The seasoned hotelier, gracious host and an excellent cook, Jaffer Gulam Mansuri wasn’t just the famous owner of the iconic Jaffer Bhai’s Delhi Darbar in Mumbai – but an institution that built the food culture of the town, writes
BY Madhulika Dash
“Would you like to have it, my way?” A balmy voice asked me as I sat for my very first meal at Delhi Darbar almost a decade ago announcing the excitement of finally getting to experience the old city again. Decidedly old school in its design, little did I know that that voice would turn Delhi Darbar one of my favourite hangouts for the next few years to indulge in what was often explained as part Delhi- part Lucknow style Mughlai. The person who asked me was Jaffer Gulam Mansuri – the 84-year-old owner of Delhi Darbar. A man who not only took the risk of turning a chai, mithai shop into one of Mumbai’s (town side, especially) beloved address for Biryani, Kormas, Kebabs and of course, my personal favourite Murg Barra, but also showed how the same menu could be built to appease different strata of clients.
It was Janab Mansuri, or Jaffer Bhai as he was fondly called by those in the know, who gave me my first lesson in DIY biryani eating – where the fragrant, long-grained Dehradun Basmati rice came on one plate, chicken slathered with masala on another; and a mound of birasta (fried onion) on the third. And another large plate where you could mix it all to create the perfect taste with your fingers.
Janab Mansuri would stand patiently for you to take your first bite – even guide you how to gorge the meat from the part where the masala would have steeped in well. All the while beaming as you graduated towards that ‘beautiful bite’. It was many visits later that I not only picked up the dishes I absolutely loved in Jaffer Bhai’s restaurant but also learnt more about the genius – the most striking one being how Jaffer Bhai knew to cook every dish on the menu and could look at a dish and say what was missing – right down tothe salt. And how he self-taught himself everything, including being one of the most restauranteur who in three decades of taking over a business that partly belonged to his valid (father) in 1952 not only established the brand but changed the fortune of Mughlai food in Mumbai simply by making it accessible and desirable.
It was a feat that no one would have predicted in 1952 when Jaffer Bhai, the eldest of his sibling, on his mother’s behest took to pots and ladle to learn the fine art of making biryani, korma and kebabs to books. Not even Latifulla, who in 1949 had partnered with Jaffer Bhai’s father Gulam Mohammed, a Mughlai food caterer, for a 25 per cent stake in the restaurant. By 1964, the young Jaffer had acquired the restaurant starting the first outlet of Jaffer Bhai’s Delhi Darbar in Grant Road. He was 28.
The next few years saw a few more outlets – a blend of sit downs and takeaways – mushrooming in the city, with the most ambitious coming in Colaba, the watering hole of the rich and famous. When asked whether an economic model like this would work? The hotelier replied, “When you serve good quality food at affordable rates in a restaurant that has good services and warmth, why wouldn’t your food sell.” For the near six decades of the brand’s existence, he did exactly that – and wee bit more.
Brewed in the old style of mehman-nawazi, what made Jaffer Bhai – both for diners and the many guides who would take tourist to the little slice of Delhi in Mumbai – an absolute star was his approach. Even at the ripe age of 70 plus, you could see the legend wading through, talking to guests, suggesting them dishes or even happily plonked on one of the chairs kept for waiting guests striking a conversation – little stories that built your appetite both for his food and the city.
Little wonder that most guest would stand willingly talking to this old Gandalf about the many dventures they would have inside – and he didn’t once disappoint. Till about last evening when the seasoned hotelier, excellent cook and an outstanding host breathe his last. For Mumbai and old-timers, it surely is a RIP for the changemaker we call ‘ The Biryani King’.