|(Top) Kwality on Park Street has been a food destination for over 50 years; a Punjabi platter that remains a draw. Pictures by Rashbehari Das
Building an empire on wholesome, robust Punjabi food and ice cream has to be an unusual combination. But such is the story of Kwality and the two families ' the Ghais and Lambas ' who launched this brand, way back in 1939.
Arguably the pioneers of the restaurant industry across the north of India, Messers Iqbal Ghai, Prem Ghai and PL Lamba set up the first Kwality Restaurant in Regal Building, Connaught Place, New Delhi, in that year.
Soon after followed branches in Dehra Dun and Mussoorie and in the late 40s in Lucknow and Kanpur. By the early 50s, they had spanned the country from east to west with three more Kwality restaurants opening in Calcutta, Bombay and Pune. In 1957, a second branch opened in Calcutta, in Ballygunge.
The ice cream part of the story goes back to pre-Partition days in Lahore, where the Ghais and the Lambas were making ice cream using machines which were operated manually.
The business received a fillip with the presence of many foreigners during the Second World War and freezers were imported which could produce larger quantities.
By 1955, they went fully commercial and plants were set up in Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay using equipment imported from Italy and the UK.
Remo Bertorelli from Italy (the home of ice cream) provided the technical know-how and for years to come Kwality was the name associated across the country with quality dairy milk ice cream. This chapter is now a closed one. They no longer manufacture ice cream. They have sold the name, though, and you can still get products named Kwality Wall's.
To any Calcuttan who has been around, Kwality restaurant on Park Street needs no introduction. It is over 50 years old and has been serving unpretentious, homely North Indian (mainly Punjabi) food all these years, along with a selection of typical Calcutta Continental favourites, though this is no more an attraction of the place.
Their a-la-carte selection of kebabs, main courses and rice dishes (excluding breads) is a compact 40-odd dishes, though this is supplemented every day by a choice called Today's Specials which will have another dozen or so kebabs and main course options. When I was there a few days ago, the Today's Specials card had the winter favourites Sarso Da Saag and Makki Di Roti, Gobi Peas Tomato and Sindhi Daal, which I have never tried, but must.
Their trademark dish, a signature item, is a homely one called Pindi Chana. We know this better as Chana Bhatura or Chana Kulcha (a chick pea preparation with deep fried, puffed bread ' a larger version of the Bengali luchi).
More often, the chick pea curry (the larger variety is used) is light brown in colour and has some gravy.
But at Kwality it is drier and a dark brown. They are maintaining a tradition of cooking it as it was done in pre-Partition days, at home. Hence the name (Pindi from Rawalpindi).
The Pindi Chana with the kulcha is a popular dish here and on a busy day they might get as many as 70-odd orders for it. The chick peas are boiled in sweet soda and then drained. They are then cooked on a slow fire and in ghee with garam masala powder, turmeric, black salt, ginger, juliennes and seasoning. The kulchas are deep fried in oil and getting them to swell up right involves pouring oil over them as well. Yet, if you dig into the Pindi Chana at Kwality, there is no untoward effect on the system.
Brain Masala is another item of choice for me at Kwality. The brain is cleaned and then boiled with turmeric. It is then cooked in a gravy prepared over a slow fire with onions, yoghurt, tomatoes, green chillies, garam masala powder, fenugreek powder, ginger and seasoning. Just a little gravy is involved ' the consistency of the dish is rich and thick.
Chicken Afghani Masala is not on their a-la-carte menu but you are likely to find it on their Today's Specials card at fairly regular intervals. Diced, boneless pieces of chicken are marinated in yoghurt, ginger-garlic paste and seasoning, and then cooked in the tandoor. These are then simmered in a gravy made with boiled onions, cream, yoghurt, milk, garam masala powder and seasoning.
Other items such as Kadhai Chicken and Chicken Reshmi Butter Masala follow a similar process ' the meat is cooked in the tandoor and then simmered in its gravy.
I was told that each dish is cooked separately in its own handi or vessel, to ensure it gets its characteristic flavour; there are as many as 18 handis in the kitchen.
In the breads section, Kwality does a larger selection of parathas than most places ' plain, aloo, pudina, special butter paratha and stuffed paratha are on the menu and more varieties are likely to be found as Today's Specials.