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The best kebabs in India are in Delhi

First things first: The best kebabs — and biryani, many of us would argue—are to be found in Delhi. If you owe allegiance to Lucknow, Kolkata or Hyderabad, you will, of course, sit up in protest at this statement. The cities are, after all, known for their culinary excellence as much as for their “cultured” ways. All three have benefitted from a unique synthesis of the Hindu and Muslim cultures, having been centres for Mughal/Muslim courts in pre-Independent India. And as such, the highly stylized court culture and etiquette, heavily influenced by Persian finesse survives till this day in the architecture and craft and cooking as well as in the language and mannerisms of the people—in bits of pieces.

The shami and galauti kebabs of Lucknow used to be unmatched. Small shops in Aminabad and Chowk and around the KD Singh Babu stadium—the only sporting arena in the city then—did excellent versions, bettered only in private homes. And one had urban legends such as that of the tuned kebabi—the one-handed kebabchi, or cook, who would slice onions with speed using just his one hand and a stump! He, and his many sons and descendents, were reputed for a secret masala, said to contain over a 100 spices, the recipe for which he wouldn’t share with any one! Tunde kebabis have now sprung up all over the city and are well known in posh hotels and restaurants all over India, thanks in part to the efforts of food critics-turned-consultant Jiggs Kalra, who brought these street shops to the elite, packaging the cuisine in exotica. Yet, if you compare the kebabs that you get at these shops in Lucknow (where apart from the ones at the Taj, few other restaurants either in five-stars or stand-alones match the sophistication of what we have in the metros) to what is available in Delhi today, you will be in for a surprise.

It is true that Delhi, a melting pot with hardly any “culture” of its own, as people complain, has become the food capital in India today. The best of talent gravitates to the city and higher prosperity ensures that there are newer entrepreneurs trying to better what is already available. Reputations get made and marred with equal alacrity and each day is a challenge. So, if you have sampled some of these kebabs in Delhi, rest assured, these are possibly the best you will get any where in India!

1. Galauti kebabs: At Chor Bizzare, Asaf Ali Road, Delhi or at The Great Kebab Factory, Radisson Hotel, near the airport. The galautis are flat, pan-fried kebabs, which are famed for their melt-in-mouth quality. The mutton mince used to make these is marinated in raw papaya that acts as a tenderizer. These are exquisite even if they are full of fat. Best had with ulte tave ka parnatha.
2. Kakori kebabs: At Al Kausar, Vasant Vihar: This is more a take-away shop than a restaurant. But what incredible delights does it serve! The Kakoris are somewhat like the galautis, as in both are so tender that they melt in your mouth. But the kakoris are longer and shaped like a seekh kebab, skewered and then roasted. The story goes that these were invented in the small town of Kaori, near Lucknow, for an old nawab who had no teeth (and no dentures either in those times) and hence couldn’t chew. The cooks made up this tender version, where, indeed chewing is not required! An alternate story suggests that this kebab is considered blessed since it was originally made in the place by the same name (Kakori) in the dargah of Hazrat Shah Abi Ahder Sahib with divine blessings.
3. Seekh Kebabs: At Salim’s, Kailash Colony market and Khan Market: This is the kebab that bears the closest resemblance to the Persian kebabs (think chelo kebab) that would be typically served on top of a bed of rice—Persian cuisine didn’t have any curries. This was possibly introduced by the Mughals to India, and originally made of beef mince. Today, of course, lamb is used and even chicken (since beef is banned in India). At Salim’s, the kebabs are areally soft and fragrant and he certainly does the best “rolls” in town—wrapping the long seeks in hanky-like “roomali” rotis, spicing it up with mint and coriander chutneys and onion rings. If you are buying for a party—seekhs are popular snacks, and uncooked versions can often be bought from shops, requiring only a quick pan-frying at home, before being diced up into little cylinders, stuck with toothpicks and passed around at cocktails – try the New Empire Store at Khan Market. The kebabs there are more expensive than anywhere else, but they are microwavable and convenient for a party.
4. Shami kebab: And its cousin the Sheekhampuris, which are stuffed with fresh mint leaves, finely-chopped onions and green chillies, are two kebabs which are difficult to come by commercially, at least in authentic versions. Try Agni, the contemporary Indian food restaurant at The Park, New Delhi, for their offerings. Or, order these from Sabina Naseem, who lives at Press Enclave in Saket and makes these by the kilo on order. The famed shami kebabs in Delhi, of course, are Wenger’s or Nathu’s, essentially “confectionary” and snack shops dating back to the earli 20th century. But the kebabs here are thick and huge and not really like the delicate shami kebabs as-should-be.
5. Burrah Kebabs: At Rahim’s Mughal Durbar, Vasant Kunj: Even though Karim’s the famed shop in Old Delhi, near Jama Masjid (with outlets all over the city),whose owners trace back their origins to the royal cooks in the kitchens of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, is a famous destination for its Mughlai fare, mostly curries, I would say, but also kebabs. Amongst these, the best you can order are certainly the mutton burrahs, tender and charcoal-y, with enough meat on them to be worth your money. Also try the Nargisi koftas here, hard-boiled egg coasted in spicy mince and then dipped in curry, a delicacy on the verge of extinction, and the pasandas, made from the thigh of lamb and often stuffed with slivers of almond, another dish that you will perhaps not get anywhere else in the city.
6. Tikkas, malai tikkas…: The Clintons love Bukhara. Hillary was there recently and this is where you will also find these other kind of “kebabs”, simpler, less spiced, and made in the tandoor or clay ovens, from the Punjab and Afghanistan, rather than the central provinces of Mughal India. But it will be a very expensive meal.

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2 Responses to “The best kebabs in India are in Delhi”

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