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Srinagar’s iconic Ahdoo’s completes 100 years in the conflict zone

The restaurant offering traditional Kashmiri fare is a favourite of film stars, has witnessed a shootout and may soon open in Delhi and Mumbai too.

more lifestyle Updated: Jun 24, 2018 08:47 IST
Krutika Behrawala
Krutika Behrawala
Hindustan Times
Srinagar,Jammu and Kashmir,Hotel Ahdoo's
The peaceful, timeless ambience of the three-storey hotel belies the storms it has braved. ‘There was a time in the 1990s when we had to travel with the Army-protected journalists to pick up groceries,’ says Ghulam Hassan, 72, a second generation owner. His son Hayat Bhat (left) is now managing director.(Waseem Andrabi/HT Photo)

‘Ahdoo’s Srinagar completes 100 years… If its walls could talk, the stories it would be able to tell,’ former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted in March.

One such story stars historian and former BBC journalist Andrew Whitehead. In 1995, while staying at the Srinagar hotel to cover rising militancy in the state, he received a phone call at the reception. “It’s AJ,” the caller said. “What’s AJ?” he demanded. “AJ!” the voice boomed.

It took him a few minutes to figure out ‘AJ’ was ‘HA’, short for Harkat-ul-Ansar, a militant organisation that had called to claim responsibility for a bomb blast.

In those turbulent years when the Valley was gripped by chants of ‘Azaadi’ as separatists took to the streets against the government, such phone calls weren’t unusual for the hotel or its occupants.

“As I recall, it was the only hotel open,” Whitehead says. “The others had either shut down or been taken over by the Army. So, it was where all the visiting journalists, Indian and foreign, stayed. Everyone knew where to find you.”

The staff was friendly, efficient and knowledgeable, he adds. “Everyone also assumed that anything that happened in Ahdoo’s, anything you said on the phone, was probably shared with the security forces and the separatists fairly promptly.”

Nidhi Razdan, journalist and executive editor at NDTV, says the channel had an office at the hotel in the 1990s. “Ahdoo’s was the nerve centre for journalists. In 2002, when separatist leader Abdul Ghani Lone was killed, I called the Delhi office from Ahdoo’s reception. Soon after, our office moved to the Broadway hotel, which was in a much safer locality back then.”

Caught in the storm

Ahdoo’s 24 rooms feature carved walnut-wood fittings, some overlooking the Jhelum river. “I stayed there a dozen times at least,” Whitehead says. “I still have a sign I purloined from those times warning anyone who drank alcohol in their room did so at their own risk. Plenty did, of course.”

Ahdoo’s was the first restaurant in the Valley to offer the Kashmiri wazwan or traditional wedding feast featuring dishes like gushtaba (mutton koftas cooked in yoghurt), rista (mutton koftas cooked in onion sauce) and rogan josh. (Waseem Andrabi/HT Photo )

The three-storey hotel, with a bakery recently rechristened Crème and its famous, eponymous 3,000-sq-ft restaurant, remains on tourist checklists, and is featured in Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

In the carpeted restaurant, with gleaming panelled walls, diners can enjoy a snack of chicken pattice and kahwa and magazine editors can discuss pagination over meals of koftas and kebabs.

The peaceful, timeless ambience belies the storms it has braved – from bomb blasts and gunfire in its neighbourhood to a militant shootout in its restaurant, press conferences by opposing sides (security forces and separatist outfits) held simultaneously on its premises and curfews that made sourcing rice and vegetables from the local market a Herculean task.

“We would travel with the Army-protected journalists to pick up groceries,” says Ghulam Hassan, 72, a second-generation owner who began working here 50 years ago. “At one point in the 1990s, I did consider shutting it down but we didn’t want to fire the staff; we knew they wouldn’t find other jobs.”

For its staff of 100, Ahdoo’s was a safe haven. “We felt safer here than on the streets. And where else would I have gotten a chance to serve those who were playing such an important role in covering the conflict?” says Ghulam Nabi, 68, who has worked at the restaurant for 45 years.

Hassan’s son Hayat Bhat, 44, who took over as managing director in 2010, adds, “Besides its central location, it was the confidential vibe of the restaurant that has turned it into a meeting hub for bureaucrats and politicians.”

Early beginnings

Bhat’s grandfather Haji Mohammad Sultan, a Kashmiri from Srinagar, started Ahdoo’s as a little bakery in 1918. It was initially called Ahdoo & Sons, after the family nickname for Sultan’s father, Ahad.

Back then, the only other confectionary in Srinagar was at Nedou’s Hotel, set up in 1900 by architect Michael Adam Nedou, from the port city of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik in Croatia).

Ahdoo’s was set up at the behest of Maharaja Hari Singh, the last king of the erstwhile princely state of J&K. He suggested in the 1910s that Ahad, who worked in his accounts department, send his son to learn how to bake at a confectionery run by the East India Company in Calcutta.

“I’ve heard that once, on his son Karan Singh’s birthday, the Maharaja ordered two cakes – one flown in from Delhi and the other from Ahdoo’s. The guests preferred my grandfather’s cake,” Bhat says.

By the 1920s, the bakery had expanded into a restaurant – the first in the Valley to offer the Kashmiri wazwan or traditional wedding feast, featuring gushtaba (mutton koftas cooked in yoghurt), rista (mutton koftas cooked in onion sauce), tabak maaz (pan-fried lamb ribs) and rogan josh.

Over the years, cricketers, politicians, bureaucrats and filmstars – from yesteryear icons like Rajendra Kumar to Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan – have flocked to Ahdoo’s to relish its fare.

“Raj Kapoor loved our gushtaba and chicken pattice. We catered the wazwan for Indira Gandhi when she visited Srinagar,” says Hassan. “We still use traditional methods of cooking. The colours in our dishes come from boiling Kashmiri chillies and from mawal [dried cockscomb flowers].”

Razdan, a Kashmiri Pandit who first visited Ahdoo’s in 1999, says the ambience has changed a bit, but the food “has remained consistently outstanding. If you want authentic, local Kashmiri food, it’s the place to go.”

Second innings

In its 100th year, Ahdoo’s is ready for change. The restaurant’s menu now includes barbecued and grilled fare, pizza and pasta. A franchise model is in the works for the bakery, recently rechristened Crème. (Waseem Andrabi/HT Photo)

The demographics of diners in Kashmir are changing. “Back in the 1980s, it was mainly families. In recent years, groups of women have started visiting too. Women venturing out unaccompanied by a male was unheard of and is a welcome change,” says Bhat, crediting a bunch of cafes that have mushroomed in the city over the past decade for this trend.

In its 100th year, Ahdoo’s is ready for change too. Bhat has expanded the menu to include barbecued and grilled fare, pizza and pasta. A franchise model is in the works for the bakery. “We plan to open the restaurant in Delhi and Mumbai too, and get into the sale of pre-packaged wazwan.”

Ahdoo’s remains a hotel in a conflict zone, facing constant flux. “Our restaurant keeps us going,” says Bhat.

As Whitehead puts it, “I ate there a year ago, a really excellent dinner - and the restaurant was busy. Ahdoo’s is a great survivor. In Kashmir, that’s quite something.”

First Published: Jun 23, 2018 19:47 IST