100 Years Of Noor Mohammadi, Mumbai's Legacy Restaurant
Image Credit: Rashi Arora

Mumbai is a city of extremes. The future rubs shoulders with the past, tradition and modernisation find ways to grudgingly coexist, and people from all walks of life sit as equals when there’s good food to be shared. It may look like India’s sprawling metropolis, but it’s really just a microcosm of humanity, and within the walls of Noor Mohammadi Hotel, the kaleidoscope of the city shines in all its glory. 

Today, a century after they first opened, stepping into Noor Mohammadi is like stepping back in time. The air is thick with the fragrant spices that waft from the kitchen, drawing you in with their irresistible allure. The interior, modest yet welcoming, is adorned with stories and pictures, each telling tales of the restaurant's humble beginnings. “I tell my customers, we don’t give you luxury, we give you good food,” says Raashid Hakim, the third-generation owner of Noor Mohammadi.

Located in the always-bustling Bhendi Bazaar, it has been standing strong since Abdul Karim settled in Mumbai from Moradabad in 1923. This historic area which in the past was a centre of trade but has since become home to a number of iconic eateries that draw customers from across the city. “When it opened it was not even a restaurant,” recalls Raashid, “it was just a place where we used to keep a vessel from which we served Nihari. We were the first people to make Nihari in Mumbai, at a time when people didn’t even know what Nihari is.” 

Today, a quick search for the restaurant will turn up pictures of Bollywood celebs and international culinary stars like Nigella Lawson dining at the restaurant but the heart of Noor Mohammadi is the everyday people who called this their regular spot. “In the old days, it wasn’t even a restaurant, they used to call it a ‘bhatiyaar khana’, a place where all the local workers used to come to eat. It was just a takeaway at first with no seating, and then they added a few small tables. My father got into it, and then my older brother (Khalid Hakim) and then slowly, we turned it into a proper restaurant.” says Raashid. 

The signs of this being a family business are everywhere you look, from the framed pictures of Abdul Karim and Abdul Hakim – Raashid’s grandfather and father – to the wall adorned with a story of the restaurant’s legacy. Back in their home city of Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, Abdul Karim used to sell Halwa Paratha at Dargahs, and Raashid knows that this business is in their blood. “Our family was from a line of khansamas,” explains Raashid, “and they brought these recipes which nobody in Mumbai knew at that time. These are all authentic Mughlai dishes, hand-cut kheema, chicken kalimirch, they’re all like lost recipes. Even in the place they’re from in UP, they’re being lost.” Cooking authentic Mughlai and Nawab cuisine is their way of continuing the story that will soon be passed on to the fourth generation – Wajahat K Hakim, Ravish R Hakim and Danish R Hakim.

But alongside these legacy dishes space has been made for new additions. “The Chicken Hakimi, Kaju Kheema, White Biryani, all of these are dishes are ones that I created,” says Raashid, “I didn’t complete my schooling, I wasn’t interested in schooling. What I have done is learn about cooking, right from my childhood.” 

Video Credits: Khaane Mein Kya Hai/YouTube

The slow evolution of the restaurant from a single takeaway stall to a full-blown restaurant, to which they’re still adding sections to accommodate the crowds that throng the space has been a gradual one, but it was in 1986 that the fate of the restaurant changed forever, and that was all down to actor, Sanjay Dutt. “When Sanjay Dutt came here for the first time, from then it became a proper boom, suddenly everybody knew us.”

This was the first time Noor Mohammadi had seen this level of publicity. According to Raashid, his father Abdul Hakim was very averse to publicity, and his motto was “Chup chap acha khana bhejo, acha dhanda karo.” (Quietly give good food and do good business). It was Khalid Hakim who first spearheaded more publicity for the restaurant “There was an article that appeared in some newspaper and my father got very angry. What was the point of a write up he said.”

But after Dutt’s visit, the restaurant was in the spotlight for whole new sector of Mumbai and when the actor declared he was also a great cook, a new dish was added to the menu based on his recipe, the infamous Sanju Baba chicken made with khada masala. These moments changed the course of history for Noor Mohammadi and gradually, changes came to the restaurant whether they were wanted or not. 

“When I used to sit on the counter and watch the restaurant,” says Raashid, “our clients used to eat all three meals a day here. They’d come for breakfast in the mornings. Buff paya with double kari (an oil of meat fats and flavour) which gave them the energy to work the whole day. Now the same people come here, they have it without the kari and ask for mineral water. That’s the difference I’ve seen. When their families come from their native place they bring them here very proudly saying ‘see, even Sanjay Dutt eats here’.” 

It’s the flip side of fame for them, as even though their establishment thrives, the old charms that made it what it is are waning. But even though they play host to the upper crust, Raashid’s son, Ravish has plenty of tales about their regular clientele. “It’s a strange mix these days,” he says, “New people coming here for the first time want a menu and then the old folks get very offended if we give them a menu, they prefer to do it the old-school way. Back then everybody knew exactly what they were going to order as soon as they sat down. Although sometimes they also like to wait outside for an hour or so even if I have a table for them, they say they like to be able to grumble about the wait, it builds an appetite.” laughs Ravish. 

As they gear up for their 100th-anniversary celebrations, they’re quietly deciding how to make the day memorable. “We’re waiting for an auspicious day to do this celebration, but we’ll make it a blast. For example, when Sanjay Dutt was released from jail we served the Chicken Sanju Baba for free for 12 hours, we plan to do something like that.” The main restaurant is under renovation and a spruced-up spot will be revealed soon enough, although now customers can also visit their outlets in Dubai and (closer to home) in Kurla to enjoy their signature fare. “Most people still prefer to come here though, even if they live that side of town,” admits Raashid, “They say it’s not the same as the energy here in Bhendi Bazaar.”

Chaos, noise...life. That’s the sort of place Noor Mohammadi is, where food is at the centre of a larger ecosystem. A community where people can come for straightforward good food with no frills. Food made by practised hands at a level of quality that’s rarely seen in a city where most people eat to live, not live to eat. In a city that never stops evolving, Noor Mohammadi Hotel remains a steadfast symbol of tradition, taste, and the essence of Mumbai.