“Bhathiyara hoon par logon ne mujhe izzat di hai (I am a cook, but people have given me respect),” the late Jaffer Gulam Mansuri would often say. The name behind Mumbai’s iconic Delhi Durbar, Jafferbhai, as he was fondly called, was the chief custodian of its hallmark mutton biryani.
Having served it for over 50 years, he earned both respect and the love of a steadfast clientele.
On Thursday, Jafferbhai died at Breach Candy Hospital after he was diagnosed with Covid-19. He was 83.
Jafferbhai first opened Delhi Darbar at Grant Road in 1973. Loyalists, including food writer and television host Kunal Vijaykar, swear by his mutton biryani. “I have travelled across the world, but he made the best biryani I have ever tasted,” Vijaykar said. Jafferbhai had devised a distinct flavour in his kitchens, giving Mumbai a biryani to call its own. Vijaykar describes the mutton biryani as a “spicy masaledhar dish”, which was neither mild or fragrant, nor Mughlai or Lucknowi.
“It is a biryani meant for both the person from the streets as well as a person from a palace. It is a Bombay biryani,” he said.
Street-tough yet suave, this “Bombay biryani” was just one among many in Jafferbhai’s inventory. He was reputed to conjure up recipes based on people’s expectations and memories of a once-upon-a-time biryani. How many such recipes he knew could be anyone’s guess.
Jafferbhai took his family’s biryani recipe and fine-tuned it to make it more palatable to a wider audience. It is what led Farzana Contractor, editor of food magazine Upper Crust, to call him the undisputed ‘Biryani King of Bombay’ in the early 2000s at an award ceremony. “He made available very good Mughlai food of good quality at affordable prices,” she said. “He inspired the upper segment of the society to taste his food.”
As more branches of Delhi Darbar opened across the city, the properties were divided between Jafferbhai and his brothers, Iqbal and Shafi, in the mid-2000s. Jafferbhai retained the flagship Grant Road restaurant, but soon realised it was time for rebranding.
His family suggested he prefix his Delhi Darbar outlets with ‘Jafferbhai’s’, which was a hat tip to the genius behind the biryani. The Dubai branch, even today, is called just that – Jaffer Bhai’s.
“He was very nostalgic about his former years, saying that roads on which he cycled don’t feel the same when in a luxury car,” Contractor said. “Remember, he was also a cook, not just a restaurant owner.”
Before his Delhi Darbar days, Jafferbhai worked out of his family’s kitchen in Islampura, near Kamathipura. Between sleeping on onion sacks, cleaning drains, and riding a bicycle to make deliveries, Jafferbhai was toughened in this very kitchen. Later, when he had his own catering unit at Noor Baug, Dongri, he would continue this close association, overseeing the prep of masalas and biryani, while living in a room upstairs.
For many, Jafferbhai defied stereotypes. Working out of some of Mumbai’s roughest areas, he was gentle, soft-spoken and pedigreed. His daughter-in-law, Shehma Azmi Mansuri, speaks fondly of his love for ghazals, and how he listened to and read Faiz, Ghalib and Ahmad Faraz, relaying the meaning of each word to his family.
“He was just the way Urdu sounds,” Shehma said. “That was his akhlaq.” Even during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, right until he was hospitalised, Jafferbhai had made sure the families of his seven children got home-cooked meals every day.
Contractor, who is planning on releasing an autobiography of Jafferbhai’s later this year, said, “He expressed his love through food.” This is a sentiment shared by those who dropped by at Jafferbhai’s home, whether in Mumbai or Panchgani, for they could never leave without at least one hot lunch or a packed meal. Even his biryani recipes were not guarded secrets. He parted with them freely for those who asked, and trained his sons to recreate them, making sure that even if the cook has left, the biryani lives on.
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