100 Years of Karim’s

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The rise and rise of Karimuddin’s unusual business idea

In an undated photograph, faint in the way dateless photographs are yet proudly preserved without a single tear along the edges, Haji Karimuddin meets the gaze of the camera calmly. It is a close-up, his beard is stately and trimmed, his eyes have no lines around them. His skin is that of a man in his thirties, but his gaze is that of an older, calmer man, a man who has found his place in the world. His beard, too, in the fashion of the day, is a mark of an established man. The family is not sure but they reckon the photograph was taken some time before Partition, 1945 most likely.

In the earliest image the family has of Karimuddin, he sits in the centre of the frame, a baby on his lap. Standing to his left is his son Haji Nooruddin, and to his right, a friend of his son. The baby on his lap is his grandson, Nooruddin’s son. His clothes are heavy but well-fitted, his beard and whiskers well-tended, and his gaze is still. His skin is taut, his face has no jowls or at least his beard holds them in skillfully. He is a young grandfather.

The Karim’s family has no date for this image either, but they have a pretty good idea that it was taken in 1932, the year the grandson was born. Haji Zahooruddin is 80 now, managing director of the iconic Old Delhi restaurant business started by his grandfather. Easily a dozen years set apart the two photographs, yet the man in focus looks no different, the years have not marked him out, physically at least.

Haji Zahooruddin chuckles in pleasure at this observation. “We are not a family for figures and dates, but he lived to be a hundred at least. Till the end, he never needed glasses or false teeth. He used to measure out masalas for cooking till the end. Mere waalid saab bhi aise hi thhe (My father was the same). He also lived to a hundred-odd years. This is the bequest of the food of the kings. My grandfather used to consume a quarter kilogram of ghee every day. And he wrestled. Can you imagine anyone today being able to eat like that?”

In his family lore, Karimuddin was a wrestler of marked ability and stamina. He went to the ring till his eighties, and he could lift a mace of 20 kg with ease. Every day, he went to the akhara (wrestling pit) for a couple of hours, the rest of the day went in running his eatery which opened at eight in the morning for breakfast and typically shut at ten in the night.

Haji Karimuddin’s father, Mohd Aziz, is said to have worked in the royal kitchens of Lal Quila. When the revolt of  1857 came to Delhi, the last Mughal emperor became a figurehead of the revolutionaries and was exiled by the British. The emperor’s staff lost their livelihoods, among them Karimuddin’s father who fled to Ghaziabad and made a hardscrabble living by doing various odd jobs. Still, he taught his sons to cook because he believed that the royal recipes and cooking techniques were an heirloom worth preserving. “Yeh hunar hai hamara (This is our special acquirement),” says Zahooruddin. “Unhone socha humein isey yunhin khona nahin chahiye (He thought we shouldn’t let go of it just like that).”

“Karim’s origins go back to the days of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar at the very least,” says Salma Husain, a consultant with ITC Hotels who runs the famous Dum Pukht restaurant, and a Mughal food historian who has authored several luscious books such as The Emperor’s Table: The Art of Mughal Cuisine, which won a Gourmand World Cookbook Award in 2009. Husain has also worked in the National Archives of India, where she took advantage of her proximity to historical documents to research her subject thoroughly. “In fact, Charmaine O’Brien writes in her book Flavours of Delhi that Karimuddin’s forefather was a Saudi Arabian soldier who came to India and joined Emperor Babar’s army. But his cookery skills gained him the position of personal cook to the Emperor,” Husain says.

Mise En Scène

In 1911, the capital of the British Empire in India shifted from Calcutta to Delhi and the occasion was marked by a visit of the newly crowned King George V and Queen Mary. A grand Delhi Durbar was organised so that the Raj’s subjects, kings and princes of India, could pay obeisance to the crown.

Around this time, Karimuddin came up with a novel idea for those times. He decided to set up a stall for selling food to those attending the Durbar. He set up his kiosk near what is now Gate No 1 of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, with a two-course menu: alu-gosht (mutton with potatoes) and dal.

“In those days,” says Zaeemuddin, a director at Karim Hotels Private Limited and great-grandson of Karimuddin, “there was no culture of eating out, I have heard from my grandfather. It was considered shameful if you had to eat out. [People would ask] ‘Tere ghar mein maa-behen nahin hain, jo tu bahar kha raha hai?’ (Why are you eating out, don’t you have a mother or sister to cook for you at home)”

As it happened, there were a large number of such visitors to Delhi at the time who did not have families to cook for them—an itinerant population brought to the city by the Durbar and the job of building a new capital city, the grand showpiece of a crumbling British empire.

Many of these were foreign visitors. The stall at the Durbar did such good business that Karimuddin continued selling his alu-gosht and dal even after the Delhi Durbar wound up. In a couple of years, he decided to open an eatery in the locality. This first eatery was not at the place where Karim’s now stands: as much a lure for foodies to the overcrowded and noisy republic of Old Delhi, and yet cool and dignified as the Jama Masjid. But it was close by, and within a few years, Karim’s moved to the premises it now occupies.

In the first few years, the eatery opened around noon and shut shop around ten at night. In the mornings, Karimuddin went shopping for the ingredients himself. He was especially particular about the cuts of mutton, insisting that the butcher carve out his precise instructions. He bought meat from only a couple of butchers he trusted. And to this day, the family buys its meat from them.

The closing time was flexible, depending on the tide of customers. Some days Karim’s stayed open till late night when there was a festival or an event that brought a lot of people to the city. The family, in the tradition of keeping everything dateless, is not sure how long this phase of happy elasticity lasted, but soon Karimuddin realised that breakfast made good business sense and started serving food right from eight in the morning.

Mise En Place

“We got a number of regular foreign patrons this way. The foreigners would eat breakfast on their way to work. One of our most prominent patrons was the chief of the Public Works Department, who maintained a monthly credit account with us,” says Zahooruddin. The menu, at the time, had expanded to include roti, sabzi (vegetables), biryani and other gosht dishes. 

This was always mutton, never beef, as a large number of their customers were Hindu. “We’ve always had a lot of Hindu guests, though at the time I hear most of our customers were foreigners,” says Zaeemuddin. “But the number of Hindu guests was always far larger than the number of Muslims, a pattern that continues even today. Today, in fact, 90 per cent of our guests are Hindu,” he says.

The menu of Karim’s was substantially expanded by Karimuddin’s son Nooruddin, who added dishes such as nihari, paaya (trotter), gurda kaleji (kidney and liver curry) and bheja (brain curry)—food that is now called the cuisine of Old Dilli. In a sense then, it was Nooruddin who made this eatery an integral landmark of Old Dilli, taking the food of the royal Mughal kitchen to people on the streets.

“Their nihari and paaya are still among the best available, though it must be said that in recent years some others have surpassed them,” says Husain. “But they started serving it. Their burra kebab is still peerless.”

Nooruddin joined the business a few years after completing school, having knocked around in college for a bit.

His father taught him how to cook, because Karimuddin believed that taste was the first principle of their business. “It’s what people still come to us for, that same particular taste. That and the tenderness of the mutton,” says Zaeemuddin, a fourth-generation member of the family and owner of two small Karim’s branches in Pitampura and Greater Kailash, New Delhi. “This is my main concern, that I [should be] able to give the customers of my two little shops that Karim’s taste, which my great grandfather worked to establish,” he says, “Our family has stuck to his principle. We don’t need to do new things. He understood how the food business works.”

Nooruddin’s initial years in the business were a period of consolidation for Karim’s. The 1940s especially were exciting years; the family was, in fact, startled to see how much of a reputation they had managed to create. The family estimates that Karim’s started receiving customers by the hundreds every day in the pre-Partition years. On 26 January 1948, Karim’s did business worth Rs 1,000, shutting shop only after the thousandth rupee came in. “Each of us grandsons received a rupee that day,” says Zahooruddin.

Zahooruddin joined the family business as soon as he finished school. Like his father before him, his grandfather trained him to cook; which means that he learnt the exact proportion of masalas for each dish. “Growing up, I saw cooking all around me. I could cook well. But my grandfather believed that the precise blend of masalas is to be taught only when you start working seriously, like a rite of passage,” says Zahooruddin, who is known for turning out memorable feasts at short notice even now in his eighties.

The secrets of their recipes continue to be passed on only to the sons of the family. To this day, in all of Karim’s branches and outlets, the entire recipes are never shared with the staff. They are given only a set of cooking instructions, but the actual spices and their proportions are revealed only to family members. This is crucial for sustaining the brand mystique.

That is one rule that has not been broken. In fact, when television channel Star Plus shot a special episode of the cooking show Master Chef, which featured Haji Zahooruddin preparing tikkas on air, he did not reveal the complete recipe. “You don’t need to show everything, even on television,” chuckles Zaeemuddin, who had been on hand during the shoot to help his uncle. “These recipes are our inheritance, our livelihood. Khana toh koi bhi bana sakta hai (Anybody, after all, can cook).”

At their original restaurant in Old Delhi, there is a board that lists the pretenders: five eateries that use the Karim’s name but have nothing to do with the family business. This apparently is a dated list; there are many more who use the brand name now. “The ones mentioned on the board are those we have initiated legal action against, so they cannot use our name till the courts reach a verdict,” says Zaeemuddin.

Cash Register

Zaeemuddin’s years in the business have been marked by swift expansion of branches and an acute consciousness of the brand’s equity. “We are a family-run enterprise. We realised the concept of brand [equity] only when people began to approach us to do business with them in partnership; others began to operate restaurants in our name. People have even offered us money to use our name. Many people, big hotels. I don’t remember names. I get many calls every day,” says Zaeemuddin.

The first branch of Karim’s was opened in the 1960s at Nizamuddin. It was inaugurated by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed’s wife. President Ahmed was a big fan of Karim’s, and often ordered its food at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

But the Nizamuddin branch ran into difficulties during the Emergency when its premises were sealed, even though Sanjay Gandhi was reportedly a major Karim’s aficionado. The family says he helped them operate from a place in Jor Bagh while the restaurant was sealed. Once the Emergency was lifted, they were allowed to go back to their Nizamuddin property.

By the late 1980s, the international press, like National Geographic, the BBC and Time magazine, had got wind of the huge reputation of a small eatery by Delhi’s Jama Masjid. By this time, the family had wisened up. They copied and laminated the glowing recommendations and put them up on their walls.

The next branch opened four decades later in the early 2000s, and the next decade saw a flurry of new outlets. Today, just short of completing a hundred years in the business, Karim’s has 13 branches in the National Capital Region. They have no operations outside this area. The Dubai eatery (which many think belongs to them) is not an authentic Karim’s branch, says Zaeemuddin.

A Man’s World

Only sons in the family are allowed to enter the business. Daughters are not taught the complete recipes because they could reveal the secrets to outsiders after they marry.

In this, Karim’s seems to operate like families of classical musicians, who trust only the sons to carry on their grand, ‘God-gifted’ tradition. Other than the feisty Zila Khan, daughter of sitar maestro Ali Akbar Khan, and Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Ravi Shankar, can you think of any of our feted musical families promoting their daughters? Perhaps feudal values are no impediment to business success.

Indigenous restaurant brands are few in India, and probably no one has lived to be a hundred and thrive like Karim’s. At the Jama Masjid eatery, there are always, always neat  queues, a talent for which eludes most north Indians. Yet, the ones outside this Karim’s are well-behaved and polite. Often, cordial recommendations among strangers can be overheard. This collective spirit of happy anticipation gets a little upset when Karim’s celebrity fans come visiting. But perhaps not too much.