The tale behind Chicken 65
By V Haripriya
Experimenting with 200 recipes of biryani before starting a restaurant is not an easy task, especially in 1950. But the late A.M. Buhari was a perfectionist, keen on providing the best to namma Chennai. Today, though he is no more, the Buhari family led by the third generation carries forward his legacy.
Hailing from a lower middle-class family in Tirunelveli district, young Buhari had to go to Colombo to assist his uncle in a business in the pre-Independence era. Buhari then came to know that Hotel Mardhana Buhari, surprisingly by his own name, was on sale in the island nation. Though Buhari was not interested in the hotel business, he was pushed by his well-wishers to buy it. There started the birth of the Buhari restaurant in Colombo.
In the 1940s, Colombo was a major European colony. So, Buhari’s early customers were westerners, who turned out to be strict disciplinarians. This helped the school dropout learn the nuances of the hospitality industry. The biryani served in the hotel was a hit. The elite Sinhalese called it “Buhari rice” instead of biryani.
Post-Independence, the hotel was taken over by the Sri Lankan government and Buhari was forced to leave the country because of political tension between India and Ceylon. There started the businessman’s second innings in Madras, in 1951. Buhari launched Buhari Hotel on Mount Road, a major centre of trade.
“With the help of chef Shamydeen my grandfather tried more than 200 recipes of biryani,” says Nawaz H. Buhari, one of Buhari’s grandsons who now runs the Mount Road joint.
Chicken 65, a tale
There are many anecdotes associated with this restaurant. They are known to be the pioneers of ‘Chicken 65’. “Apparently, it was the 65th item on the menu and the fry was made from a 65-day-old chicken,” says the director. “But in reality we started serving chicken fry from 1965. Until then it was only available with gravy. Since then we introduced many versions – Chicken 78, 82 and 90.
But Chicken 65 is famous and has found a place in all non-vegetarian restaurants. Interestingly, my cousin found the item on the menu of a famous London restaurant and it was called Madras Buhari Chicken 65,” Nawaaz says.
By 1965, Buhari Hotel branched out to four places – Flower Bazaar, Central, Egmore and Marina – of which two are closed now. “Each area was dominated by a different community, so our hot-selling items were prepared in accordance with the local flavour,” says Nawaaz.
The famous Buhari halwa was a recipe from Ceylon and it was made from wheat. Also, Buhari was the first person to prepare parotta with wheat instead of maida. The Buharis also own Hotel Imperial and Blue Lagoon Resort in Neelankarai.
A.M. Buhari, who was conferred the title Sherif by Kalaignar Karunanidhi, was also offered the Padma Bushan, which he declined. He died at the age of 86. The third generation also claim that their grandfather was the first person to provide chilled water free of cost to his customers. “He introduced uniforms for his staff and table settings in his restaurant, which was only practised in star hotels then.”
“At the Marina restaurant we had a jukebox, which attracted college students,” Nawaaz recalls. The hotel staff are mostly relatives of the family who are trained by the elders. “We have certain secret ingredients, which we don’t want to leak,” he explains.
Well-known personalities who have visited the restaurant include actors Sridevi and Jayachitra and former CM Jayalalithaa’s mother and actress Sandhya. “The cassata ice-cream was a favourite with late Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran,” Nawaaz adds.
Buhari’s loyalists can now see a renovated fine-dining restaurant on Mount Road. “We also have plans to open restaurants in Malaysia and Australia in the near future.”
Made in Chennai is a column that showcases the evolution of home-grown businesses that began when the city was Madras.