Punjabi food: Of Kwality, Chicken Tikka Butter Masala and dhabas
I have an issue with the very definition of Dhabas. The Dhabas of yore in cities and small towns were distinct from those on highways which had a separate genesis...
Published: 28th January 2023 09:31 PM | Last Updated: 19th March 2023 04:49 PM | A+A A-
Legend traces the origins of the ubiquitous Butter Chicken, the dish that defines Indian cuisine across the world, to Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, on the fringe of old Delhi. It was made out of leftover chicken prepared for the Tandoor the previous evening, enhancing the juice of the marinade with butter and tomato puree. Later, the immigrant Indian food entrepreneur Ghulam Noon innovated on it further to create Chicken Tikka Butter Masala that took Britain by storm displacing fish and chips as the de-facto national food of the British.
But within India, the credit for the popularity of Punjabi food, which has become eponymous with North Indian cuisine, must be shared with many restaurateurs. Among them were the brothers-in-law duo -- Lamba and Ghai -- of Kwality. Starting off in Dehradun, probably in the nineteen fifties, Kwality soon expanded not only to other metro cities like Kolkata and Mumbai but also Tier-2 towns like Lucknow, Allahabad, Pune, Nashik and, even, Jamshedpur. In many ways, it can be argued, Kwality was the first pan-Indian restaurant brand. Decades before others discovered the franchise model of the west, Kwality spread its footprint with members of the extended family shifting to different parts of the country.
Some may say Kwality took Dhaba food to a fine dining level. But that will be unfair. The Lambas and Ghais had perfected the classic model of the restaurant industry. Their recipe of success was standardisation and consistency. One could walk into a Kwality's restaurant in any city and expect the same taste, variety of food and ambience. The menu was almost identical.
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They followed identical recipes, without very little regional variation and had their own set of signature dishes, which were many starting from palak paneer, saag-meat, chicken bharta and, of course, the famous Amritsari kulcha and chole that ensured repeat footfalls. Their version of paneer and chicken butter masala were different from the Moti Mahal variety as they did not use tomato puree (a tradition still followed in Kolkata). They also had a limited selection of European (or "continental", as we call it in India) entrees for the anglophile diners.
Being also in the ice-cream business, they had some specialty ice-cream-based desserts like Cassata and "Tutti-Frutti" (a fruit salad with custard and jelly) in addition to the traditional caramel custard and kulfi with falooda. Most of the outlets served alcohol. Liquor was an additional attraction for the progressive middle-class clientele.
In the sixties and seventies, Calcutta (as Kolkata was called then) was the country's foremost corporate hub, which attracted talent from the rest of the country. It was far more cosmopolitan than it is today. With the headquarters of many multinational companies, banks, managing agencies, and trading houses, it also had a steady flow of business travellers from all over India. As a result, dining out and entertaining was common. Calcutta came to be known for its gourmet eateries.
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Kwality's was situated in the main restaurant district of Park Street with a branch in South Calcutta's Ballygunge. But it soon had a clone and competitor in Amber located in a less posh area at the border of Central and North Calcutta on Waterloo Street close to the iconic Great Eastern Hotel. Amber was owned by two brothers -- Rajpal and Deshi Khullar -- who came to the city in search of jobs and turned hoteliers by accident.
Calcutta then had a sizable Punjabi population. Many of them were executives in the 'box-wallah' firms. One of their close relatives worked for an American office equipment company -- a blue-chip MNC of those days. Courtesy him, his Punjabi bosses and their friends, Amber soon became a favourite lunch destination of corporate honchos.
Many of the company's board lunches were held in Ambers. It seems on one of those occasions, the chief steward of the restaurant mentioned to the chairman of the company, visiting from Mumbai (then Bombay), that his son had qualified as a Chartered Accountant and was keen to move out of Calcutta, where the economic situation was already on a decline. Apparently, in an expansive mood after a satisfying repast, the gentleman asked him to send the young boy to Mumbai, where he was taken as a trainee. He rose to become the vice-chairman of that company many years later. Good food can take people places.
There must be similar stories in other cities. Like Bombay's Khyber and Copper Chimney.
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However, it was Bukhara at ITC Maurya that took Punjabi food to its roots by introducing true North West Frontier cuisine in India. Before that the uninitiated could hardly imagine a meal of only naan-roti, dal and mutton raan all cooked in a Tandoor without any curries on the side. Even the concept of Burra Kebab was alien to most, available only in small restaurants of old Delhi and the Muslim quarters of some cities.
In Punjab, it was only in towns close to the border north-west of Jalandhar and going further up to Pathankot and Jammu that one could get a taste of Peshawari food, that too in small places where one could buy meat by the kilo to be grilled in the tandoor before the customer -- sometimes served only with sirka wala pyaz and mint chutney.
That takes us to the tale of Dhabas.
I have an issue with the very definition of Dhabas. The Dhabas of yore in cities and small towns were distinct from those on highways which had a separate genesis and, therefore, served a very different kind of fare. Those we find on highways or those that pass off by that tag in cities are neither Dhabas nor Punjabi. But let us keep it for another day.
For now, one can only lament that restaurants like Kwality and Amber hold no appeal for the younger generation who swing between fun and fine dining. The franchisees of Moti Mahal can only claim the name but neither the history nor character. Sadly, Bukhara and its many clones at five-star hotels are beyond the paygrade of ordinary Indians and certainly of a scribe. So, one must settle for the clones and make peace with "authentic fakes", as in many good things in life.
(Sandip Ghose is a current affairs commentator.)