For the love of good food….
The year was 1658. The Emperor Shah Jahan was early to rise. On one such early morning, he took a deep breath of satisfaction in the crisp morning air as he surveyed the progress on his latest architectural achievement. It was only an hour before the chaos of the market all around him would take over and he could no longer be out. He could already see the restlessness in his bodyguards to be on their way out. The Jama Masjid was finally one place which gave him peace, where he could leave behind the politics of the succession war between his sons. It was also a place that enabled him to seek peace and remember his beloved Mumtaz Mahal, still missed after over 2 decades of her death. He could imagine coming here after his morning ablution for the morning namaz, when no commoner would be around to recognise him. What would he not give to have a bowl of hot nihari (goat meat cooked overnight to tenderness) with some simple bread to wipe it off, after the morning prayers, instead of having to wait to reach the imperial apartments in Red Fort. This thought pretty much sparked the idea in his mind. He ordered for the most well known Khansama (cook) from the North West Frontiers to set up an eatery right outside Jama Masjid, from where he and his subjects could enjoy the popular nihari and other delicacies.
My over-working imagination cooked up this story when the man at the billing counter of Al-Jawahar restaurant told me that the eating joint was very very old, perhaps even going back to the times of Shah Jahan. While Al-Jawahar is most definitely a legendary eatery, the truth behind it’s origin remains unclear. There is one claim that the place is older than independent India and the name Jawahar is in honour of Jawahar Lal Nehru after he ate here once, and another school of thought claims that the place was innaugrated by Jawahar Lal Nehru, clearly making it a post-independence era restaurant.
One Friday morning, we decided to take the hike to Old Delhi with the main place on our agenda being the forementioned Al-Jawahar. The best mode of transport to take to that parallel universe is most definitely Delhi Metro which delivers you to the doorstep. In case you are not keen to explore through the swarms of people and labyrinths of shops selling everything under the sun, hail a cycle-rickshaw or a battery-operated one with the destination being Jama Masjid Gate no. 1. As soon as you reach there, on to your right at the start of the lane is the unmissable signage announcing Al-Jawahar.
We chose to go to the first floor in this small non air-conditioned eatery. The ambience is the definition of basic with plastic tables and chairs with fair standards of hygiene being maintained. The staff was super quick on their feet and very courteous with recommendations and an expected time for your order. Coming to the food, we ordered the Mutton Qurma, Roti and Mutton Biryani. Their famous nihari is a breakfast special item which is finished between the time period of 7-10 am.
The Mutton Qurma came swimming in gravy and mutton fat. The dish had a very typically Indian gravy flavour to it. You could taste onion, garlic, tomato, oil and mutton fat in each mouthful. The good part was that there was no spice with an overpowering taste as they believed in letting the meat taste stay original.
The roti that is served here is not your typical Tandoori roti. Often referred to as the Khameeri roti, it is made of fermented dough (similar to the Punjabi bhatura) and then cooked in the tandoor. The end result is a little creamish in colour, thicker and definitely tastier.
The mutton biryani is probably not your best bet here. We come from a school of thought that Biryani is an exquisite dish made of layers of gravied meat/vegetables and cooked rice. However, the biryani served here was more like cooked rice mixed with well-cooked mutton kabab. In short, the mutton and the rice did not really mix together well to complement each other leaving the biryani extremely dry. Alas, there was no raita served either! What did come to my husband’s rescue was the leftover gravy from the mutton qurma, mixing which did a lot to enhance the taste of the biryani.
You could choose to order from a number of desserts on the menu. Also, this is one of the rare places serving the thick, sweet Kashmiri bread – Sheermal. If you are in old Delhi and old-style Mughalai food suits your palate, this is a go-to place for sure!
Specialty: Nihari, Mutton Qurma, Ishtoo
Address: 8, Jama Masjid Matia Mahal Road, Matia Mahal, Opposite Gate 1, Jama Masjid, New Delhi
Veg/Non Veg: Both (Preferable for Non-Veg)
Value for money: 4.5/5
Food quality: 4/5
Overall rating: 4/5