Far from the glitz and aggressive modernity of India's suburban malls and the pressed-linen composure of luxury oases like the Imperial Hotel, Old Delhi is a chaotic maze of extremely crowded, dusty, and noisy streets, lanes, and alleyways overflowing with merchants hawking spices, jewelery, fabric, religious articles, stationery, sandals, and pretty much everything in between. Getting lost in the crowd there—for a tall white man like me, this is purely figurative—is an exhilarating, vivifying rush for the adventurous traveler. Tucked away in a small courtyard in the shadow of the majestic Jama Masjid (above) is a world-renowned yet resolutely humble restaurant, Karim's.
(Please see the "Old Delhi" photo album for some illustrations.)
There are two kinds of food in India: vegetarian and meaty, "veg" and "non-veg," colloquially. To make even more of a generalization, Hindus are vegetarians, and Muslims are carnivores. Karim's is one of the best non-veg restaurants in all of North India, and serves exquisite, "royal" Mughal cuisine at popular prices. The tandoor, or clay oven, is perhaps the most important culinary legacy of the Mughal invasions of the 16th century. Also, the liberal use of spices and the rich, creamy curries many people associate with "Indian food" are Mughal influences. Karim's has been serving peerless curries, kebabs, and breads for almost 100 years and has opened several branches within and outside Delhi.
Once you locate and meander through the tiny passageway leading to the courtyard of Karim's, the restaurant itself is really nothing to look at. The royal cuisine so revered by generations of Delhiites and international epicures is served in a shabby, divey setting that belies the delicacies on offer. There is nothing to be concerned with hygienically, but if this is your very first dining experience in India, you may feel quite apprehensive. The connoisseurs will say how Karim's has gone downhill in recent years, and that there are superior offerings from the street carts the government is trying to banish, but my Western tummy precludes any first-hand assessment of street eats. Karim's, like any institution, has its detractors, but I think the food here is first-rate.
Even though some of the press clips at the entrance are 20 years old, which is never a good sign, Karim's must be in every current guidebook, since tourists consistently find their way to this well-concealed destination. Two wide-eyed Scandinavian women, possibly a mother and daughter, entered as the trio of my Indian S.O., my friend Sarah and I had just completed our order. The women were both wearing skimpy, drip-dry backpacker gear that must have raised a few thousand eyebrows as they made their way through the crowds. They looked a bit bewildered, and eventually the younger one approached me and asked, more or less, if I were a local. Well, no, but I offered my help. Thankfully, the questions were easy and I knew the answers: how do you say coriander (dhania) and is the chicken OK (yes, if memory serves from a previous visit, it is safe and delicious).
We ordered a round of Thums Up, India's homegrown cola, since the cold beer we really desired is not served here. As we performed the customary, pre-meal Purell ablutions, our order of the famous keema arrived. Keema is seasoned, minced meat, and here, it was mutton. (There is an ambiguity, at least for me, surrounding what is called mutton in South Asia. In the States, mutton is sheep—mature lamb—but in India it can also refer to goat meat.) The hand-chopped meat was studded with peas and was bathed in a tasty oil slick, which we shamelessly sopped up with the handkerchief-thin, crêpe-like rumali roti, between bites of lime-drenched raw onion and green chillies.
Then we enjoyed the seekh kebab, sausage-shaped kebabs of minced mutton redolent of lemony coriander seeds and cooked on flat skewers. The tandoori burra, wonderfully charred chunks of roasted mutton, followed. Picking at the steaming, pillowy naan bread, fresh from the tandoor, we feasted on the delectably tender meat. We didn't order any chicken this time, unlike the Lonely Planet ladies a few tables away, but we felt obligated to have some more of that heavenly keema, this time in the form of a keema naan, which was served like a crisp panino.
Kheer benazir is the justly famed rice pudding scented with cardamom and topped with chopped pistachio. To be eaten with little wooden paddles, it is chilled and served in little clay bowls. If rice pudding does nothing for you and brings back memories of miserable childhood desserts, this version could well make a convert out of you.
So, with full bellies and barely lighter wallets (easily less than 10 USD per person), we left the sanctum of Karim's and wandered back toward the glorious bustle of Old Delhi. Some very persistent urchins had patiently waited for us to have lunch and were ready to pounce again as we made our way toward the marketplaces, ready to haggle until we had worked up enough of an appetite for our next meal.
Gali Kababian, near Jama Masjid