A trip to the famous restaurant Karim in New Delhi, India, will take you through a National Geographic-esque warren of narrow lanes teeming with veiled women and white-robed men, noisy street merchants and swarming beggers, wandering cows and nose-tweaking aromas.
The lanes are too narrow for a taxi to take you directly to the restaurant, but a squadron of turbaned sieks in red livery, positioned every 30 yards, will guide you. After a short walk, you arrive at the last place you’d expect to find in this colorful neighborhood: a proper restaurant with air conditioning, wood paneling, coffered ceilings, and nattily set, tableclothed tables.
Karim’s founder was Hazi Amliudine Ahmed (Karim was his nickname), scion of a long line of royal chefs and chef himself to one of the region’s last kings, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Like the chefs of the Ancienne Régime in France, Karim found himself unemployed when changing socio-economic conditions forced the closure of the palace kitchen. So in 1913 he opened a restaurant in the shadow of the Jamma Masjid Mosque outside the walls of the Red Fort.
The original Karim’s still stands in the courtyard of a small building. Over the years half a dozen dining rooms have been added, including one where men can dine with their families (the bulk of the clientele is male). We’re in Muslim territory now, and I was reminded of this by the sight of Karim’s 27- year-old great-grandson (also a chef) who wears a white skull cap and sits cross-legged before a bank of pots simmering over charcoal, like a potentate surveying his fiefdom. As in most Muslim neighborhoods, the restaurant doesn’t get busy until after sundown.
The original Karim’s specializes in the butter- and cream-enriched stews of the Moguls. Indeed, there’s only one grilled meat on the menu: seekh kebab. You can watch these ground lamb kebabs being cooked on rectangular metal braziers over charcoal that an electric fan blows to bright red. What comes off these heavy skewers is a sort of tubed-shaped sausage that’s perfumed with spices, extraordinarily succulent, and in its own way fully as splendid as the famous mosque.
In 1970, the family opened a second restaurant in another colorful Muslim neighborhood, Nizamuddin. Endowed with a larger kitchen and fancier dining room, the Nizamuddin Karim offers a wider selection of grilled dishes, including tandoori bakra, a whole goat stuffed with dried fruits, hard-cooked eggs, and a basmati rice preparation called biryani. I succumbed to tandoori barra (lamb ribs), seekh kebab, and an astonishing variety of grilled breads. But the one dish I still dream about is Karim’s Afghani murgh, Afghan-Style Chicken, and to try to get the recipe, I asked for a tour of the kitchen.
The good news is that the food prep area here was as immaculate as the dining room. (Lord knows, this isn’t always the case in this part of the world.) The cooks wore gray jumpsuits, which made them look a little like convicts. Two sat barefoot and cross-legged before a pair of giant tandoors, where the meats and breads were cooked. Marinades were mixed in flat metal pans on a floor clean enough to eat off.
The bad news is that the family keeps tight wraps on its recipes-to the point where the spice mixes used to flavor the lamb marinades are blended in a separate location. So not even the chef knows the full recipe. In the murgh, I was able to detect the tangy presence of yogurt cheese and lemon juice, with a generous dose of puréed garlic and ginger. A taste of the raw marinade also revealed the heat of cayenne and the pungency of cumin. Curiously, the overall effect reminded me of Hungarian liptauer cheese.
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