing power and equality over the past 150 years
fashionKirsty and Camila swap secrets about how to dress for success
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
booksNew book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past