‘We can’t be going in there. There’s a man cooking with his feet on the wall’
My treasured food memory: Arun Kapil, spice merchant and author
Arun Kapil: A meal to remember at Karim’s in Old Delhi
We packed ourselves into a convoy of cycle rikshaws. Dad was too ill to travel through the streets of his birth by this time, but he was keen that we all got to taste the delights of Old Delhi. So off we all went, my brothers, our wives, Mum, our niece and nephew, in hungry, eager anticipation.
Our driver, lit beedi hanging out his mouth, energetically peddled us along, dodging in and out of trucks, cars and taxis, swearing and gesticulating at scooters and motorbikes, everyone hooting madly as we made our way.
The rikshaw pulled up outside the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. Passing fruit sellers, vegetable stalls and various hardware hawkers, we stopped at the subdued door to Karim’s to take a few quick snaps, to the horror of our 11-year-old niece. “We can’t be going in there. There’s a man cooking with his feet on the wall.”
True enough, sitting cross-legged by the entrance door was a young chap, patting pillow-like dough balls, deftly shaping naan breads, stacking them expertly into a woven basket.
We were presented with beautifully covered menus relaying the story of the restaurant’s beginnings
“He’s not cooking with his feet, Doobs! That’s just how he’s sitting. Come on!” The dimly lit hallway seemed like an extension to the street we had just left, open gutters running either side of a cobbled path.
At our table, we were presented with beautifully covered menus relaying the story of the restaurant’s beginnings. It opened in 1913 to feed the food of the palaces to the everyday man.
After a short wait, spotless, warm, white, heavy-porcelain plates arrived, were given a quick last polish and then placed in front of each of us, next to freshly laundered linen. Next arrived bottled water, papads and pickles, onion and cucumber kachumber, an array of chilli achaars and a beautifully sweet mango chutney.
Mum insisted on squirting a drop or two of antiseptic gel onto each of our hands. We tucked in to charred tandoori roti, generously stuffed, buttery paratha, soft billowing naan, licking fingers as we selected from a laden table of freshly cooked kebabs, perfectly moist and burnished chicken thighs, beautifully spiced and hot dahl tarka.
Biting in to green chillies, passing plates and bowls to one another, looking up occasionally as more breads and pilau platters would arrive, mopping up cooking juices, wiping cheeks and faces. Spicing, seasoning, it was a feast. It was perfection.
I loved the food, its glorious unapologetic surroundings, the grumpy, busy, smartly dressed waiters. As I looked around our table at Mum, my brothers, my sisters-in-law, my niece, nephew and at my beautiful wife, I knew this would be an experience I would never forget. After one more glance around to take it all in, I got back to the delicious job at hand.
- Arun Kapil is a food entrepreneur, spice expert, and founder of Green Saffron, the spice company based in Cork. greensaffron.com