What do Mughlai restaurants have in common with today’s state of the art restaurants?

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Kathi rolls at Nizam’s

I was in Mumbai”s Masque Restaurant a couple of weeks back.

This was for a media interaction with Chef Daniel Humm; a precursor to the dinner collab between his restaurant, 11 Madison Park, and Mumbai’s Masque restaurant.

11 Madison Park is a much-feted New York-based restaurant and has 3 Michelin stars. Humm relaunched his restaurant after a break as a plant-based (vegetarian) restaurant going against the conventional thinking in the restaurant industry

Masque is an avant garde restaurant in Mumbai. It has presented Indian food and ingredients in innovate ways.

Both are fine dining restaurants and are on the expensive side. There is a reason behind this prelude and let me share that with you.

I had just returned from a trip to Kolkata the day before the event at Masque. I was documenting some of its classic Moghlai (Bengali for Mughlai) restaurants while in the city through Insta reels. Moghlai restaurants are those that trace their roots in the cuisine of Awadh. Their menu includes dishes such as biryani, chaap, rezala, roll, kassa, bhuna etc. Many of these restaurants are at least half a century old, if not a century old. They belong to a world that is light years away from the rarefied world of find dining restaurants.

Now let’s go back to the evening at Masque. There were two interactions with Daniel Humm that evening. He was interviewed by Vir Sanghvi as a part of the Culinary Culture initiative. Later Humm was on a panel discussion which included Aditi Dugar (co-owner of Masque) and chef Varun Totlani (executive chef of Masque). The panel was moderated by former CNT India food editor, Smitha Menon.

As I listened to him, I realised that the humble Moghlai restaurants of Kolkata have more things in common with restaurants such as 11 Madison Park and Masque than one have would thought.

What? Do you think I’ve lost it? Well, hold on. Let me make my case.

Daniel Humm spoke about his philosophy on restaurants and food that evening. I will paraphrase some of the points that he made (in italics) and then make my case.

Chaap and biryani at Royal

‘Restaurants should follow their own path’

The restaurants that I am speaking about – Royal, Nizam’s, UP Bihar, Aminia, Shiraz – challenged the status quo in a fundamental sense. They were opened at a time when Kolkata – as it was in the rest of India – did not have a culture of eating out. Restaurants did not exist.

These Mughlai restaurants started off as street-side joints which were meant to feed travellers and immigrant workers. These metamorphosed into restaurants. A place where people could, sit and eat. It took a while more before families began to frequent them for leisure.

Biryani with alu in Aminia

Restaurants should stick to what they believe in.

 The restaurants that I have looked at pre-date independence. The oldest, Royal, was opened in 1905. The youngest, Shiraz, in 1941. In between you have Amina 1929, Nizam’s 1932 and UP Bihar 1937. 

Despite their age, they have stuck to the original template. That of food that is Awadh originated and ‘Calcutta remixed.’ Shiraz is the only one to have introduced the omnipresent ‘Chinese’ menu to accompany the original Awadhi menu.

At times this refusal to adapt to changing times has worked against these resuarants. Places such as Nizam’s, UP Bihar and the original Chitpur branch of Royal are too grotty for Millenials or Gen Z to frequent. Unless they go there to vlog! 

Mutton stew, mutton keema and roti. 
Breakfast in Golden Shiraz.

Some of these have moved with the times. Royal opened a branch at Park Circus which makes it more accessible to diners. Chitpur is a nightmare to reach except on a Sunday. Shiraz has opened a newer and posher outlet called Shiraz 56. This is located opposite the Golden Shiraz Restaurant which has lost a bit of its sheen. Aminia has several branches across the city. The feedback to which is ambivalent. The main branch at Esplanade has a nice, bright and clean feel to even its non-air-conditioned section and the food is consistently brilliant. I love to stop there to have a plate of biryani, watch life pass by, and feel at peace with myself.

Restaurants should look to innovate. 

Royal Restaurant took biryani out of the kitchens of royalty and made it accessible to people at large. Their biryani sticks to its Awadhi roots and does not have the trademark potato that distinguishes Kolkata’s biryani. The new Royal branch has a ‘with alu’ version. Aminia and Shiraz, which came later, have alu in their biryanis. Presumably influenced by the fact that the potato had been introduced in the biryani of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s kitchen.

Fine dining is akin to runway fashions, where some trends top down to pop culture, 

There is more to the innovation story. Nizam claims to have ‘invented’ the kathi roll. As the story goes, a cook at Nizam’s came up with the idea of putting kebabs in a paratha and making a roll with it, to make it acceptable to a Sahib who did not want to dirty his hand while eating. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history. From street food carts to luxury hotels, the kathi roll features prominently on menus today.

Innovations are based on acute insights in consumer needs. They were not innovations made just for the sake of being innovative. Which explains why these dishes have stood the test of time.

Khiri and beef chilli mix with roti at UP Bihar Restaurant 

Restaurants should tell stories. Make the occasion memorable for its diners.

I went to UP Bihar restaurant for the first time in my life during the last trip. I had ignored it in the past. I broke my UP Bihar virginity at the behest of my friend and restaurant consultant, Rukshana Kapadia, who praised it highly. I ordered the beef chilli and khiri (udder) mix with roti, as suggested by her. The food was superlative. Especially the smoky and scrumptious khiri kebab and I am not going to forget it for a while.

What stood out for me that evening though was the elderly gentleman who took my order. He went in and prepped my order. He welcomed me to the kitchen when I asked if I could take pictures. He brought my order to the table. He glanced at me to check if I the fool and broke into a happy smile when he saw the joy that his cooking gave me.

 This is a story that I am not going to forget in a hurry. 

The most important ingredient for a chef is time.

This brings me to my last point. It is tempting to say that the  dishes coming out of these Mughlai restaurants are a function of slow cooking and link this 

These restaurants have been making their core dishes for upwards of three-quarters of a century and are doing it very well (Nizam is a bit of an outlier). 

There are no written recipes. Decades of experience have been passed on to subsequent generations of cooks orally.l and yet every dish that comes out of their kitchens is pristine. That is what time does.

Well, that’s all I have to say.

Am I an incurable romantic? Is a comparison between the rather grunge Moghlai restaurants of Kolkata and 11 Madison Park and Masque unthinkable?

You might be right. 

Or you might know of other examples that fit the argument that I made. If so, I would love to hear from you about these.

With Daniel Humm

PS: I spoke to Daniel Humm after the panel and shared a synopsis of what I just wrote with him. He seemed to smile in agreement. Or was it out of politeness?


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