How “Eat” all began – The Indian Express – 5th July 2004

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Rabindra Seth
An unintended benefit of the otherwise traumatic partition of India is the introduction, first to Delhi, later to the rest of the newly independent nation, and, eventually the whole world the fabled north-west frontier tandoori cuisine. How this came about is recorded in a book released recently in the Capital at the ITC Maurya Sheraton Hotel which itself has achieved sophisticated branding of the cuisine through its internationally acclaimed Bukhara restaurant. The book, however, is ‘the story of a man who set out on a culinary adventure and changed the face of Indian cooking. This is the story of a man and a recipe which internationalised the Indian taste for succulence and spice in its food. This is also the story of a man who made the curry a butter-filled delight, bringing to the ordinary chicken a special flavour. A man who turned the plebeian village tandoor for baking into a royal mode for his innovation. The tandoori chicken. Then came the butter chicken. The result – a revolution in taste, a change in Indian eating habits and a place on the international gourmet map. The man was Kundan Lal Gujral. The restaurant where he housed his innovations was Moti Mahal. The two became a legendary mix.’ This is how Uma Vasudev, the noted journalist and author, begins her introduction to the book authored by Gujral’s grandson, Monish, who learnt the unique culinary art at the old man’s feet and backed his managerial skills with a diploma from the Pusa Institute for Hotel Management.
Vasudev takes readers on a trip down memory lane to the early days of the 1920s in Peshawar’s Gora Bazar frequented by British soldiers stationed in the cantonment where Mukha Singh, a Pathan Sikh opened a dhaba-like eatery offering tandoori chicken, kebabs and naan. One of his assistants was Kundan, not even an adult yet. This writer who also hails from the same historic city, has a vivid recollection of that young man, eager to please customers preferring Moti Mahal to other similar joints in the neighbourhood. Came partition in 1947 and a city that was home to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi and Dr Khan Sahib, the Congress chief minister, and which prided itself on communal harmony fell a victim to forces of violence compelling the Hindus and Sikhs to flee. Mukha and Gujral managed to get on a refugee train. Mukha headed for Dehra Dun and went into oblivion, while Gujral, then 37, chose Delhi for refuge. Tandoori chicken and the spirit of enterprise burning bright in his heart, he chose an open space barely a few square metres in size in a street corner facing the then Delhi’s outward move from the Old City towards Darya Ganj. The capital’s Moti Mahal was born. Its popularity was so exponential that within a year Gujral had acquired the adjoining area and Moti Mahal was now a large restaurant. To him goes the credit for innovating a see-through tandoor kitchen. The introducing of live qawwali music by renowned artistes and his PR-marketing savvy approach of personally welcoming every customer overnight made Moti Mahal not only a popular eating out attraction but also Delhi’s tourist draw card. Vasudev records how visiting dignitaries, kings, presidents and prime ministers were treated at Moti Mahal. She recalls that the then education minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad is reported to have said to the Shah of Iran on a visit to India that “coming to Delhi without eating at Moti Mahal would be like visiting Agra without seeing the Taj Mahal”.
Gujral’s big break came when Mehrchand Khanna, minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet (who lived a few 100 metres from Peshawar’s Moti Mahal and was its patron) asked him to cater at a dinner for the prime minister. Tasting tandoori chicken for the first time, the architect of modern India asked Khanna whose creation it was. And Khanna presented Gujral to him. There was no looking back for Gujral after that. Vasudev also quotes journalist and columnist Inder Malhotra who reminisces about him and Feroze Gandhi (Nehru’s son-in-law) making a beeline to Moti Mahal whenever they felt the urge for a mouth-watering meal. The list of foreign dignitaries who had a taste of Moti Mahal’s specialities is huge and includes such big names as president Richard Nixon, the Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev and the King of Nepal. And, of course the who’s who of India’s celebs.
The book titled ‘Moti Mahal’s Tandoori Trail’ and published by Roli Books is according to publisher Pramod Kapoor “a rare cook-book for the collector”. With over 100 rare Indian recipes to tickle the palate, Moti Mahal’s Tandoori Trail also adds that dash of spice with its black and white centre-spread full of pictures of the late Kundan Lal Gujral with yesteryear heroes and visiting dignitaries. There is also a photograph featuring India’s first kitty party. Author Monish Gujral steers clear of the mundane to offer legendary recipes like tandoori chicken, dal makhani, chicken pakora and other delectable varieties, many of which where served at the release function. The book was released by the then NDA Minister Arun Jaitley who had fond memories of the Darya Ganj eatery. And, to commemorate Kundan Lal’s tandoori trail from Peshawar to Delhi, Monish has launched the upmarket Moti Mahal Deluxe chain in the capital which he wishes to replicate in other parts of the country.

First chef from India to be invited to Le cordon Bleu to demonstrate in Paris. Monish is credited with the trailblazing turn-around of Moti Mahal, from being a small but iconic presence in Delhi, to becoming a multi-national corporation that is well on its way to defining how the world eats Indian food. A traditionalist, Monish has remained true to the signature dishes that made Moti Mahal a legend, while reinventing the dining experience into one that is exciting and avant garde to suit modern sensibilities.

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