Monday, 4 July 2011

Finding Hakim Biryani

One of my first few days in Delhi when I still did not have my bearings and could not tell Defence Colony from Lodhi Colony, I and a friend Vivek attended an INTACH walk. I was using these walks as tools to orient myself. We went around Nizamuddin seeing many things, amongst them Ghalib's tomb, Nizamuddin dargah, Amir Khusrow's tomb. After we finished I remembered that another friend had recently told me about an eatery that served delicious Biryani. I have a huge weakness for meat based rice dishes.

"”It's near Kashmiri Gate" the friend had said, "maybe about a kilometer from the gate.”"

“"Where near Kashmiri Gate?”" I asked.

“"Take the right after Kashmiri Gate into the small lane, its around there,”" was his answer.

So, after so much roaming, I and Vivek decided we could do with a generous helping of the biryani. Our tongues lolling out in anticipation, we reached Kashmiri Gate and turned right. After an earlier visit to Kashmiri Gate, I had emphatically declared to all those who cared to listen that none of the Shahjehanabad wall existed anymore, only the gates were left, those too in shambles. Immediately, I realized I had been very wrong. In the lane, stretching out right in front of us was a long section of the wall. It was fractured in places, there were holes too, but it was there. The arches in the base had been reinforced (presumably by ASI) to strengthen the structure which had been mined for stone by locals (what goes up must come down). There were also holes large enough to make a bedspace. Torn rugs of blankets proved that even in those cold months of winter the small dens were in use. Mughal structures still influencing modern Delhi.
Section of the Shahjehanabad Wall
Hole in the Wall
After about half a kilometre, we began asking for Hakim Biryani. The reaction could not have been stranger had we asked for the moon of Mars. We persisted but eventually changed strategy to ask for Rodgran Gali, which I had looked up as the address somewhere on someone's blog. That drew blanks too. The good - or the bad thing - was that the lane we were on did not branch anywhere, so we did not have to make any real choice. One helpful rickshaw walla offered us to take us to Karim's. It took quite a while to convince him that while both Karim's and Hakim sounded similar and both served food, they really were different. "Or are they?", I thought to myself.

The lane eventually merged into what looked like a major road. There, we hunted out an auto and asked him about Hakim Biryani (because autos tend to have a longer range). When that did not get any response, we asked again for "Rodgran Gali".

"That?!" he quipped.

"Why are you surprised?" I asked.

"That is near Lal Kuan, what are you doing here?" he asked.

I was stumped, I thought maybe there could be 2 of them. So, I asked, "I am sure the one I am looking for is here."

"I have been around for quite sometime. Trust me, there is nothing by that name here."

"How far is Lal Kuan?"

"About 5 kms."

Now I was not really sure. My friend had told me it was about 1 km from Kashmiri Gate and we had already walked 2. So, I called him. When I cross questioned him about the route and told him about the situation we were in, he sheepishly said,

"We were drunk on beer and we were in a car."

"Oh, awesome!!" I barked and disconnected the call.

No wonder he had felt it was right around the corner and only about a km away. So, we were stuck nowhere near Hakim Biryani. Brave souls that we are, we decided to walk on. Asking around for Lal Kuan (because that was somewhere everyone seemed to know), we wandered around the streets. Walking across an overbridge, we saw a sadhu covered in a dirty brown shawl with a tattered orange turban sitting senseless on the pavement. His head hung down and from metres away, you could smell pot. Although I am not usually a smoker I jealously considered that no amount of noise, chaos or shaking would wake him. He had attain
ed his nirvana.
Jai jai Shiv Shankar!!
As we walked into yet another bylane, across the busy street towered a red building. Intrigued, we got closer. We had reached Fatehpuri and this was the St. Stephen's Church in Fatehpuri. Built in Gothic style in 1862, the church had been awarded the DDA Urban Heritage award in 1993 for excellent upkeep. And one could see why. The walls were spotless and the painted windows gleamed. The nave was locked though. We walked around to find someone and reqesuted them to open. It was more of a wish than a hope. The people however were really pleasing and helpful and one of them gave us a short tour. The furniture was clean, even the rug on the floor was clean and there were 3 different information boards explaining the history and heritage of the building. The most important thing was that all the boards agreed on nearly everything, something which rarely happens in Delhi.
St. Stephen's from across the street
Inside the award winning church
The few minutes in the church had made us forget the purpose of our quest. Walking outside, we passed along a street of nut sellers with shops extending to the street. The colourful shells and skins made for fascinating viewing. Dotting the nut stalls were shops with sweets made of pure desi ghee. It was tantalising for the tongue and torture for our growling stomachs. But we persevered. The biryani beckoned and it demanded an empty stomach. A few minutes more and we entered Lal Kuan, a narrow, crowded and sometimes smelly street. In other words, typical Old Delhi. We could see some domesticated pigeons flitting around in an orchestrated flight over the street.

Lal Kuan is named after a historical Mughal well made of red standstone. Today, the well occupies a non-descript area on the side of the street, marked by a peeling INTACH board. The mouth of the well has been closed with wooden planks and sits inside a small shed, which forms the temple walls. To see the walls of the red well, you ,must request the priest to move his planks a bit and peer down into the dark hole, which may still have water. Noone knows.

The remains of Lal Kuan
Since this was Lal Kuan, everyone knew Rodgran Gali and pointed us further down. After what seemed like aeons, our bellies on fire, we reached a small bylane. About 15 feet above us, entangled in a mesh of electric wires, stood an old sign announcing
"Mohalla Rodgran"
The sign that will strain your senses
We were ecstasic. We had arrived. Biryani was round the corner. But the first person we asked knew nothing, neither the second, nor the third. We kept walking and finally found someone to point us to the right place. It was no restaurant. It was no eatery either. Hakim Biryani fills only wholesale orders in a huge kitchen. We had found our holy grail only to realize that it was beyond our reach, as hungry as we were the 5 kg minimum seemed a bit much. No amount of begging for a taste would melt their hearts. Understandable. How could they take off a few hundred grams from someone else's order and feed it to us, even if we had walked 7 km and 3 hours to reach there. Sadly, they were good and honest people. I called my supposed friend and lambasted him. But after scarfing down lesser biryani from a stall nearby I secretly thanked him, for leading us astray. Along the way we saw many things which we would never have otherwise seen.

I left the place, promising myself that one day I would find a reason and a following of people large enough to place an order. I would finally conquer the biryani from Hakim.


  1. Must say, Interesting and quite detailed!

  2. Amazing read. Very Nice. My forefathers were from Lal Kuan Delhi
    Irfan (Karachi)