Last week I made a trip to Pune, the second largest city in Maharashtra after Mumbai and often considered the cultural capital of the state. I was going back to Pune after 8 years, which is quite remarkable for me because through school and college Pune was pretty much a second home. A large part of my mother’s family lived there and since it was convenient to get to, both by rail and road and enjoyed a pleasant weather for most parts of the year, a trip to Pune was usually a no brainer. But trips back home to Mumbai from Singapore are always too short to afford even a one day visit. So finally, this time I took a little extra time off to visit Pune.
Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, food was always a big part of our holidays to Pune. Many of our meals would be had at home prepared by the cook, an irascible old lady we called ‘vaaghin’ (which means tigress, and boy was she short-tempered!).
My favourite Maharashtrian restaurant was Hotel Shreyas on Apte Road. To this day, in my opinion, they serve the best home-style Marathi food. A wonderful unlimited thali with dishes I have grown up eating at home – batata rassa (spicy potato curry), amti or varan and bhat (lentils with rice), usal (legumes), a dry preparation like sukha batata (potato) or vatana (peas), koshimbir (vegetable salad), farsan or fried snacks, chapatis or puri, yoghurt or buttermilk and dessert. If we were in Pune for a wedding, a heavier version of this thali would get served at the innumerable ‘karyalays’ or wedding halls.
When my father started working on a project in Pune he would stay at Hotel Swaroop on Prabhat Road. The hotel had a well known restaurant called Anand Dining Hall, that originally served only Marathi food – they have now expanded their menu. I decided to stay at Swaroop last week and dined at the Anand Dining Hall after many years. Simple tasty food like valachi usal (bitter beans), onion and potato rassa (curry), khamang kakdi (cucumber salad) and pithla (yoghurt & gram flour curry), eaten with fresh bhakri (millet or sorghum chapatis). The owners of Hotel Swaroop also own mango orchards and serve homemade fresh mango ice-cream, which was absolutely delicious!
No trip to Pune would be complete without visiting Chitale Bandhu, famous for their amba barfi (mango fudge) and bhakarwadi – an absolutely amazing spicy, fried, savoury snack. Mom also visits Desai Bandhu (owned by the same family that owns Hotel Swaroop), a grocery store that is a great place to buy Marathi spice mixes, sauces, pickles & sweets.
But our food jaunts were not restricted to the older part of the city only. We would also go to ‘Camp’ or the cantonment area. The first trip used to be early morning to secure Shrewsbury biscuits from Kayani bakery on East Street. Back then, the biscuits would run out quite quickly and therefore Kayani Bakery used to ration the amount of biscuits each person could buy – usually 1/4 kg. This required some clever planning within the family, with one member being sent in at a time to secure a box, because if everyone went in together, they would only allow you one box!
In the evening we would go to Dorabjee’s supermarket, where the big draw for me were their homemade centre-filled chocolates, wrapped in different coloured foil paper, to indicate the flavours. Then we would walk to Main Street or M. G. Road and head to Marz-O-Rin – purveyors of fine food items like pattice, rolls, cutlets, sandwiches and cakes, much like the bakeries in Bandra, Mumbai. Next to Marz-O-Rin was Pasteur bakery where we would buy delicious almond or coconut macaroons.
On the trip last week, I went back to another old favourite – Shabri, located on Ghole Road, just off Ferguson Road. Originally we would go for their delicious bhakri with jhunka (thick gram flour & yoghurt gravy), thecha (ground chillies) and fresh onion. A simple farmer’s meal, but so tasty and so filling! But now they serve a thali, which was quite a heavy meal!
Near Shabri, I discovered a new restaurant called Jevan (which means meal). Elegant interiors and a menu dedicated to Marathi food made this a wonderful find. I tried the spicy and dry Dongri Mutton (dry mutton cooked with garlic, dark masala and fresh coconut), Pandhra Rassa (white mutton stock soup) and Vade (fried lentil bread) followed by kharvas, an unusual cardamom flavoured custard made with colostrum-rich milk.
I also managed to try Pune’s version of misal pav at Shree Krishna Bhuvan near Tulsi Bagh. It is served as a spicy watery gravy that is poured on a plate of mashed potato, flattened rice flakes (poha), chopped onion and sev (deep fried gram flour) and then eaten with bread. This is very different to the Mumbai misal and makes for an interesting change.
My final dish in Pune was a concoction I have read about, but never eaten – ‘Mastani’. So my mother, sister and I trooped to the Sujata Mastani outlet at Nimbalkar Talim Chowk and each ordered a different variety – mom going for rose, and my sister and I deciding to first try the Sujata Special Mastani followed by the Orange flavour. Mastani as explained to me by the staff is a thick milkshake with ice-cream and topped with fruits and nuts. Apparently people used to say ‘Mast‘ (Super) after eating it, which overtime expanded to Mastani, in a nod to the famous historical figure. Even though milk shake with ice-cream may not live up to the fancy name, the mango & kesar Mastani was delicious and super indulgent.
Someone asked me if I ate my way through Pune. The answer of course is a resounding yes! Let’s hope the next time is not another 8 years away 🙂