Restaurants by Monish Gujral

“Moti Mahal in a packet” –

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Every newcomer to Delhi comes bearing a must-do list. Visit Red Fort on a lazy Saturday morning, shop for silver till broke at Dariba, wind up at Karim’s for a late burra-and-biryani lunch. Spend a Thursday evening feasting on qawwali and kebabs at Nizammuddin. Head to Defence Colony/Hauz Khas on Friday evenings and drown the cares of the week at one of the numerous watering holes. Wake up late on Sunday, scour the Daryaganj pavement market for that out-of-print book you’ve been looking for since forever, find it, and beat a tired way to the original Moti Mahal to celebrate with tandoori chicken and butter chicken. The specifics vary, but the essence remains the same.

I am no exception. In the past few years that I’ve been in Delhi, I’ve managed to tick off most of the items on my list. Except one. I’ve never been to Moti Mahal. My loss, I’m sure, but somehow whenever I’ve found myself in the serpentine lanes of old Delhi, I’ve found myself headed to Karim’s or the Parathewali Gali and promised myself to be back for that Moti Mahal experience soon.

So this week when I was handed an invite to the launch of ready-to-eat (RTE) signature Moti Mahal dishes, evocatively named Tandoori Trail, I sent up a silent prayer of gratitude to the foodie god. Now, if this wasn’t a case of the mountain coming to Mohammed…The products are results of years of research and have a shelf life of 12 months from the date of manufacture though they don’t contain any preservatives. A note on the packet claims that the preservation process has been developed by the Defence Food Research Laboratory of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DFRL-DRDO).

The first look at the packets that were delivered for review dampened my appetite somewhat. There were five packets—Dal Moti Mahal, Subz Moti Biryani, Zeera Aloo, Chana Pindi Masala and a butter gravy to which you could add paneer or chicken. Missing from the line-up are tandoori chicken or even butter chicken—the two nearly century-old creations of Kundan Lal Gujral that put Moti Mahal and Indian cuisine firmly on the world culinary map.

The second dampener was the packaging. It’s just about alright. Despite the pictures of sundry commendations bang on top, it doesn’t really make you salivate. But I chided myself that Moti Mahal’s place in history had been sealed long before evil MNCs seduced me with packaging. And didn’t I know better than to not judge a book by its cover, or a ready-to-eat by its packet?

Unfortunately, that old adage didn’t hold true. What came out of the packets were not much better than the lurid, low-res pictures of the dishes. The dal was too orange, too tangy for a real dal makhani. The whole point of a dal makhani is balance—equal proportions of tomato puree and butter. This one overdosed on the tomato puree. There’s just no comparison with the other RTE dal, the Dal Bukhara of ITC’s Kitchens of India brand. That treat of a dal makes you want to linger over every spoonful, savouring a dal that has been slow-cooked and then packed. This one simply left me cold. And dal makhani is one of Moti Mahal’s signature dishes!

But perhaps I’d had too high expectations, having heard and read so much about the restaurant but never having actually eaten there. The Subz Moti Biryani and the Chana Pindi Masala were better, though again, the chana recipe overdosed on the tomato puree. The biryani was a decent pulao-ish affair (I can’t really think of a meatless, not-dum-cooked rice dish as a biryani), with quite a few chunks of paneer. It was no better or no worse than the biryani at your neighbourhood take-away joint.

The Zeera Aloo is, however, a disaster. It tasted nothing like a zeera aloo, nor looked like one. It didn’t even look like the picture on the packet! That at least is yellow, with the zeera visible. What came out of the packet was, yes you guessed it, orange, with tomato-doused gravy and barely a hint of the zeera. Zeera aloo, I’ve always thought, is one of those dishes that are impossible to get wrong. It’s what your mother teaches you first, along with omlette and dal when you leave home for college. This RTE version would make even a first-time cook’s version of zeera aloo seem like a gourmet dish.

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