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Wine and dine

The mecca for Mughlai

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Karim's, the legendary restaurant that turns 100 this year, owes its success to recipes so secret that they are not even shared with the family's daughters.

Chai and toast sounds too simple a breakfast for a man who presides over a chain of restaurants that has cult status in Delhi. But that's what 80-year-old Haji Zahooruddin, the head of Karim Hotels, has every morning even as his cooks serve rich nahari and paya to breakfast patrons.

It's not just Zahooruddin's breakfast that is frugal. Through the day, he eats what his daughters-in-law cook. "It's usually vegetables, dal and a little meat, " says the patriarch of the legendary eatery that turns 100 this year. It was in 1913 that Zahooruddin's grandfather, Haji Karimuddin, opened Karim Hotel in Gali Kababian near the Jama Masjid.

"We served only two dishes then - aloogosht for the upper class and dal for the rest, " he says. A century later, the restaurant is an institution - a destination on every tourist's list, a haunt for loyal customers and a must-visit on every foodie's pilgrimage. That's largely due to a firm refusal by the family-run brand to compromise on tradition - the recipes and suppliers of meat and spices are still the same.

"I check the masalas, see that the cooking is perfect and handle customer complaints, " says Zahooruddin. He ensures that the onions are a perfect shade of brown and masalas have been cooked long enough for the flavours to stand out. That's why he calls his cooks, karigars (artistes).

Zahooruddin, who himself grinds spices in small batches for the restaurant, says, "A special blend of masalas goes into each dish and knowledge of the correct weight of each ingredient is our secret. " It's a secret so guarded that even daughters of the family are not privy to it. "Or else, their husbands may want to open their own branches, " says Raziuddin, a director at Karim Hotels and Zahooruddin's nephew.

While the family knows its spices like the back of its palm, it doesn't know its numbers. Zahooruddin doesn't know how many people visit his restaurant daily and is uncertain about the quantity of food cooked. He doesn't even know how many people from his family work for the business. "May be 25, " guesses Raziuddin. But they all know exactly what goes into each dish.

Even as Karim's 100-year-old traditions remain unadulterated and the Jama Masjid outlet remains frozen in time, winds of change are blowing, thanks to the family's new generation. The newer branches - there are 13 in the city - are tweaking customs to suit newer palates.

Karimuddin Sahni, who handles the Malviya Nagar branch, says the 'posh area' demands better service, comfortable ambience and variety in the menu. The restaurant, with folded napkins, air-conditioners and uniformed staff, is different from the original. "The recipes are the same but we have reduced the spices. We have also added some dishes like Fried Chicken, Handi Gosht/ Chicken, Achari Biryani, " he says.

The Jama Masjid and Nizamuddin branches serve identical food cooked in desi ghee but other outlets have begun using vegetable oil. "People today are health conscious, " says Karimuddin.

"Mughlai food needs ghee but we are also developing a separate menu with dishes cooked in less oil or olive oil, " says Zuhaib, a fifthgeneration entrant into the business. A hotel management graduate from Amity University, Zuhaib's target customers are in malls. "Jama Masjid has its own feel but sometimes people don't want to eat in a congested place. Though my grandfather was apprehensive initially, my father backed me, " says Zuhaib, who runs an outlet in DLF Place, Saket and another one at Pusa Road, Karol Bagh. Another fifth-generation member, Raziuddin's son Najeemuddin Ahmed, is interested in cooking and getting trained at the Noida branch.

Formal professional education, strategies for growth and realisation of their brand equity became essential especially after some new restaurants tried to hijack the famous name. But the head of the family doesn't feel compelled to innovate. "This is time-tested Mughlai food and we do it well, so why should we change?" he asks.

Zahooruddin has his reasons. After all, the Jama Masjid branch enjoys a cult status that not many have been able to emulate. For instance, it doesn't provide catering service but customers come with their own containers to take away food for as many as 100 people.

That the functioning of the Karim empire is complicated is an understatement. Each branch is managed by different members of the family and the revenues are separate, but all work cohesively. Zahooruddin orders food from other outlets to give his feedback, while cousins keep a check on each others' branches.

"We've got many lucrative offers of tie-ups, but we have no plans for corporatisation. We want to be responsible for our food and not earn anything by default, " says Raziuddin. Despite their differences, they all share the need to maintain the family name. After all, it's their bestseller.

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