New Delhi, India
March 11, 2013
Arza Bibi Kebabs’s tagline is ‘Recipe of Traditional Mughlai Food’, echoed in the charming old black-and-white photographs (seemingly from the late 19th century), of people in a mosque, a splendidly-dressed woman, and so on. The walls have a pretty gold-on-cream pattern, and the furniture is dark wood and white, with a stylised floral pattern in black.
Entering from the front door, there’s a small square room with four tables, each with about four covers. Beyond that, half the space is taken up by the small kitchen, while the rest is converted into a narrow, cramped corridor with a series of two-seater tables (and uncomfortable, though cushioned) stools.
The menu consists of the usual, popular kababs and tikkas: chicken malai tikka, chicken tikka, seekh kababs (chicken or mutton), mutton tikka, galouti kabab, kakori kabab, and vegetarian options made of mushrooms, potatoes, soya paneer, etc. There is dal makhani (buttery lentils), aerated drinks and fruit juices, and only one type of bread: the roomali roti, very thin and almost handkerchief-like in its flimsiness (‘roomal’ does mean ‘handkerchief’). All the tikkas and kababs come as combos, with roomali rotis. There are also separate roomali roti rolls, which means you get the kabab ready-wrapped in a roomali roti, with chutney and sliced onions.
We decided to order our favourite kababs: galouti and kakori, with a dish of dal makhani on the side. My husband placed the order at the counter, paid up, and was given a numbered electronic coaster. "It’ll beep when your order’s ready," he was told—and sure enough, less than ten minutes later, the coaster started beeping, and red lights began flashing on it. My husband collected our trays from the counter and brought them back to our table.
The crockery here is very basic: our kababs, roomali rotis, sliced onion and mint-yoghurt chutney came in individual foil-lined paper plates; the dal makhani was the only dish that was actually served in a re-usable china bowl. It’s obviously very barebones.
The food was comme ci, comme ça, the kakori kababs being the best of the lot. There’s a story attached to the kakori: that a British officer, in the days of the Raj, criticised the coarseness of the seekh kababs served at a banquet hosted by the Nawab of Kakori (near Lucknow); this annoyed him enough to make him order his cooks to create a softer kabab, which would silence the officer once and for all—and what resulted was the silken, elegant kakori. Arza Bibi’s kakoris weren’t the softest I’ve ever had, but they were pretty close—and spiced just right, neither insipid nor fiery.
The other kabab we’d ordered, the galouti (also known as ‘galaawat ke kabab’—‘galaawat’ meaning ‘tenderness’) also has a story to it. Legend has it that a chef created this kabab, also from very finely minced, pounded mutton, for an old Nawab who had lost all his teeth but none of his love for good food. While the galouti kababs at Arza Bibi’s were soft enough (and had a lovely thin crisp layer on the outside), the spice was just a little too much for me. Not chilli hot, but too high in garam masala, which overpowered the flavour of the meat itself.
The roomali rotis were fine, the mint-yoghurt chutney good, but the dal makhani really not what I’d been expecting. ‘Makhani means ‘buttery’, and this was anything but. We could barely taste any cream or butter in the lentils; the spice was again too much—and not very nice, anyway—and the consistency was off.
Arza Bibi Kebabs offers only one dessert, the quintessential ‘after-kabab’ pudding, phirni (a dessert made of coarsely ground rice cooked in thickened sweetened milk). We ordered a phirni each for ourselves. These came, pre-set in tiny disposable earthenware cups, with a sprinkling of chopped pistachios and almonds on top. There was no particular flavour to it (the best phirnis I have had tasted of cardamom, or saffron; this was just a bland sort of sweetness). Worse, the phirni had a too-thick, almost gluey consistency that made it difficult to eat.
We paid Rs 550 for our meal, including taxes. That’s not expensive, especially for an eatery in Khan Market. But considering the only dish we really did like was the kakori, I doubt if we’ll ever go back here.
From journal Kabab Town: Finding Delhi's Best Kababs