The first time I ate a mutton seekh roll from Khan Chacha in the early 2000s as a cash-strapped college student, it was a revelation. As a Calcuttan whose universe of rolls had only featured the kathi rolls where just-off-the-coals kebabs were placed in flaky parathas, these rumali roti inventions were as baffling as they were delicious. Melt-in-the-mouth kakori and seekh kebabs were slathered in a green chutney and wrapped in soft rumali rotis. These were generously proportioned with meat—one roll sufficed for a meal—and was a respite from a frugal college mess diet. This was the famous roll from Khan Chacha. Back then it was a hole in the wall—nothing more or less run by the doughty Haji Banda Hasan and his two sons, Mohammad Saleem and Mohammad Javed.
The family’s surname is Ansari… and considering there was no Khan in the equation, who then was Khan Chacha?
This question that pops up from time to time, has led to restaurant closures, loss of copyrights, ensuing court disputes and larger questions of authenticity and legacy. The popularity of this eatery almost became its hubris like in the case of Lucknow’s legendary Tunday Kebab. In this case however, instead of spawning a series of duplicates and pretenders, Khan Chacha, the brand and the legend, carried on over five decades at different addresses (all in Khan Market) and with different names.
The kebab seller of Khan Market
Haji Banda Hasan’s story is one that is twinned with that of Khan Market and its evolution over the years. His journey from Saharanpur to Delhi is one that is the portrait of a cook as a young man. From his early training with one of Jama Masjid’s famous ustads to a chance discovery by the owner of Alfina restaurant in Khan Market who gave him his first real break—this was a story of serendipity and a desire to make a name.
Hasan’s first shop in Khan Market was at no 55. The year was 1972. All his kiosk contained was a small table and a sigri. His was a one-man show and every afternoon he would arrive with his meat, hand-made masalas, and set up for business. Back then the menu featured three items—mutton seekh kebabs, mutton tikkas, and rumali rotis. Since there was no place to sit and eat, the kebabs were stuffed into a roll and sold to passersby, students and shoppers, all of whom soon started queueing up to get more.
The 25-rupee rolls flew off his sigri and school kids with their limited pocket money became his biggest clients. The name “Khan Chacha” started floating around and soon became du jour for Hasan. As the roll-seller of Khan Market who fed generations, he became the eponymous uncle who belonged to the place.
The legend of Khan Chacha
By 1996, Haji Banda Hasan’s younger son, Saleem, joined him in the business and they moved to shop no 36B—a slightly bigger spot to cater to the increased demand. By 2000, they had to shift once again as their inventory expanded and they also had to make room for a refrigerator. No. 75, Khan Market was an auspicious address that marked the beginning of their golden years. Khan Chacha’s menu now included items like chicken tikka and paneer tikka in addition to the mutton kebabs, and their clientele featured everyone from those who walked the corridors of power to socialites in high heels, genteel city folk to the market’s many shop assistants, high school and college kids and occasional celebrities aiming for anonymity behind dark glasses.
This was the eatery that people travelled across the city for in a time predating home deliveries. For newcomers, this was a spot you could find by trusting your nose. The emanating smoke from its sigris and tandoors, perfuming the air with the glorious smell of spiced kebabs, was its calling card. As were the perpetual crowds around the shop. Cars and bikes jostled for the closest parking spot near this eatery and groups pooled around the shop chatting, smoking cigarettes, even as the orders were taken and tracked with remarkable speed and precision in an era before computerised billing.
“We (my brother and I) had our own system in place that worked pretty well. We would scribble down the orders in short form. Then I would draw a simple sketch depending on the person placing the order. So, say for example, it was a girl in glasses, wearing a pink dress, I would write her order then draw spectacles, a rough hairstyle and write pink next to it. The order would be prepared and given to the right person without any stress,” says Mohammed Javed, the older son, colloquially known as one of the Khan Market brothers. He also describes how he and his brother learned to lip-read which gave them the ability to take orders of people miming what they wanted from way back in the queue in front of their shop.
With affordability and great taste as their hallmarks, Khan Chacha’s tribe grew. Masalas were made in-house and attention was paid to every last detail including the green chutney and the onions dipped in yogurt. The latter was an integral part of the package that was a Khan Chacha roll. “So much so that sometimes school students with their meagre budgets would come by and ask for a pyaaz chutney roll which we would sell for Rs5,” says Javed.
Khan Chacha: the birth of a chain
Over the years, their fame grew even as the size of the shop remained the same and then in 2009, they shut their business much to the disappointment of their many fans due to a tiff with their then landlord. A 50-50 partnership with Navneet Kalra followed and old-timers and patrons were in for a surprise when Khan Chacha returned a few months later in a shiny new avatar. While some felt that the promise of freshly made rolls, the eye-watering smoke and the immediacy and connection with the longstanding staff would be diluted by the new air-conditioned premises complete with uniformed servers, the proof of the pudding lay in the tradition of good food, which continued.
The immediate involvement of the family in the making of the food, the meat marinated in handmade masalas and the perfect chutney and piquant onions brought people into the new Khan Chacha which now sat at no 50 Khan Market. With additional space and resources, the menu expanded to include more Mughlai dishes and biryanis and also spread as kiosks and stalls in malls and shopping arcades across Delhi. “We never changed our recipes and only expanded our Mughlai repertoire,” said Javed and that is what kept people coming back.
However, by 2016, differences between the partners led to a bitter feud and a court case followed over the copyright of the brand name.
“Finally, on the eve of demonetisation in India, we had our last conversation and parted ways,” says Javed. Kalra retained the brand despite the dispute and Khan Chacha himself went in search of a new name.
The prodigal Khan returns to Khan Market
Haji Banda Hasan and his sons hunkered down and worked to open a place of their own. Finally, Rule the Rolls was born in 2017. While their first outlet was in Galleria mall in Gurgaon, they came full circle by returning to their original stomping ground with not one but two outlets. The first one opened in 2017 followed by the second outlet, two months later, in 49A Khan Market, right next to Kalra’s Khan Chacha.
As the news spread of Khan Chacha’s return in this new avatar, the older clientele began to return. “When we parted ways, we stopped saying that Khan Chacha’s recipes were ours,” says Javed. “People came to Rule the Rolls and tried the food and remembered the flavours of yore,” he says.
The popularity of Rule the Rolls led to many more outlets in Delhi NCR, Chandigarh and Gujarat. Currently, they have about five outlets running and others are temporarily closed due to the pandemic. This has also put their plans of expansion in India and abroad on hold for the moment
Rule the Rolls has well, rolled with the times, and transformed into a modern eatery with cheerful decor and a comprehensive menu.
Saleem and Javed retain the secret tweaks in the recipes but have also pivoted to the needs of the time. Apart from the favourite mutton kakori and seekh rumali rolls, they have a curry and rice menu featuring chicken korma, dal makhani and biryani and a section dedicated to kebab burgers. The latter is an exercise in fusion where the kebabs slathered in chutney and onions are stuffed in a burger bun.
The brand Khan Chacha was officially sold to Navin Kalra in 2020 and the family moved on from the name and worked towards taking their roll business to greater heights.
A current rebranding has led to the final naming—Saleem Javed Rule the Rolls and the address is now Khan Market no. 44.
It is perhaps fitting that their long journey in time and across this market is documented on the walls of their outlet through newspaper cuttings, photographs and testimonials. Javed and Saleem call this their Safarnama. This is a story of their rolls, the making of a brand and all the people who have been associated with them over the years—from those who ate the 25-rupee rolls in the 1970s to newbies who try the signature mutton seekh kebab-chutney-onion-in-a-roll (now priced at Rs 380) and turn converts for good.