This is probably the last post I’m salvaging from Chowhound. Sad that I don’t really have the time to go through most of the 1,174 posts I’d made from 2007-2015, and see what else I’d have liked to keep.
If nothing else, Old Delhi benefited culinary-wise from the India-Pakistan Great Partition when Kundan Lal Gujral, an enterprising chef from what was to become the Pakistani half of Punjab, moved to Delhi and opened Moti Mahal in 1947. He brought with him his collection of recipes and also cooking skills which he’d honed in Peshawar since 1920.
Who’s Kundan Lal Gujral, you may ask? Well, he’s the man who popularised the tandoori chicken as we know it, and his techniques pretty much defined how the dish was to be prepared and served in almost every North Indian restaurant (and some) around the world today.
He was also the man who invented one of my favorite Indian dishes of all time: the murgh Makhani (or butter chicken), with its rich, creamy, slightly-sweet sauce blanketing smoky, aromatic tandoori chicken pieces, besides the slow-cooked dal Makhani (dark lentil) dish so popular in North Indian restaurants.
I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Moti Mahal this evening - at its original Daryaganj outlet - to pay homage to this Indian dining icon. Also, I’d always wanted satisfy my curiousity: how does butter chicken taste like in its birth-place, and do the versions we have elsewhere around the world actually taste like what the dish should?
It was quite a drive into Old Delhi - once one leaves the elegance and space of New Delhi behind. The old city is a warren of tightly-packed buildings in dense, atmospheric neighbourhoods.
Funnily, our hearts skipped a beat at the sight of Moti Mahal - so, we were here at last! This was where historic personalities we read about in our history books had actually came to eat: Gandhi, Nehru, JFK, Nixon, even Nikita Khrushchev.
Our dinner this evening consisted of:
What else, but the murgh makhani (butter chicken). Quite a tasty rendition here. We were asked if we’d like the bone-in or boneless version. Of course, we opted for the bone-in one - the tastiest meat resided closest to the bone. It was a good dish but, disappointingly to us, not quite mind-blowingly smashing or memorable as we’d have liked it to be.
Mutton burra - meaty, fatty, and well-seasoned. It was certainly better than the excellent version we had at the historic 100-year-old Karim’s a couple of days earlier.
Rogan josh: best dish of the evening - perfectly-spiced and not too salty, unlike at many other eating places in Delhi. The lamb-meat was fall-off-the-bone tender.
Kadhai paneer: local paneer cheese squares, blanketed with a fire engine-red sauce which was supposed to be “mildly-spicy”, but which we found to our dismay was tongue-searingly hot!
Dhal fry: the version here was rather greasy, and much spicier than I’m comfortable with. Somehow, I prefer the milder, almost watery dhal fry I’d had at most places in India. I think, perhaps, I’d gotten used to the South Indian versions we get from Chennai or Bangalore. After all, Moti Mahal’s cuisine is Punjabi - known for its robust flavours, and which tend to be greasier than other regional Indian cuisines.
Garlic naan and laccha parantha: marvellous - we had perfectly-textured bread served piping hot.
Dessert: gulab jamun - not a must-have here and, as expected, way too sweet for our taste. But it’s very well-made, all the same.
The restaurant manager noticed us taking photos of our food, and asked if we’d like to visit the kitchens. Of course, we’d love to!
The huge kitchen was run like clockwork, with its team of chefs working almost non-stop to churn out the food as the orders came in rapidly as the evening wore on.
Indian dinner time is almost akin to Iberian ones: it gets busier and noisier past 9pm, and reached its peak around 10.30pm-11pm.
There was also live traditional Qawwali music, which complemented the 1960s/70s feel of the restaurant. We were told that, during the restaurant’s hey-days in the 1970s, top Delhi Qawwali singers would perform regularly at Moti Mahal.
Food-wise, it didn’t rise above any other North Indian restaurants we’d tried in India or back in Singapore. I think we enjoyed being here for its storied past, rather than anything else.
Interestingly, we found out much later that this original Moti Mahal at Daryaganj is not related to all the other Moti Mahal restaurants one sees in Delhi, or around the world, for that matter. The reason being that this original restaurant was bought by current owner, Vinod Chaddha from its founder, Kundan Lal Gujral himself back in 1991, and he’d continued to faithfully serve the same menu items, prepared using the original recipes. The other Moti Mahals, on the other hand, are franchises, either managed directly, or let out by Kundan Lal Gujral’s grandson, Monish Gujral.
3704, Netaji Subhash Marg, Daryaganj, Delhi 110002, India
Tel: +91 11 2327 3661