Among a dozen or so popular eateries that dot Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar neighbourhood, people know Noor Mohammadi as the restaurant that serves Chicken Sanju Baba. Named after Sanjay Dutt, it is an original recipe by the actor that he shared with the restaurant’s owner, Khalid Hakim. The tangy chicken preparation and Dutt’s (unofficial) endorsement of it has helped boost Hakim’s business in the 10 years or so since its inclusion, but that’s not what this 95-year-old eatery is famous for. “When I see chefs sharing the recipe for nalli nihari on television, I feel proud. This Mughlai dish was first made famous in Mumbai by my grandfather. It continues to be our signature dish,” says Hakim, 53.
It’s 8 pm and the two-storey 50-seater restaurant is packed. The restaurant is neither fancy nor spacious, but a steady stream of guests throng the place. A large number of them are patrons. Every few minutes, Hakim pauses to greet one or walks up to a table to chat them up. Back in the 1980s, one of them was also artist MF Husain. A drawing by him, on a wooden cupboard at the restaurant, now hangs in a frame on the ground floor section.
Hakim’s grandfather, originally from Sambhal in Moradabad, used to sell halwa paratha during the celebration of Urs at a dargah in what is now Uttarakhand. The business was so successful that what he earned during that month would sustain the family through the year. Encouraged, he decided to try his luck in Mumbai and rented a spot to sell nalli nihari, a breakfast staple, out of a handi. “This used to be a market where prayer books were sold. There were other restaurants but none had any breakfast items on their menu,” says Hakim.
The nihari became a hit. “Legend has it that it was invented by Bahadur Shah Zafar’s cook in order to boost the king’s dipping libido. Cooked on dum in a brass utensil over coal for at least eight hours, it has medicinal properties,” says Hakim. “But, by the time my father Abdul Hakim took over the business, no one in Mumbai was eating such a heavy breakfast. So, he started to sell it for dinner, too, along with other items.”
Slowly, the stall grew to become a dhaba, but Abdul Karim decided he had earned enough to return to his village. His son, however, refused to accompany him, choosing to further the business. The restaurant as it stands today was started around 1966, the year Hakim was born. “If my dad had not rebelled against his father, I would have probably been riding a rickshaw in some part of UP today,” he says, laughing. The restaurant today has a focussed menu mostly comprising some original dishes like chicken hakimi and white biryani (a milder version made using cashew paste) and other bestsellers like kheema, shami kebab etc. The food continues to be cooked in brass utensils on coal.
But Hakim didn’t have it easy. A tough taskmaster, his father allowed him to study only because he also promised to learn how to work in the kitchen — something Hakim has also ensured his 21-year-old son Wajid Mohammad does before he joins the business. “I know every dish and every recipe. The ustads I learnt from cooked by instinct; they would drop the ingredients into those massive vessels without measuring the quantity. Yet, the taste would be consistent each time. When I joined the business, I purchased a weighing scale and each time they cooked, I would get them to weigh the ingredients. That’s how I standardised the recipes,” he says.
Based on those recipes, Hakim has launched a brand of masalas, called Hakim. “Even a man with no knowledge of cooking can now cook. It’s about marketing the product correctly now. If a tangawalah can become MDH (masala brand), we are, at least, from the same line of business,” he says with a laugh.