Deep in the winding streets of Old Delhi, amid reels of power lines, inexplicable traffic, and the occasional goat, sits one of the city's institutions—a restaurant over a century old with royal prestige at its heart and fluffy naan breads perfuming its stoves.
Karim's has long been a favourite of many in India's capital city, a place where—much like the rest of the country—vegetarians are in abundance. Around half the population declares itself to be purely vegetarian—that's 500 million people steering well clear of meat. Even places like KFC are more about paneer and peas. Westernisation in some more affluent areas has brought a greater fondness for the likes of chicken and beer, yet India largely remains a largely traditional—and deeply religious—country.
But Karim's, a Delhi institution and a Muslim eatery specialising in Mughlai cuisine and nestled in the shadow of the Jama Masjid mosque, is all about the meat. While you won't find bacon or steaks, chicken, mutton, and goat are the mainstays of the place. Rich curries emanate from its kitchens—following expansion, there's now 13 of them. Yes, 13.
After a sojourn in a rickshaw and a collision with a motorbike, we arrived at a sign that pointed us into an -like alley that opened out into a small, illuminated square. There before us were men stirring large pots, spices filled the air in fragrant clouds of steam.
Karim's harks back to the nearby Red Fort's imperial kitchens, headed by Mohammed Aziz, a man who satisfied the tastes of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. The British abolished the courts in 1857 and those inside were forced to move on. Butyears later, during the coronation of King George V, Indians flocked to Delhi in celebration and Aziz's son, Haji Karimuddin, set up a dhaba—a cheap food outlet—and served up to the masses the very dishes his father cooked for royalty.
Delhi resident Akanksha Chaturvedi, 24, says Karim's does "the best meat dishes you've ever tasted", dubbing it nothing short of an "institution".
"It's the first of its kind and we owe them a great deal of gratitude for preserving our Maghlai culture," she says. The fact it was busy isn't much to say as everything's busy in Delhi, but the eclectic mix of customers was startling. There were Muslims, meat-eating Hindus and Sikhs and the odd traveller among us when we were seated in a corner next to a dusty fan. To our left the walls were lined with local reviews, but other than that décor was sparse.
The service was abrupt (a New York Times review recounted "plates flung like Frisbees") but you can't expect anything different—when it comes to food, for many Indian restaurateurs, that's all that matters. A good meal. Everything else is peripheral. The proprietors simply cook age-old recipes in their steel vats, marinade meats on their poles and serve them out to the hungry, as they did 100 years ago.
We tried as much as we could—naan, roti, seekh kebabs, mutton and chicken specialities—hoping to capture the flavours of Aziz conjured in the rooms of the nearby Red Fort, passed down through generations. A man called Ritvik Walia, who moved to London from Delhi at 13, told me that he's never found better Mughali food in India.
"It's not the average food an Indian family would eat at home," he told me. "It's not even what they'd eat if they went out. It's a throwback to yesteryear. It cannot be replicated. Part of the charm is the crowded Old Delhi streets you navigate to get there and, the closer you get, the further back in time you travel. It's a hidden gem—somewhere you'll only come to know of if you're a foodie".
Meat isn't necessarily difficult to find in Mumbai, Delhi and other major cities. But, because the people cooking it don't eat it—and therefore don't taste it—the chicken is often dry, the mutton chewy. If you find a good market tandoori, you're lucky. Mughlai dishes are a different beast, though. Embracing vegetarianism is almost a prerequisite for travelling to India, and certainly, dishes like (cauliflower and potato) followed by a bowl of kheer (sweet, cardamom-infused rice pudding) are very satisfying.
Being English, though, the yearning for a good kebab is like the one you get for an ice cold Kingfisher after a day in the sun. We can't help ourselves.
The twilight hours of UK nightlife are pretty much built on skewered meat, flat breads and heat. But trying one at Karim's is like a punch in the face. They make simple proteins taste exotic—the fresh naans, the heady spice blends (made from fresh spices rather than pinches of stale moth dust from little supermarket pots) screaming heat and the muscle memory of the cooks made for a kebab experience that will cloud any of my future shish experiences. I couldn't even bring myself to photograph it.
It's not just kebabs they excel at here, either. There's akbari murgh masala, cooked in curd and wading in butter, described by one of Karim's chefs as "a rare recipe… in our possession for generations". Or the badshahi badam bassanda, which is mutton chopped in a "special process" and made with almonds. Shamefully, we didn't order the whole roast baby goat and, having tried it elsewhere, felt no need for the mutton brains.
In the UK these kind of dishes are unlikely to be found, or, have been diluted to suit the common thread of things. That's how it goes. Karim's mixed veg, hardly a healthy option in unrelenting reservoirs of oil, seemed a fittingly exuberant way for emperors to get their five-a-day and a far cry from the drier, milder version made at your nearest curry house.
Karim's is full-on. It's incredibly indulgent and, probably, greasier than anything I've eaten in my life and all the better for it. The place is a Mughlai pilgrimage, a meaty wormhole back in time. To eat there is to truly eat like a king. But this Englishman has been tarnished now. No kebab will ever be the same, and for that, Karim's, you owe me.