What is Moti Mahal? It appears to be one of the more successful restaurants of Toronto’s Little India, a culturally rich but ever changing neighborhood with exotic clothing and jewelry stores, fancy cafes and abandoned buildings. Moti Mahal would look like a simple fast food restaurant to any uninformed window shoppers, but after taking the red pill and eating here, I discovered a hidden gem and secret history. No, this isn’t a rant post, you’ll have to try again next time.
What up until the time of writing I thought was a local Indian restaurant, it turned out to have a much more important history. The story of Moti Mahal begins in the 1900s in the Punjab region of Pakistan—which was still India—with a man named Kundan Lal Gujral. Losing his father at age ten, he worked at a restaurant which revolutionized the art of making tandoori chicken.
A tandoor is a clay pot used as an oven, but Gujral was the first to dig a tandoor into the floor of his eatery, making the dish popular and Gujral’s services vey popular. In 1947, The British brought about partition; separating the great country into India and Pakistan. Gujral fled to India, and arrived in New Delhi poor but hopeful. He then re-started his business into what is today Moti Mahal.
Moti Mahal is now a chain with over 120 locations, including the one three blocks away from my house in Toronto, which among other things happens to be the inventor of modern Dal Makhani and Butter Chicken. Wait wait wait, what?! Yeah, that’s right, Moti Mahal invented one of the more popular Indian dishes back in the 50’s. Don’t believe me? Well then check the Wikipedia page, because apparently they have one.
Upon looking at the wall-mounted menu behind the ordering counter, one notices the large number of dishes. Or in my case, one notices the thing that will keep you staring at the wall indecisively for minutes on end. I eventually settled on the number 7 option from the special menu, a huge plate with naan and a smorgasbord of other dishes in smaller portions.
My lunch had butter chicken (rather fitting in hindsight), chana masala, bisrani (rice with flavouring) and an onion dumpling in yogurt sauce. Let’s start with the butter chicken. It had generous amount of tender, boneless chicken marinating in a creamy, fresh sauce. The sweet/savoury combination that characterizes butter chicken was spot on, and very warm. It might not be the best I’ve had, but pretty damn good. As for the chana masala, it was amazing. The well-cooked chickpeas were the ideal vessel for a perfect sauce. Unlike most chana dishes I’ve had, this one had very little acidity and a much richer flavour—a little bit was quite filling. The taste could be described as earthy, or as I like to say, umami, and there was just enough spice to bring it all together.
The biryani surprised me on the first bite. As opposed to just plain rice, it had been treated with a sweet and herbaceous flavouring, making it more suitable to be eaten alone than as a vessel for sauce—I guess that’s what the gigantic pieces of bread were for. Speaking of which, the naan was pretty decent, could’ve been fluffier in my opinion, but I’m a sucker for flatbread and it filled its purpose. As for the onion dumpling yogurt sauce thing—yeah I forget the Indian name okay?!—it matched the other dishes. The yellow stew gave off a mild sourness, brought down by its smoothness. This worked in tangent with the dumpling—a dense but soft, moist ball meant to be chewed with ease.
Overall, I very much recommand Moti Mahal, it has delicious food for a great price. I can also vouch for the pakora and samosas, two or three of which can make up a lunch for someone on a budget: I order it regularly and I’m a penny-pinching b@stard. If you come here, try it at least once, there’s a reason Moti Mahal is always crowded.
Moti Mahal 1422 Gerrard St E