Well my trip to India coincided with the last few days of Ramzaan and Id-ul-Fitr, which meant I couldn’t eat at the famed Old Delhi restaurant Karim‘s during the day (I made up for it by eating very good Kashmiri and also northern Muslim food in the restaurant Chor Bizarre, but that is another story). However, on the same list of must-eats is surely Moti Mahal, nearby in Old Delhi’s Daryaganj.
On my last day in India, still in a dream-like state after my successful mahseer fishing, I woke late (a luxury after six days of waking at 5:30am in hill country) and had a modest breakfast of grapes, passion fruit, watermelon, two aloo paranthas, yoghurt and pickle, with masala chai and the Times of India to mull over. After handing over much of my wardrobe (still wet with Ganges river water) to the dhobi-wallah and loafing for a while, I then went for a massage to soothe my back and shoulder (you try casting big spoons and minnows for 7 hours+ a day, for a week) which was quite pleasant and I drifted in and out of consciousness as the delicately featured, yet curiously strong, masseuse set to work with warmed sesame oil and vice-like grip. After that I needed a nap, so I stuck the do-not-disturb sign on my door and loafed, and when I rose, I felt like I had been reborn, and incredibly refreshed. I was also faced with the pleasant prospect of it being lunchtime, so I pulled on the remaining clothes I had that did not smell, and jumped into a cab. On reflection, it turned out to be my first ride in the good old Ambassador this trip, as so far I had ridden only in autos, jeep and private car; it was like seeing an old friend again. Compared to the very excitable and foul-mouthed cab drivers I encountered in Mumbai (from whom I learnt all the bad words I know in Hindi) my driver was a very sharp Punjabi chap in an immaculate shirt; I imagine the inflated price he charged me was mostly to pay for his ironing bills. Anyway, there are several restaurants that use the Moti Mehal name so to prevent any silliness, I told the driver to hit Golcha Cinema, which is a few doors south of the restaurant, got out and walked the rest of the way.
The entrance leads to an airy courtyard that is curiously quiet and cool, despite being so close to the mayhem of Netaji Subhash Marg. In fact, it was so quiet that the only inhabitant I encountered was a cat, that was clearly planning a raid on the kitchens; for a terrible moment I thought they were closed. Anyway, a little further investigation found the inner restaurant, and I was soon seated by the friendly waiter, and then re-seated by his superior, who kindly wheeled an enormous electric fan right next to my table; I ordered a bottle pani and then I eagerly opened the menu. Well for a meat-eater glutton like me, the menu is a godsend: a whole page devoted to just kebabs, and another apparently just for chicken karhai dishes. I agonised over which dishes to start off with, but in the end I went for ‘mutton’ (in India, this means goat) burra, good old seekh kebab, and some rumali (“handkerchief”) roti. The food arrived fairly promptly and I squared my elbows to the dishes; because there weren’t many customers they had decided to not switch on the lights inside the dining room so my photos didn’t come out too well, but here are the kebabs:
Both were excellent, but the burra – a mix of different cuts, marinated in a yoghurt-heavy sauce, skewered and grilled – was really good; the meat very tender and succulent but giving you enough sport as you bit it off the bone. The rumali roti was pretty good, a little bit thick but seeing as I ate four or five of them, they must have been quite good. Rumali roti are the ones which the chef flings in the air and catches on his forearm, and are generally soft and very thin and just right for scooping up meats, sauces or wrapping up kebab meats. Anyway, the time had come for a nice karhai dish; although the restaurant claims to be the inventor of Delhi butter chicken and it is sported as their signature dish, in the end I went for murgh mussalam as this was a dish I had never eaten before. Most Indian restaurants are smart and have the option of half- or full dishes, so I went for a boneless half portion, which was still very large:
It is basically a karhai chicken, but very rich and with kidneys added to it; it tasted out of this world. The rumali roti kept coming and going, but I never tired of the taste of the chicken; what I would give for a restaurant that served this combination in my neighbourhood in Tokyo!
The food had disappeared like the dew on a summer’s rose; I am not a sweet man, so to wrap up proceedings I went for a jaljeera to aid the digestion and beat the heat waiting for me outside; the waiter was pretty surprised when I ordered it, I imagine it is not something Western tourists order very often. I even got a choice of colour plastic straw! I went for a manly pink.
As I sipped on my drink – the first few sips really have a zing, but it is very refreshing – a few more customers began arriving and I passed the time people-watching and digesting thoroughly. There were a group of American tourists with their guide, a Japanese couple (!), Sikh businessmen and some very distinguished-looking local men who had the waiters scampering and knocking heads by barking “Iddharao!” (which seemed to me a little rude) and it was surprising and nice to see at the reception, both Holy Q’ran calligraphy and an ‘Om’ and images of Hindu deities on the wall. As I was finishing my drink one of the younger waiters had an immense argument with the man at reception, and when free from the tables he would return to the entrance for great remonstrating, head wobbling and gesticulation, much to the hilarity of the rest of the staff. Then the very friendly and energetic older waiter came to my table, and asked me if I had enjoyed my meal, to which I replied very much so; he then mentioned every dish I ordered, and asked me how each one was in turn (“One seekh kabaab; good sir?” “Yes, very” “One mutton burra, good sir?” “Delicious!” &c., you get the idea) and after getting through my order, asked me if I would cast my vote for Moti Mahal in a poll for best restaurant in Delhi (or something like that). So I did. I paid up and gave them a good tip, and headed off, a little unsteadily with all the meat I had taken on board, out of the restaurant. The jaljeera had clearly done its work, as being outside didn’t feel so hot despite it being high noon, and I spotted the cat running out of the kitchen with a chunk of chicken in its mouth; I was not the only one to eat well that day.
I took some more photos of the restaurant and made my way down the road; I was headed to Connaught Place so I needed to cross the road to get an auto heading in the right direction. As I contemplated the maelstrom of traffic, I spotted a paan-wallah on the pavement. I didn’t have a chance to try paan when I was sightseeing in Delhi before my fishing trip, so this would be my last chance before going back to Japan; what better way to finish a meal of kebabs and karhai chicken? I took it to be fate. The paan-wallah looked at me hopefully and I asked him how much for a meetha paan; he showed me seven rupees in coins so I said theek hai, and no tobacco please. I got a wobble of the head and he set to making the paan: it was like watching a magician or artist at work! He took out two betel leaves from the basin full of water on his table, and spread them each with lime, and dropped some pieces of crushed areca nut onto each. Then out of one of his pots he spooned a brown, sticky syrup over them, followed in rapid succession by all sorts of secret goodies; I think I spotted mint leaves, and hundreds and thousands, but I was mesmerised. He handed the finished brace of wrapped leaves to me, I took care to receive them with my right hand, and then down the hatch they went! I must say, the first time you bite down into the bundles is amazing, an explosion of tastes, aromas and textures really transport you momentarily. After returning to this world, I paid up and said thank you (or at least, mumbled some words as my mouth was full of paan) and he held up a steel jug of water for me and washed my hand, then offered me a towel even, to dry off; what service! I asked if it were okay if I took a photograph of him; he smiled and wobbled his head in consent, so I ended up with one of my favourite photos of Delhi:
One hilarious thing about being a tourist in India is that if you stand around for any period of time, especially with a camera or a book or anything in your hand, miraculously before you know it loafers, kids and various people emerge out of nowhere and gather near you, close but not too close, intensely watching you yet pretending to be doing something else. On the steps of the Jama Masjid in about a minute I collected a trio of young lads watching me intently; some Westerners visiting for the first time feel very uncomfortable with the Indian habit of staring at strangers (it is not considered rude, like we are taught) although, after I just smiled and said “Hello ji” the famous Delhi manners kicked in and the leader of the group immediately folded his hands into a namaste and wobbled his head with an appreciative smile. When he asked “What country?” I replied, “Angrez se” which shocked them all. However, in terms of gathering bystanders I think I broke my record when I was here chewing paan in Daryaganj, as when I took a step back to photograph the paanwallah within seconds, a young shaver of about sixteen was hovering about over my shoulder; I have no idea where he even came from.
Anyway, I chewed on my paan and expectorated in the approved manner, and mused on this being my last day in India. Next time I am in Delhi – and there will be a next time – I would definitely like to explore paan more, heading off in search of the more esoteric varieties and the apparent paan bazaar in Old Delhi. We shall see.