A story of food and migration seen through post-Partition restaurants in India and the rise of dishes like butter chicken, dal makhani, Pindi chhole and tandoori fare.
The Partition was one of the most painful and violent events in modern history — an upheaval that resulted in the largest human migration of all time. Almost 20 million people were uprooted and forced to move. The division took place along religious lines and border states like Punjab and Bengal bore the brunt of it. As Punjabis, Sindhis and Hindus moved from Muslim-majority Pakistan into India, many Muslims moved in the opposite direction. Mass population exchanges took place amidst a breakdown of law and order, as nearly half a million died in riots, revenge massacres and perilous flights to safety. An equal number of refugees poured into India’s capital Delhi, the epicentre of the exodus from Pakistan.
From being a bastion of Prithviraj Chauhan, the last Hindu emperor to occupy its throne, Delhi became a sultanate and the city of Mughals, the imperial city of the British, and, after Partition, it would get a predominantly Punjabi flavour. As demographics changed, Delhi evolved over the ages, mirrored by its ever-changing cuisine. North of the British suburb of Civil Lines, Delhi’s largest refugee camp came up at Kingsway, a vast empty tract earmarked for the Viceroy’s Residence, later built on Raisina Hill. Kingsway Camp got shortened to ‘Camp’, as it’s known today. To accommodate the displaced people, many refugee colonies were set up and named after prominent Hindu Congress leaders: Moti Nagar, Patel Nagar, Lajpat Nagar, Malviya Nagar, Tilak Nagar, Mukherjee Nagar and Rajendra Nagar, which morphed into a ‘Punjabified’ Rajinder Nagar. Similar scenes played out in Kolkata where Hindu refugees from East Pakistan established squatter colonies like Bapujinagar, Netaji Nagar, Sucheta Colony and Suryanagar (after Surya Sen).
If the story of medieval Delhi was written by the Lodhis, Khiljis, Sayyids and Tughlaqs, its post-Independent culinary landscape was shaped by the Lambas, Kalras, Ghais, Malhotras, Wadhwas and Gujrals, who established empires of food! Displacement from places such as Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi, Quetta and Peshawar created a cultural shift. People carried their food habits with them, giving rise to a new palate. While many Hindus in Delhi were vegetarian, except Kayasths who loved their meat, those who came from Pakistan relished their kukkad (chicken). The old residents of Delhi were content with their aloo-puri, bedmi-aloo, fried parathas of Paranthewali Gali and a largely Mughlai palate. But the Punjabis who came from Western Punjab missed their baked breads like roti, naan and kulcha. They brought with them hearty appetites, rich tomato-based gravies, bolder curries, and one item that revolutionised the local food scene — the tandoor (clay oven).
Punjabi villages and towns had the concept of community tandoors for baking bread. The women prepared the atta(dough) at home and took it to the public oven (chulha) to bake rotis in the evening (sanjh) and thus, they became known as sanjha chulhas. Similar tandoors sprang up in Delhi’s colonies too. In those hard times of frugal resources, the tandoor was the perfect energy-saving device that preserved all the heat inside and gave a superlative baked product. The city’s new migrants took any job to eke out a living; some started selling tea and tandoori rotis and naans (flatbreads) to make ends meet. Soon, they were grilling chicken and fish. On the dying ashes, handis of kali dal (black lentils) would be left to simmer overnight. Thus, a slow-cooking move driven by judiciousness and economy became the cornerstone of the dish. The rich ‘royal’ Mughlai food of Shahjahanabad was slowly replaced by the ‘street’ flavours of the tandoor and the emergence of ‘Frontier’ cuisine.
In 1920s undivided India, a young Kundan Lal Gujral worked at Mokhe da Dhaba in Peshawar. When the owner Mokha Singh’s health declined, he sold the shop to Gujral who renamed it Moti Mahal. The restaurant shut down just before Partition and Gujral’s flight to India was literally on a flight. In Delhi, he met his former associates Kundan Lal Jaggi and Thakur Das Mago at a liquor shop on Roshanara Road. Gujral resurrected Moti Mahal at Daryaganj in 1947 with Mago chipping in Rs 4,000 to buy a shop, and chickens from Jaggi’s poultry farm. The restaurant attracted a steady stream of loyal customers, like Suchha Singh, a manager at Firestone Tyres. He came late one night when the food was almost over and requested the cook to improvise. He scraped together the leftover dal with rajma and butter and the famous Dal Makhani was created. One day, a gentleman came by and ordered tandoori chicken but rejected it because it was too dry. The kitchen innovated a curry of tomatoes, cream and butter, into which the tandoori chicken was dunked and aho aho… Butter Chicken was born!
The Embassy opened on 4 June ‘in the summers of 1948’. Tracing its legacy, second-generation owner Sunil Malhotra mentioned how his grandfather got the contract of building Karachi Airport in the late 1930s. Sadly, his passing midway through the construction, pushed Sunil’s father Prem Nath Malhotra to go complete it. Being a Sindhi belt, there was no Punjabi food available there. As big foodies from Jhelum, neighbourhood friends PN Malhotra, GK Ghai and KD Kapoor took over a 250-seater Sindhi restaurant that was closing down and opened the first Kwality restaurant there. It was Quality with a K that cued its Karachi connection and was catchy. There was no looking back, as locals and US marines stationed there due to World War II flocked in droves.
After Partition, Malhotra and Ghai came from Karachi to Delhi. Selling off some jewellery, they started a restaurant in 1948. As embassies of different countries were opening up in Delhi, the founders envisioned it as a meeting point for common folk. They called their restaurant ‘The Embassy’; the name came up tops in a public opinion poll they conducted. It lived up to its name as regular customers printed “9:30am to 11am, Embassy Restaurant” on their visiting cards! Since the space was leased from a British lady who ran a parlour there, the menu was a mix of the old and the new to suit modern tastes. English favourites like puddings, baked dishes, cutlets and roast lamb rubbed shoulders with keema samosa and channa bhatura. Murgh musallam was added in 1952 and dal meat or lamb cooked with urad dal in 1960.
Many of their original chefs were from Karachi, including the tandooriya Chandra Sen, a 6’3” giant. “Uske do thapki mein naan lag jata tha,” Sunil chuckled. We bit into the succulent tandoori chicken and Mutton Chop Masala — cutlet dunked in rich, white sauce of almond milk, cream and mutton stock. Though the menu has grown over the years, the guiding mantra was: “Add something to the menu, but don’t take anything away.” Be it Fish Meuniere, Embassy Tomato Fish or the colonial pudding Creme a La Embassy, customers return for these signature dishes decades later. The Embassy has hosted Lord Mountbatten, and was a favourite haunt of Raj Kapoor, Yash Chopra and Arun Jaitley.
Purshottam Lal Lamba and his brother-in-law Iqbal Kishan Ghai came from Lahore before the Partition and began selling snacks to people coming out of the movies at Regal Theatre. They established Kwality at Regal Building in 1940, serving ice cream hand-cranked in a sancha (cream machine). A GI from the nearby barracks loved it so much that he brought his fellow American troops. One was an Italian who taught Ghai how to make ice cream sundaes and gave him a tip — to stay open late nights, serving ice cream by the pavement. It clicked! Equipment was imported and flavours like Sicily-style Cassata and Tutti Frutti took Delhi by storm. In 1948, Lamba while holidaying in Mussoorie, bumped into Pishori Lal, a cook from Rawalpindi, who gave him the recipe for chana bhatura. It was added to the Kwality menu and became their most iconic dish, along with seekh kebab, murgh malai kebab, rogan josh, malai kofta and keema anda curry.
Kwality became such a benchmark and formula for success that whenever anyone from the extended clan migrated from Pakistan and wished to start afresh, he was allowed to carry the Kwality name forward with the blessings of Mr Lamba, who even sent his cooks to train the staff. There was no concept of trademark or franchise back then. But the name stood for quality. Soon, Kwality restaurants popped up in Surat, Dehradun, Mussoorie, Aligarh, Bhilai, Nagpur, Kolkata, Ranchi, Bangalore, Vizag and Hyderabad. Chaddha opened the Pune branch while Marwah established the Jamshedpur one.
Eating out was just getting fashionable though only the rich could afford to visit restaurants. After Kwality, the duo set up a classier brand at CP in 1952. They called it Gaylord — where the G and L represented Ghai and Lamba! It was a black-tie affair with live bands, wooden floors and Continental fare like Roast Lamb, Grilled Chicken, Lobster Thermidor, Chicken Chasseur, Chicken Cecilia and Pomfret Meuniere. While the rest taught India how to eat, Ghai-Lamba taught India how to dine. In a dizzying rise, they opened Gaylord in Mumbai in 1956, followed by New York, Japan, the Caribbean and London, which was thronged by celebrities like Pandit Ravi Shankar, George Harrison and Peter Sellers. Unfortunately, the families parted ways in 1978 and divided the restaurant and ice cream business. Gaylord in Delhi shut down in 2004, though the Oxford Street (London) and Churchgate (Mumbai) restaurants are still going strong.
Many restaurants in ‘K’Not’ (Connaught) Place passed into Punjabi hands. Dhabas selling tandoori roti, dal makhani and rajma chawal, and stalls selling chhole-kulche mushroomed across neighbourhoods. What chicken became to non-vegetarians, paneer, till then an unknown entity on the Delhi food scene, became the city’s staple vegetarian fare. The Partition in some ways fuelled the popularity of samosas too. It was cheap, easy to set up a small enterprise, and a meal in itself when coupled with chhole. In 1947, Seth Girdhari Lal Munjal came to Delhi and set up shop on Panchkuian Road, serving samose-chhole. Though he called it Frontier Samosa Shop, it gained fame as ‘Panchkuian Road wale samose’. His son Tilak Raj Munjal expanded the business and newer flavours were introduced — dry fruit, dal, gobi, paneer, even a Samburger (samosa in a bun)!
In 1948, 20-year-old Kasturi Lal Wadhwa, the eldest of seven siblings, came from Rawalpindi and sold Pindi-style chanaand kulcha for an anna at India Gate. Parking his cart by the lawns, he would dash off to Feroz Shah Kotla cricket ground to sell chana-kulcha when the match began, then sprint back to ready the next batch, and rush over at the end of the match, to serve hungry crowds headed home. In 1959, he was allotted a shop in Pandara Market as part of the Partition compensation, and he started Pindi from a tiny open kitchen and outdoor seating on charpoys. As business boomed, Wadhwa’s sons Yashpal and Vinod gave up their careers in engineering and cricket to assist him. The menu expanded to include butter chicken, dal makhani, keema kaleji, mutton seekh, paneer tikka and tandoori chicken.
Wadhwa was so passionate about food that he would ride his second-hand Triumph at 6am to buy vegetables, chicken and mutton before dropping his grandson to school. Once they ran out of potatoes for the chana and he put seedless guava instead; yet people couldn’t tell the difference! The magic was in the masala. Even today, the composition of their garammasala remains a family secret. Two days before his passing at the age of 80, Lalaji as he was called, was at the shop tasting dishes in his trademark khadi kurta-pyjama. Head chef Lachchi has been around for over four decades, waiter Prem Singh came as a 15-year-old boy in 1968. “For a rupee, you got 10 rotis; dal was free,” he reminisces. Customers go back generations and at any point, third-gen owners Anuj or Pulkit are there for the personal touch.
At Havemore, third-gen owner Vaibhav Bajaj said that the restaurant arose from a pushcart before his grandfather and father Sushil Bajaj moved to the market in 1959. Over time, meat dishes were added — brain curry, tandoori chicken, mutton burra and winter delicacies like mutton sagwala and makki di roti-sarson da saag. Gulati too started off as a humble dhaba, followed by Asa Nand Arora, who began Chicken Inn in 1960. Though the facing road is Barda Ukil Marg, the market is famous as Pandara Road. Blame the strange name on a clerical error. In pre-computerised days, the supposed tribute to the Pandava brothers from Mahabharata, was lost in translation when the handwritten ‘v’ looked like ‘r’ and it became ‘Pandara forever! Interestingly, all the restaurants offer a similar menu serving Indian food and award-winning butter chicken, and each has its legion of fans.
However, the culinary action was not restricted to Delhi alone. The Partition saw large-scale dispersal of Sindhi Hindus; nearly seven lakh fled from Karachi alone! Many settled in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, especially in cities like Pune and Mumbai. Ulhasnagar, literally City of Joy, became the biggest Sindhi settlement in India. They carried their food traditions like Sindhi papad and sweets. Kimatrai Athwani who ran a sweet shop in Karachi with his brothers, had to abandon everything and migrate to India. The family moved to Pune, and stayed in a refugee camp for a few months before starting a tiny sweetmeat stall in Camp. They called it Karachi Sweet Mart after what was once home.
India’s Steel City Jamshedpur attracted its share of migrants. The wave of displaced Punjabis found shelter at Refugee Market, adding to the city’s Sikh population. Dayal Singh arrived from Sheikhupura in Pakistan and sold jalebis on a pushcart. He became so popular that ‘Bhatia ke Jalebi’ soon became a landmark. His grandson Satbir says, “If you got off at the railway station and asked to be taken to the jalebiwala, he’d bring you here.” It spawned an entire row of imitation shops called Jalebi Line. Surjit Singh Bhatia came post-Partition, with a 1st division in Urdu and Farsi from Lahore University. He tried selling lottery tickets, clothes and biscuits before finding success as Bhatia Milk Shake in the 1960s. He was one among many. The foundation of post-Independence cuisine in India was a story of migration and a lasting legacy that knew no borders.
The authors are working on a book on the heritage eateries of India to be published by Roli Books.