A palatial offering

Think of a Punjabi staple which is a byword in the North Indian dish roster and the answer usually is butter chicken, tandoori chicken and dal makhni. It is a menu chart without which no restaurant is complete. These were introduced to Delhi and the world through this landmark restaurant — Moti Mahal at Daryaganj, and the man credited with the creation is Kundan Lal Gujral.

From what one can glean from written records, he ran a small dhaba in Peshawar in the 1920s. He came to Delhi post Partition and started a food business, following which Moti Mahal came into being in 1947. The cuisine history reads that to produce a lighter version of the heavy korma, the chicken was grilled in the tandoor. The tandoor, till then, was used for making bread, not meat. This resulted in tandoori chicken. It was to find a solution for the leftover tandoor chicken that butter chicken happened. To soften the chicken, it was marinated in yogurt and cooked with the addition of makhni gravy — tomatoes, cream et al. Dal makhni was invented at Moti Mahal to find a vegetarian equivalent. Whole urad was used in the same makhni gravy and the unforgettable dish was created. Thus, the repertoire found a permanent place in the North Indian cuisine lexicon. Of course, the spices used then were minimal and less elaborate.

Back in time

The restaurant is not difficult to find, being located in Daryaganj. It is calmer and away from the hustle and bustle of the main city roads. However, there are signs of it becoming decrepit. Inside, the décor is typical of the 70s and 80s restaurant, with huge floral decorations and pink ceilings. The entrance, though, is nice, with lots of green. The outdoor dining area is where qawalis used to be held. A battery of awards hangs from the wall, along with a photo of Gordon Ramsay, who came here to learn how to make tandoori chicken.

The current owner Vinod Chadha says, “What I bought was the rental rights to this place from Kundan Lal Gujral in 1991 and what was there of the establishment. It was a Khandar — ruin. But during its hey days from 1947 to the 1980s, it was the toast of connoisseurs of food. It was the only establishment which served tandoori chicken, dal makhni and butter chicken, and people flocked to it in huge numbers. “There are several reports of Presidents, Prime Ministers and film stars having eaten here,” Chadha says.

A fresh start

After Chadha took over, he re-built and revamped it with air conditioning and a revised menu. Were the recipes for these dishes passed on from Kundan Lal? Chadha says, “It was not needed, as by then, these items were made everywhere. Restaurateurs had deciphered the signature dishes and replication had begun. With experience in the hotel industry, we have improvised.” The dal makhni is tasty, though slightly tangy and spicy, but it doesn’t leave a heavy feeling in its aftermath. It is rich and creamy, but not in the heavy greasy category. The masala used is special, and while Chadha does not reveal the secret, he says, “It is a mixture of whole urad, chana dal and rajma, and is cooked in milk.”

The place has its connoisseurs — dabbas or boxes are sent out to Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, actor Akshay Kumar and more. A Chinese segment in the menu has been introduced to pamper the taste buds of children accompanying parents. The joint has 30 different ways to prepare chicken and a similar number on meats. They make close to two to three kilograms of dal and 50 to 60 kilograms of chicken daily.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 12:55:23 AM |

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