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Those Were The Days

When you want to tell how old a tree is, you cut it open and look at the rings inside the trunk. Count the rings and you will know the age of the tree.

When you want to know how old a restaurant-goer is, you don’t have to do anything quite as drastic as cutting him open. You just ask him a few key questions.


For instance, you ask him what a ‘finger chip’ is. Or: you ask if you are supposed to fry the bun for a hamburger. Or: what kind of Indian curry is garnished with a boiled egg cut into quarters and dollops of cream? Or: what is the right way to cook a keema cutlet? Or: even, what is the greatest dish of “Continental Cuisine”? Then, you check the answers.


   A “finger chip” is a French Fry made with desi potatoes cut into fat wedges. The bun in a mutton hamburger must always be (at least lightly) fried. All Indian curries should be garnished with hard boiled eggs and cream. A keema cutlet must be shaped into a flat escalope, must have a bone (any long bone will do) stuck into its side, be coated in bread crumbs and then fried. And the greatest dish of Continental Cuisine? Why, that’s easy! Chicken A ‘la Kiev. Everybody knows that.


   If somebody got none of the answers right, you are dealing with a millennial. If they got three out of five, then your subject is in their 30s or 40s. And four right answers or more means that you are quizzing an old bore like me.


   Sometime in the 1980s, the food at restaurants in India began to change. But, from around 1950 to the 1980s, a certain kind of restaurant dominated Indian cities. And even smaller towns had slightly more down-market versions of the same kind of restaurant.


   In Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta, the restaurants were concentrated in a few select areas: in individual streets even. In Delhi, Connaught Place boasted of such places as United Coffee House, Kwality, Gaylord, Volga and Embassy. In Mumbai, you went to Churchgate Street to go to Talk Of The Town (or Café Parisienne before that), Berry’s, Napoli, and Gaylord. In Calcutta, Park Street was regarded as the centre of the universe with such places as Trincas, Moulin Rouge, Peter Cat, Blue Fox and (further down the road) Sky Room.


   These restaurants could be very different from each other. But they all had a few things in common. For a start, most of them were owned by Punjabis. They were usually multi-cuisine. They were open all day, unlike today’s specialty restaurants. You could walk in at 4 pm and be served a sumptuous lunch.


   The waiters were often not paid proper salaries but told to live on tips. (A disgraceful practice that was later abandoned.) And the menus were — if not nearly the same — drawn from the same basic stock of dishes.


   Many of these restaurants are now extinct: the new five star hotels, the fast food joints and globalisation polished some of them off. But many still remain. And the best ones have managed to secure the custom of an entirely new generation.


   I went, a fortnight ago, to the United Coffee House in Delhi’s Connaught Place to meet Akash Kalra, the third generation owner. My calculation was that, given the time (five in the afternoon) and the corona virus scare, the restaurant would be empty and we would be able to have a quiet chat.


   In fact, the place was jam-packed and we had to escape to a quieter spot on the mezzanine floor. The restaurant serves around 400 people a day from a vast A’la carte menu and the guests are not all long-time regulars; I counted at least eight tables of people in their 20s.


   This is not how I remember United Coffee House. When I was a child, it was the restaurant of choice for Lefties/Congressis and Punjabi intellectuals of all description. Several of my parents’ friends and acquaintances would go there every single day, drink endless cups of coffee (if you ordered a Cona coffee, then refills were free), discuss the state of the world and then scatter to have lunch at their own homes.


   I asked Kalra about the old days. His family’s is not the usual refugees-made-good story. His grandfather maintained parallel establishments in Punjab and in Delhi. He ran a liquor business from Sialkot and opened an American-style restaurant in Chandni Chowk during the Second World War to cater to US and British soldiers.


"Unlike most restaurants though, United Coffee House makes its own hand cut, house cooked wafers/crisps and they are delicious."

   In 1942, the Kalras realised that Connaught Place would become the new centre of Delhi. They opened United Coffee House as a restaurant that only sold coffee and a few snacks. At that time, there were hardly any restaurants in Connaught Place (Volga probably predated them) and then, as Connaught Place took off, their coffee house began to do so well that they transformed it into a full-fledged restaurant.


   I asked Kalra how the menu developed. His answer surprised me. Till the late 1950s, he said, the customers who could afford to eat in the Connaught Place restaurants were not Punjabis. They were the older residents of Delhi; Mathurs, banias and the like.  Many were vegetarian so the Connaught Place restaurants were run by Punjabis to feed the non-Punjabi Delhi elite (who they were later to supplant) from a largely vegetarian menu.


   At the same time, Delhi was also the home of two evolving culinary traditions. The Muslim cuisine of Delhi (which claimed to be descended from the Mughals) was growing in popularity. At the same time, the tandoori tradition popularised by Moti Mahal was also spreading across the city and eventually, all over India.


   But the Connaught Place restaurants were largely immune to those trends. They installed tandoors, of course, and United Coffee House created its own version of Butter Chicken, which is still on the menu. (I tried it. More cream than the original and not boneless but a little like the Daryaganj version which claims to be a replica of the Moti Mahal original.)


   The non-vegetarian food they served followed a different pattern. In essence, they took the food of undivided Punjab (which included Muslim influences), tarted it up with all kinds of fat (butter, oil, cream etc.) and then, because it seemed  wrong to serve it home-style in a fancy restaurant, created fancy garnishes – strips of ginger, coriander leaves, wedges of boiled egg, puddles of cream, etc. for every single Indian dish.


   This tradition developed largely in isolation from the Delhi/Lucknow style of cuisine and though such names as Mughlai were regularly employed, the food was roughly as authentically Mughal as Daler Mehndi.


   Initially, the Western dishes were meant for foreign guests. In Kalra’s case, his father, who had lived abroad and was fascinated by French food, knew what he was doing. But most of the Punjabi restaurateurs had no clue what real European food was like.


   They fell back on the cuisine of the Raj Clubs and tried to re-imagine those dishes from a Punjabi perspective. That’s why there were so many club-style cutlets on the menu. To make these keema cutlets seem fancier, they took to inserting a ceremonial bone into the keema.


   The flavours of the European food they served were dictated by the cooks, most of whom were Gomes cooks from Calcutta who had ruled Clubland for decades. The Punjabi restaurateurs explained to them that Indian guests (unlike the goras in the clubs of old) liked everything fried and all fat was welcome.


   This advice led to the rise of Chicken Kiev, because a) it was crumbed and fried, b) it had butter in the centre which made it fattier and c) when you cut into it, the butter spurted out. Chicken Kiev is always inauthentic (the dish was probably invented in New York in the 1920s) so I don’t see why the Gomes-Punjabi versions should not take their place alongside other Chicken Kievs. In its day, it epitomised what Indians imagined was “Continental Cuisine”.


   So it was with the hamburger.  Even in the bad old days before Achche Din dawned, Punjabi restaurateurs were always reluctant to put beef on the menu. So they used a mutton patty (if they were lazy they used a shammi kabab) instead of the real thing. But how could they make a burger more interesting to Indians?


   Answer: fry, fry and fry again.


   So the hamburgers of Connaught Place and Churchgate Street consisted of fried goat patties sandwiched between two sides of a fried bun. When McDonald’s and the rest got here, the older restaurants hurriedly stopped frying their buns (and made them larger) but I kind of preferred the old version. Kalra made one for me at United Coffee House and it was as delicious as I remembered and he slathered the bun with onions sautéed in tomato ketchup.


   Kalra has given up on fat finger chips by the way, because the fast food chains have taught Indians what French fries should be like and most restaurants have switched to frozen pre-cut fries. Unlike most restaurants though, United Coffee House makes its own hand cut, house cooked wafers/crisps and they are delicious.


   When I planned to write this column, I wanted it to be an eulogy to the old Punjabi-owned restaurateurs. But after I saw the crowds at United Coffee House, I hastily abandoned that plan.


   Don’t cry for the old war horses. They are still fighting fit. Even if they no longer make finger chips!




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