Karim's Hotel is not a hotel in the Western sense. Rather, it is a magic little restaurant just outside the magnificent Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque) in oldest Old Delhi.
The mosque was built in 1658, during the reign of Shah Jahan. Karim's has been here since 1913, when it was founded by Hafiz Karim Uddin as a sidewalk tava (fast-food) grill in a little alley off Kababian Street.
Over the years, Karim's has become famous for its flat, hot tandoori breads, mutton curries, barbecued chicken and other specialty dishes that include sheep-brain curry and foot-of-goat soup, paaye , which is served only for breakfast and is said to have restorative powers similar to those of Mexican menudo.
From the sidewalk grill, Karim's has expanded steadily into adjacent buildings; now there are five small dining rooms and four kitchens. The restaurant is well known to New Delhi's wealthy, who send their drivers to fetch carryout orders, and it has a following among the hippest of the young European travelers.
Still, its main patrons are the Muslims of Old Delhi, about 3,000 of whom are served every day, according to Karim's manager, Wasim Uddin Ahmed. Between 7 a.m. and midnight, these regulars consume 660 pounds of mutton and 150 chickens every day.
There are no concessions to the Western tourist--no utensils, no Western-style restrooms, no menu, no alcohol. Stainless-steel sinks with communal soap and towel are provided in each dining room, and diners line up there regularly between courses. That is to ensure that, say, the nargisi kofta-- minced mutton encasing a whole egg--does not mix with the kheer --a pistachio-topped rice pudding.
An exception is made for the kheer , which comes with a small wooden spoon. Otherwise, the utensil problem is dealt with by a few sheets of romali roti-- handkerchief bread--draped over the hand to dip into thick, rich curries and other messy foods.
To drink, there is wonderful lemon soda served in a thick glass bottle with a pinched neck, inside of which rests an aquamarine marble. These are the same bottles that are mentioned in the E. Nesbitt's turn-of-the-century children's books.
At Karim's, the bill for a multi-course meal for four comes to about $8.
Karim's Hotel, Jama Masjid, Delhi; telephone 269880 or 264981.