The Mouth-Watering Legacy Of Mumbai’s Most Iconic Mughlai Restaurant

The Mouth-Watering Legacy Of Mumbai’s Most Iconic Mughlai Restaurant
Rashi Arora

Raashid Abdul Hakim is quick to point out that their kitchen only employs cooks, not chefs. As I try to unravel the complexity of his statement, he adds almost as an afterthought, “our fathers made sure that we learned to cook these family recipes before we took over the business.” Both of us are sitting outside Noor Mohammadi, the 95-year-old iconic restaurant known for its exquisite Mughlai food in Bhendi Bazaar at Mohammad Ali Road, looking at the steady stream of guests make their way into the restaurant. It’s Monday night but it seems like nobody here has realised the weekend is over. Raashid is the third-generation owner of this restaurant that to me seems quite modest for its popularity, done up in pastel shades and hues of brown, with a large mustard board hanging on one of the walls, tracing the history of South Bombay. Behind the cash counter, occupied by Raashid’s elder brother, is an unchartered painting by M.F Hussain, who I am told, was a patron of Noor Mohammadi. Besides the painting, hangs the pictures of Abdul Kareem and Abdul Hakeem, Raashid’s grandfather and father respectively. The former found the recipes which have satisfied so many strangers, and the latter expanded Noor Mohammadi into a successful restaurant.

“My grandfather was the one who introduced this city to Nalli Nihari,” Raashid claims, narrating the story of the restaurant’s origins. Abdul Kareem came to Mumbai from Moradabad where he would sell Halwa Paratha at Dargahs. After a successful culinary stint in his hometown, he decided to try his luck selling Nalli Niharis in Mumbai. “It started off as a stall at this very place. The Niharis were an instant hit and the stall slowly expanded into a dhaba. It was then that my grandfather thought that he had earned enough to take back to the village. But my father rebelled, saying he wanted to further the business. He was made to learn how to cook and try his hand at the recipes himself. Only then was he allowed to take forth Noor Mohammadi. The dhaba was made into a restaurant in 1966,” he states.

MF Hussain's painting and other accolades. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

Almost 50 years after it being refurbished into a restaurant, Noor Mohamadi still retains an old world charm. Many would compare it to the charisma of Purani Dilli but the iconic restaurant has an unparalleled appeal of its own, the one born out of a seamless intermingling of the north and the west. Perhaps this is why it is frequented by celebrities and even culinary celebrities like Nigella Lawson who only had good things to say about its legacy when she visited Mumbai. As I see flocks of people from all walks of life walk in and out of Noor Mohammadi, my taste buds are suddenly tickled by a heavy, meaty aroma that makes its presence felt in the air. I see Raashid has ushered his staff to present us with a full course meal of Noor Mohammad’s specialties. Having fed upon the story of Noor Mohammadi, I prepare myself to feast upon its mouthwatering Mughlai food.

First up are their iconic Chicken Shammi Kebabs that quake to the touch of my tongue, coming apart almost as soon as I pop one in. Within seconds of a gulp down, I’m coaxed into testing out the Chicken Hakimi. Its reputation precedes it. A leg piece cooked to perfection and glazed with lime and chaat masala, bathed in excess thanks to a perfectly creamy gravy made with a combination of butter and curd, everything about this one absolutely steals my heart as I lick my own fingers to an inappropriate degree. Their Mutton Nalli Nihari, the very one on which its legacy is built, is both tender and juicy, marinated well and perfectly glazed with spices. I find it much more flavorful than its beef variant. Then Raashid gets his own speciality, the white biryani, which is basically a milder version made with a thick cashew paste. As Raashid ushers the waiter to serve us with another spoonful, he tells me just how much he loves experimenting with food. “It’s my favourite pass time,” he says smiling.

I am then served with a thick gravy that has a slightly sweet taste as it is infused with cinnamon and black cardamom. The pieces are soft and juicy. Upon hearing its unusual name, Chicken Sanju Baba, I now understand why it was so keenly offered up as a classic. Like so many dishes across so many ‘dhabas’ in the city, this dish has a bollywood history and heart. “Sanjay Dutt has been coming to Noor Mohammadi even before he became famous,” Raashid tells me with a twinkle in his eye. “He has been one of our loyal customers. He once asked for some food to be sent home and I personally went to deliver it. He called me in and while he devoured my white biryani, he subtly asked, “Mere paas bhi ek recipe hai...khayega kya?” (I also have a recipe...will you try it)? Puzzled, I nodded. After a while, he came out of the kitchen and brought back this thick gravy. I loved it so much that I asked him if I could sell it in his name. He happily agreed and that was how Chicken Sanju Baba was born. I even sold it for free in Bhendi bazaar when the actor was released from jail.”

The specialties of Noor Mohammadi. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

As Raashid brings me some Rabri for dessert, I relish the distinctiveness of each dish at Noor Mohammadi. When I tease Raashid about the possibility of a secret to their recipes, he smiles snidely, as if he had been waiting forever for me to pose that question. “All our food is slow cooked in huge copper utensils over coal, just like the Mughals did it. That is why it is so authentic. Also, we use special masalas,” he says getting up to show me a packet that reads, ‘Hakim Masala’, the first ever Mughlai Masala in retail that the family launched a few years ago.

“So what keeps this place going, apart from the great food,” I ask Raashid posing my true final question. “People like me and you,” he responds almost instantaneously, chuckling. “The food is nice. The prices are reasonable. Two people can easily fill their stomachs for only 300 bucks. We are blessed by all the poor, hungry people here who we serve all the leftover food at 1 am. Plus we constantly keep innovating, not just with our food but also the place,” he says a matter-of-factly, showing me around.

As Raashid suggests, every generation of the family made newer developments to Noor Mohammadi as they came. “My grandfather founded it, my father made it into a restaurant, my elder brother fit new panels here while I made the upper floor into an AC Family restaurant. Who knows what this chap would do here, he says patting the back of a tall lanky fellow, Wajahat, his elder brother’s 22-year-old son who is the latest entrant into the family business.

Raashid with his nephew Wajid. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

Wajahat smiles back and coyly says that he may consider opening other branches but that he doesn’t want the place to lose out on its charm. Still trying his hands out on all the recipes, he tells me how he dropped out of college because he was so keen to get started with the operations of Noor Mohammadi. I wish him luck and bid the family, Adab. I look back at the gold lit signage of Noor Mohammadi, standing a class apart from the motley of restaurants and stalls in Bhendi Bazaar as I am overwhelmed at the business built upon the love for food, the labour of one family and a unique hybrid culture. I walk out with a light heart, a heavy stomach and a newfound love in the form of Chicken Hakimi. It’s the kind of love I know will not keep me away from Noor Mohammadi for a long time.

Feature image photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

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