It’s 4.30pm. Zahooruddin, dressed in a blue kurta, is inspecting the kitchen and four halls of his restaurant which gets ready to open in half an hour. Huge pots are being placed on the large counter, the waiters are scurrying around wiping the tables.
After instructing his staff in a soft, low voice, the 80-year-old walks into his small cabin across the street. The restaurant is Karim near Jama Masjid — locally known as the Mecca for Mughlai food. Opened in 1913, it is set to complete 100 years next month.
“The fourth generation of our family is running the business. I visit all our branches to ensure there is no compromise on quality. The eateries are run according to rules set by our forefathers about a century ago,” says Zahooruddin, who joined the family business in 1952.
As he speaks, he points to his nephew, Zaeemuddin Ahmed, Karim’s director, under whose stewardship the restaurant has expanded across the city.
Zahooruddin says his great grandfather, Mohd Aziz, was a chef in the royal kitchen at Red Fort. After the Mutiny of 1857, which led to the British takeover of the fort, he fled to Ghaziabad.
“But he had taught the royal recipes to his son, Karimuddin, with a view to keeping alive his hunar (skills),” he says.
Karimuddin set up a small stall outside the Jama Masjid during the Delhi Durbar in 1911 and sold two dishes — aloo gosht (mutton with potatoes) and daal (lentil curry) — and rumali rotis. The stall did brisk business.
“Two years later, he opened a small eatery in the lane just across the Jama Masjid and named it Karim,” says Zahooruddin.
Zaeemuddin, who has been silent all this while, adds: “He introduced commoners to royal food, and that’s what makes us special. Even now, our food tastes as it did 100 years ago.”
The unique flavours of Karim’s food, he adds, is the result of a culinary formula -- a secret which is guarded not just from the cooks of the restaurant but also from the daughters of the family, lest they reveal it to their in-laws.
Every week, Zahooruddin enters his secret chamber and mixes the spices for various dishes and puts them in boxes to be delivered to various branches of the restaurant across the city.
Such has been the popularity of Karim that over the years many clones have sprung up, forcing the family to put up disclaimers outside their restaurants.
“We keep getting offers of franchising out not just from within the country but also from abroad, including Pakistan. We, however, are against the idea,” says Zahooruddin.
All the restaurant’s 16 branches — the first opened in the 1970s at Nizamuddin — have simple, spartan interiors.
“This is deliberate. We want our patrons to focus on food, and not the interiors,” says Zaeemuddin, whose business card cites rave reviews of his restaurant by the Time and National Geographic magazines and other international publications.
Noted food critic Pushpesh Pant says that though Karim’s clientele came from the local population, it was the first restaurant in the city to adapt to cater to foreigners “starting with napkins and bottled water to introducing less spicy dishes such as Badam Pasanda that suits the foreign palette”.
For many, like popular food-show anchor Vinod Dua, the Karim at Jama Masjid has been a generic expression for Mughlai food.
“I remember visiting Karim as a young child with my father. I love their seekh kebab and burra, ishtu, korma, mutton pasanda, tandoori fish and sabzi gosht,” says Dua.