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An enduring legacy:The oldest member of Karim’s, Zahooruddin, died at 85, leaving behind a living heritage

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Wafts from the tandoor and the sound of a kafgeer pounding the degh welcome those that turn into the narrow by-lane, off Jama Masjid, that houses arguably the oldest and most famed restaurant of Delhi — Karim’s. On January 27, Karim’s lost its Managing Director, Haji Zahooruddin, who had served his family’s legacy for 74 years and under whose sway the restaurant thrived with 26 outlets across NCR.

“Even at 85, his teeth were intact and his eyesight perfect,” says Zahooruddin’s eldest son, Zaid-ul-Abedin, the fourth generation at Karim’s. He is seated at the Old Delhi branch of the restaurant, where servers dart in-and-out of dining halls, serving the perennial stream of customers. By his side is his cousin, Zaeemuddin, who is now the Director, and together, they describe Zahooruddin as a man of mild manners. “He never raised his voice at anyone and ensured that we do the same. He was also very conscious of his diet, insisting on eating seasonal produce,” says Zaid-ul-Abedin, adding, “Even though most of our menu is meat-based, he loved to eat vegetarian food. His favourite was the Madras Coffee House.”
But for Zaeemuddin, his words, “those who come to our restaurant are not customers but our guests” echo the loudest. It was at the request of their patrons that paya (trotters) was added to the breakfast menu. As calls for butter chicken got louder, Zahooruddin added that to the menu too but without foregoing their customary fare of kebabs, istoo and
brain curry.

Though established in 1913, Karim’s family lore traces its culinary origins back to the kitchens of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Haji Zahooruddin’s grandfather, Mohammad Awaiz, worked in the Mughal kitchen until the mutiny of 1857. He then settled in Ghaziabad and later taught his son, Haji Karimuddin. In 1911, during the coronation of King George V in Delhi, Karimuddin returned to the old city and set up a food stall near Jama Masjid. “Many came to Old Delhi for leisure. People brought their animals as they were made to fight. There was also a dangal here,” says Zaid-ul-Abedin.

Though Old Delhi’s physiognomy has changed drastically, the spice mix or masalas and the taleem passed down Awaiz’s male lineage have remained constant. The two brothers attribute Karim’s success to this “consistency in flavour and quality”. “Though he (Zahooruddin) loved to experiment, he never tinkered with the original recipes,” says Zain-ul-Abedin. Born in 1932, Zahooruddin joined his father in the kitchen at the age of 12 and learned the recipes orally. “We all know the recipes by heart, from my grandfather down to our children. We were born to do this,” says Zain-ul-Abedin.

Karim’s “izzat” and legend have only grown stronger through the wide patronage the restaurant has received. From Presidents Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Zakir Hussain, to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi whose famed iftaar parties were catered by Karim’s, to actor Dilip Kumar and artist MF Hussain, all have savoured the magic only the family knows to stir up. It is perhaps this pride that ensures that Karim’s is now part of the Capital’s living heritage. Buried alongside his relatives at the Delhi Gate Cemetery, with Karim’s, Zahooruddin too lives on.

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