Abu Dhabi: Earlier this month, Abu Dhabi's culture sector regulator, the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT Abu Dhabi), recognised 15 outlets across the city as “Urban Treasures”. India Palace was one of them.
Synonymous with Indian cuisine and hospitality today, Abu Dhabi-based India Palace’s 25-year journey has been momentous. The seeds were sown much earlier, a mere few years after the UAE came into being, when a 20-year-old Indian expat with enterprise on his mind moved to the UAE.
K. Muralee Dharan came to Dubai in 1976, at a time when the UAE boasted an expanding network of roads, free water supply and nominal charges on power.
“This was unmatched generosity at the time, and I was happy to be here. I joined the firm where my brother was employed as an accounts clerk, and over 14 years or so, I continued to work for the same firm, moving into sales, accounting and management,” Muralee Dharan, now 66 and managing director of the Abu Dhabi-based Southern Franchise Company (SFC), the group behind India Palace, told Gulf News.
At the back of his mind, the Indian expat always cherished hopes of starting his own venture. When he finally became a managing partner of the company in 1990, Muralee Dharan took the leap.
It was a modest coffeeshop at a petrol station in Mafraq, but the venture proved successful and ran for two years.
“Eventually, my contract was not renewed when another franchise took over the same location, and that’s when I decided to set up a recognisable brand with international standards. It was a turning point for me, because I realised that brand recognition and quality were key,” Muralee Dharan said.
Foray into fast food
The expat took on a multi-week training with a UK-based company that assists in the development of quick service restaurants, and in 1992, the Southern Fried Chicken restaurant was born.
“We served fried chicken with a unique recipe, and in our second branch, we also introduced pizzas and sandwiches. The formula worked well, and we built a loyal customer base. To me, this was a sign to branch out, especially as I wanted to bring an authentic Indian experience to the UAE,” Muralee Dharan said.
Royal Indian experience
Although he himself hails from Kerala, what Muralee Dharan had in mind was a restaurant that combined flavours from various Indian states, while also providing a royal experience to diners. And to do this, the businessman toured a number of cities in the north of the country, including Delhi and Jaipur.
Over an 18-month period, he and his team then set out to design the first India Palace restaurant, to be located in a building on Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Street. A Hyderabadi architect designed the restaurant’s theme, including its famous teraccotta-coloured awning and jalli ornamental walls. Muralee Dharan chose to source handmade teakwood furniture, and multiple paintings to convey the grandeur of India.
“There were many Indian restaurants in Abu Dhabi at time, but I wanted to create something new and instantly recognisable,” Muralee Dharan said.
The restaurant opened its doors to its first customers in late 1997, and was officially inaugurated on February 20, 1998. It could seat 100 diners, and there was also a skilled jewellery maker from Rajasthan selling his pieces. In no time, India Palace, or Qasr Al Hind – as it is known in Arabic, became a popular and well-loved restaurant in the capital city.
“We offer what I call the maharaja experience. It may be a familiar concept to people from South Asia, but the measure of success to me is when an Arab instantly recognises Qasr Al Hind,” Muralee Dharan said.
The restaurant has continued to add to its achievements, and there are now 13 branches across the UAE. The original Sheikh Zayed Street branch is also still standing, with room for 175 diners.
“It has hosted many dignitaries over the years, and we were delighted to accommodate the entire Indian cricket team came down for a meal when they were visiting in 1998.
Muralee Dharan’s family has seen the restaurant business – which now includes 12 separate entities, including 49ers and Pizza Pan– grow as well.
“My wife actually joined me here in 1984, and my three children were brought up here. In fact, my son is now director of concept and cuisines at the SFC Group,” Muralee Dharan said.
India Palace continues to offer delectable fare, and its signature butter chicken – grilled chicken in creamy tomato gravy – remains a firm favourite. Customers also love the daal makhni – a creamy lentil dish, and the dum chicken biryani.
Muralee Dharan’s own preferences are slightly different. He most often opts for the prawn biryani, and has to have the chicken tikka kabab at least once a week.
Abu Dhabi recognition
“I have just been working hard, and it is lovely to be recognised as an Urban Treasure and have this prize,” he said.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Muralee Dharan is already working to take India Palace global, starting with the GCC region, and then to Europe.
“I credit the UAE – the place where I actually began living – for making the person I have become and for what I have been able to achieve. In fact, we run a number of charity organisations, and contribute to many more, in India. This is also a reflection of the generosity modelled by the UAE’s Founding Father HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan,” Muralee Dharan said.