- Thursday, 19 February 2015

In Search of Pune’s Legendary Food Havens

I don’t know when eating local food became an integral part of my travel experience. Growing up across North India my diet consisted of Punjab-U.P. influenced rajma-chawal, kadhi, paneer, stuffed parathas, yellow dal, bhujia subzis, occasional puris, and the staple whole-wheat rotis. I never explored beyond the obvious representatives of regional Indian cuisines. For me, South Indian food was dosa and idli, Gujarati food was dhokla and Bengali cuisine was all about fish curry and rice. Similarly, until my mid-20s, I associated Maharashtrian food with only bhel-puri and pani-puri.

It was only when I moved to Pune, years later, that I learnt about some authentic and delectable regional dishes. By that time I had already been travelling for several years and had developed an interest in exploring local food. I decided to ask Pune Food Trails for help to answer questions, both in my mind and stomach. Where did the common man of Pune eat? Where was the Pune of the Marathas and the Peshwas? Where were those old eateries with tattered roofs serving simple local food at out-dated prices?

I started with my highway-favourite Maharashtrian snack, Misal-Pav. I had eaten this in various forms on my road trips across the state, but it was only when I ate one at Shri Krishna Bhuvan in Budhwar Peth that I learnt of its layered taste and textures and knew what I had been missing!

Misal, literally meaning mixture, has no fixed recipe. However, Krishna Bhuvan, like most other traditional eating joints, serves it with a layer of poha at bottom, topped with mildly-spiced boiled potato, sprouted moth beans, sev (farsan), garnished with chopped coriander and onions, and accompanied by the trademark reddish-orange gravy, called sample (pronounced as s-aam-ple). This is slurped up with plain slices of bread. It was a huge leap from the misal-pav I’d eaten previously, and also a lot tastier and fortunately, not as spicy.

The exact history of misal is unknown, but I am told by locals that it originated as a breakfast food for the hardworking common man. It is prepared using leftovers and when accompanied by bread or pav, makes a filling, high-carb meal. Shri Krishna Bhuvan, specialising only in a handful of breakfast/snack items, belongs to an era when all the restaurants in Pune would shut in the afternoon for a siesta, but with changing times, they’ve adapted and are now open till 7:30 pm in evening. If you’re heading there on a weekend, be prepared to wait in a long queue to get a table.

Talking of changing times, one would not want to miss the exact opposite presented at the legendary Poona Guest House—a dormitory styled guesthouse cum restaurant standing strong for over 80 years. It is one of those local haunts with crumbling façades, a narrow staircase and oodles of old-world charm, still serving authentic Maharashtrian cuisine at rock bottom prices. Poona Guest House was one of the typical ‘addas’ of yesteryear theatre and film artists including Dev Anand, Lalita Pawar, Bal Gandharva and Sulochana. Started by late producer-actor-director, Shri Nana Sarpotdar, and now run by his family members, the food at Poona Guesthouse has not lost its taste or charm.

Here, I got introduced to some more local dishes of Maharashtra like, Puran Poli—a flatbread stuffed with jaggery sweetened filling, Thalipeeth—a multigrain pancake (roasted or fried) served with white butter, green chilli chutney and garlic-peanut chutney, Sol Kadhi—a pink coloured drink made of kokum and coconut milk.

While walking through the by-lanes of the old city, it’s almost impossible to miss the various ‘Sweet Home’ hoardings. I rolled my eyes and huffed at these typical city centre replicas, but went into one such New Sweet Home anyway. I came out satiated after trying out some more local delicacies like Matar Karanji—a savoury version of North Indian Gujhia, Gulkand Laddu—sweet balls made of dried rose petals and the quintessentially Maharashtrian Sabudana Khichdi—a savoury dish made of tapioca pearls.

As if all these delicacies had not been enough for a day, I tested the boundaries of my stomach by trying out a pure Puneri phenomenon—a Mastani. More than the drink, I was intrigued by its name and found its original 80-year-old home in Gujjar Cold Drink House, Budhwar Peth. Surrounded by lottery shops, in midst of Pune’s red-light area, stands a no-frills joint, with community tables, vintage advertisements, kitschy-gaudy decorations, efficient staff and over 50 flavours of Mastani—I knew, to my delight, I had found one of the quirkiest corners of Pune.

History goes that the Gujjars were the first ones to make ice creams in Pune, some 80-85 years ago. They started mixing ice-cream with cream, milk and seasonal fruit flavours to create a drink to quench thirst in summers. The drink was called a ‘cold drink’ until 30-35 years back, when due to its popularity, people started calling it ‘Mast’—as in enjoyable, which later got modified to Mastani. Now, a Mastani, is commonly available across Pune with relatively newer brands like Sujata opening several outlets across the city. But it’s at Gujjar Cold Drink House that the story began!

All these meanderings through the old town had left me wanting for more, only now I wanted to find the Parsi gems in Pune. If you’re wondering why I’m drifting to Parsi food while talking about authentic Puneri dishes, I simply feel if an eatery in Pune has been serving really good food and at very low prices for over 136 years, it’s as Puneri as it gets.

The first stop—Dorabjee & SonsAsk for directions to Dorabjee in Camp and in all probability you will be led to a very modern food and grocery mart with a restaurant on the upper level serving ‘authentic’ Dorabjee biryani. Skip that. Take the left turn around the corner and look for the original establishment near Sarbatwalla Chowk. Like most Parsi joints, it remains family-run and is very easy on pockets. I tried Salli Chicken with roti, their popular Mutton Dum Biryani and then topped all that with a really thick and creamy Malai Kulfi. Burrrppp. Need I say more?

One cannot talk about the Parsi contribution to the city of Pune without mentioning Kayani BakeryA friend told me that at Kayani, people jostle in order to get to the counter and place the order—at any time of the day. Ah, it was a myth I thought and decided to see it for myself. Not only was it crowded, it also took me a good 10 minutes to reach the counter and order their famous shrewsbury biscuits. Kayani is not simply a bakery; it’s a little wonderland with biscuits like shrewsbury, ginger, chocolate, and cakes like mawa, madeira, sponge with chocolate icing and several fresh out-of-oven breads. Started in 1955 by an immigrant Irani family, Kayani has become a household name in Pune. I later learnt that they make about 250 kilos of shrewsbury biscuits everyday and it’s almost always sold out by the end of the day!

Photo By: Joe Zachs

Once a sleepy small town for retired people, today Pune is a thriving cosmopolitan city with students from different parts of the country, an expanding IT infrastructure and a growing expat community. This has led to many modern restaurants offering global cuisine in posh areas like Koregaon Park and Boat Club Road. Yet what is not lost are these traditional joints in the by-lanes of the old city giving a little peep into the food, architecture and pace of another era. It is at these joints that I discovered the flavours and variety of Pune’s traditional food offerings. It is at these joints that I found the common man of Pune eating, resting and sharing his stories.

If you thought my discovery of Puneri food was over, guess what, the list is far from complete unless I explore the legendary fare at Vaishali or gobble some sandwiches and macaroons at the 50 year old Marz-o-Rin—the pioneers in Pune’s fast food scene or chill at Café Good Luckthat’s been serving delicious affordable food for 75 years! That calls for another visit and I will happily loosen my belt one more notch to accommodate those local treats.
Getting to Pune:
a) By Air: Well-connected by air to all major airports in India and some in Europe and USA.
b) By Road: Just a 3 hrs (167 kms) drive from Mumbai via a picturesque Express Highway.
c) By Train: It is a major railhead and connected to other cities of India. It also has several daily Mumbai-Pune trains.
d) By Bus: Also well-connected to Mumbai by comfortable buses all throughout the day. Journey time 4- 5 hours.

Best time to visit: All year round

Do-Not-Miss: Take heritage walk through Shaniwarwada in old Pune. And don’t forget to visit all the food joints mentioned above.

Note: This article first appeared in Happy-Tripping magazine on 20th Jan 2015.