In rebuilding lives in an unfamiliar, uncertain world, the kitchen is often the sole solace for refugees. Newcomers add to the aromas, enrich palates, change foodscapes of their adopted homes. The hurriedly created colonies that housed Partition refugees in Delhi were sites of one such gastronomical churn — the tomato-rich gravies and tandoori fare that have become the signature of the capital’s culinary culture owe much to the kitchens in these areas. It’s no accident perhaps that the dhania, methi, jeera and deggi mirch that lent this fare its flavour and heat found its greatest contemporary merchandiser a stone’s throw away from one such resettlement colony. In 1947, Dharam Pal Gulati set up a shop in Karol Bagh — a locality that once dissolved into sophisticated Old Delhi but was now developing affinities with the Punjabi settlement of Rajendra Nagar on its other edge. Gulati passed away on Thursday, aged 98, leaving behind a masala empire worth more than Rs 1,000 crore.
The 25-year old had come to Delhi with Rs 1,500 in his pocket and the recipe of a spice mix that his family sold in Sialkot. Even before Partition forced the family to leave their home, the young Gulati had tried his hand at selling rice and soap. In Delhi, he plied a tonga. But the call of spices was hard to resist. Mahashian Di Hatti (MDH), literally the “shop of the magnanimous” named after the family enterprise in Sialkot, began from a 14-feet-by-9-feet space. Word spread. One of his earliest bulk orders was from a businessman from Multan who had migrated to Cuttack.
Barely a year into business, Gulati thought of packaging the spices in well-designed boxes. When colour TV came to the country, MDH released its first TV ad with Gulati doing a cameo replete with a red turban, twirled moustache and a string of pearls — an iconography synonymous now with MDH’s boxes. And as the food brought by Punjabi settlers stood its own in the food culture of liberalised India, the masala man’s spice mixes retain their charm even as oregano, thyme and rosemary find a place in Indian kitchens.