Haji Zahooruddin, who upheld the traditions of Karim’s, dies at 85
Karim’s had transformed from a local purveyor of aloo gosht into a monument. It was visited by princes and prime ministers, eulogised by journalists, studied by historians, and patronised by tourists.delhi Updated: Feb 01, 2018 18:58 IST
When Haji Zahooruddin started working at Karim’s over 70 years ago, the business consisted of a single restaurant run by his father and grandfather. On January 27, when he died at the age of 85, Zahooruddin was the managing director of a small empire, with 26 outlets overseen by around a dozen other family members.
Karim’s had transformed from a local purveyor of aloo gosht into a monument. It was visited by princes and prime ministers, eulogised by journalists, studied by historians, and patronised by tourists.
Much though Karim’s success was the result of adaptation to changing times — with the addition of Punjabi butter chicken to the Mughlai menu, for example, and the establishment of small take-out joints throughout the city — Zahooruddin devoted himself to protecting Karim’s most valuable asset: its heritage.
“This is time-tested Mughlai food and we do it well,” he told an English daily in 2013, “so why should we change?”
Karim’s changed only as much as it had to. Striking this balance enabled Zahooruddin’s “number one contribution”, said Shahid Siddiqui, a regular at the restaurant who has written extensively about Old Delhi. “He introduced the food of the old city to New Delhi and to the public in general.”
The Karim’s family attributes their culinary lineage to Mohammad Awaiz, a chef in the royal court of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. When the British sacked Delhi and expelled the king to Rangoon, Awaiz fled. He settled in Ghaziabad and found other work, but taught his son, Haji Karimuddin, everything he knew about Mughal cuisine. During the coronation of King George V in Delhi in 1911, Karimuddin returned to the imperial city and set up a food stall. In two years, he made enough money to open a restaurant.
Karimuddin’s son, Haji Nooruddin, had four sons of his own, including Zahooruddin, who was born around 1932. He started working at Karim’s at the age of 12. The young boy learned the power of belonging to the Karim’s family when a particularly strict teacher demanded Zahooruddin hand over the food in his tiffin box every day at lunchtime. Zahooruddin may have gone hungry, but he was spared the beatings inflicted on his classmates.
He spent his whole adult life working at the restaurant, learning its traditions zubaani (orally) and mixing spices with his male relatives — the only ones allowed to know Karim’s recipes. In the late 1940s, he married Samar Jahan, also a resident of Old Delhi, and had four children, two of them sons who have spent their careers working at Karim’s. Four of Zahooruddin’s grandchildren now manage branches of the restaurant.
Clients and business associates found Zahooruddin to be a commanding figure, and heeded his advice. For newlyweds, he recommended nahari; to the sick, thigh meat for its high degree of bone marrow; to one fat customer, Siddiqui remembered Zahooruddin making the suggestion, improbable for a restaurateur, that the man eat a little less. If a customer said something was wrong with their mutton or chicken, Zahooruddin would keep the piece of meat and show it to his butcher in disapproval. “Babu would scold me sometimes,” said Javed Qureshi, whose family has supplied Karim’s with meat for decades, “but he loved me like a son.” Qureshi is one of many people who refer to Zahooruddin as “Babu” (father).
As time went on, Karim’s business grew, and its legend along with it. The family opened a second branch in Nizamuddin in the years before the Emergency. The former Presidents Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Zakir Husain became devoted customers, the latter ordering his food to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Indira Gandhi was also fond of Karim’s, but had security guards oversee the meals cooked for her.
The obvious antiquity of Karim’s Jama Masjid alleyway, its family’s claims of royal patronage, their distinctive Old Delhi Urdu, their promotion of old-fashioned dishes such as mutton brains — all this was stimulus for myth-making and myth-debunking. Historians debate whether Karim’s famous ‘istoo’ is authentically Mughal or secretly British. Some trace the family’s origins to a Saudi Arabian soldier who became Babur’s personal cook, but Zaeemuddin Ahmed, Zahooruddin’s nephew, said the family does not know anything about their ancestors prior to Awaiz.
In 1988, when Karim’s registered itself as a company, Zahooruddin was made chairman. When his brother Alimuddin Ahmed died in 2007, Zahooruddin took over from him as managing director. A slim gentleman with a well-trimmed moustache, he became the public face of his venerable restaurant. He attended numerous award ceremonies and made an appearance on the NDTV show Foodistan. At such moments, Zahooruddin smiled with the discomfort of a dignified man in a flamboyant place.
The public image of him as an embodiment of Old Delhi customs was shared by those who knew him personally. When Faiz-ul-Islam, his friend of over 40 years, returned from Haj, Zahooruddin invited 200 of Islam’s friends for a free breakfast at Karim’s, in keeping with his sense of mehmannawazi (hospitality). “He did it without takalluf (hesitation) and without a single line on his forehead,” said Fazl-ul-Islam, Islam’s son.
Zahooruddin performed culinary experiments, sometimes inventing his own dishes, while also sampling the food from different outlets of Karim’s every week to ensure his standards were being upheld. He insisted that the core of the menu — qorma, nahari, mutton burra, kebab — remain untouched.
“Babu used to say, ‘If we let others own a franchise, will they give the same attention to the quality of spices we use?’” said Zain-ul-Abedin, Zahooruddin’s son. “For example, he would say that cloves are something most people don’t eat: they take it out and put it aside on the plate. So another restaurant owner may think, ‘What is the use of putting in the cloves or buying the best-quality cloves?’ But clove adds to the taste, its juices mix with the food and bring out the smell of meat.”
What he was selling, after all, was not just food. Visit Humayun’s Tomb, and you’ll find a silent testament to the dead. Visit Zahooruddin’s restaurant, and you’ll find traces of the past still alive.