Pune: rediscovering old haunts

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.

yummy maharashtrian thaali at shreyas hotel
Thali at Hotel Shreyas

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.

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Pune Misal at Shree Krishna Bhuvan

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 🙂

 

 

 

Monsoon treats

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Bhutta, roasted corn, with lime juice, salt, pepper and chilli powder

Monsoon season in Mumbai has its own menu mostly comprising of hot tea and a variety of fried snacks, consumed ideally in a balcony or near a window where a light spray from the rain would be a welcome companion.

But for me, the lasting memory of the Mumbai monsoon is the joy of eating freshly roasted corn on the cob, called bhutta, liberally coated with salt, chilli powder and lime juice. My mouth is watering just by writing this!

There would always be a man with a cart selling this delicious treat at Bandstand, in Bandra. Back then the corn was the smaller, paler yellow variety and not the bright American corn now available everywhere. He would roast it on charcoal in a small sigri (stove) and then dip half a lime into a bowl containing mostly salt and chilli powder and massage it into the roasted corn, till it was glistening from the lime juice and speckled with the spices! Then while still warm, he would serve it to you on a plate fashioned from the outer, pale green leaves of the corn.

And there you would stand, watching the high tide lash onto the rocks and dig into the corn till your teeth went right down to the very core. That explosion of the freshly roasted corn combined with the lime juice and spices was the best snack I have ever had on a rainy day.

Now when I want this treat, I need to roast it over a gas flame which doesn’t give quite the same taste as roasting over charcoal. But once the lime and spices go in, it still tastes damn good!

bhutta roasting
Corn roasting on a gas flame

Nothing compares to pav

If there’s one thing I miss dearly about being in Mumbai, it is easy access to freshly baked pav – a soft, beautifully leavened bread that pairs many popular snacks and meals in Mumbai. Vada pav, dabeli pav, misal pav, usal pav, pav bhaji, kheema pav, bhurji pav…etc etc.

And nothing can replace pav. It may look like just another bread or dinner roll, but only only after you’ve eaten it in one of the many food pairings listed above, will you truly appreciate its worth.

Early in the morning you will see men on cycles with a large canvas bag hanging near the back wheel, delivering orders of pav to homes and bakeries. My grandfather used to have a standard order of 6 pavs that would be delivered home every morning. 2 of them would be reserved for our dog (these were the days when dog food was not available) and the remaining 4 to be had for breakfast, morning tea and then in the evening.

Here’s an interesting article that talks about its history: http://www.deccanherald.com/content/32025/taking-pride-our-very-own.html

Living in Singapore meant I had no access to this bread.Friends told me of pav available at Mustafa – but I only found dinner rolls. Bread available at the local bakeries was good, but nothing like pav. And since I had always thought making pav at home would be impossible I continued to have to live without it. (There was an assumption that only the talent and effort in the many small bakeries across Mumbai could produce this wonderful bread)

Till one day I decided it was time to at least explore the possibility of making it. I came across countless recipes and videos on how to make pav which resulted in countless failed attempts to make it. The yeast was not frothy enough, the flour didn’t seem to be right, I didn’t get that miraculous first or second rise after proofing, it was raining, the oven was not hot enough….the mistakes and excuses I made were endless.

Till one fine day after patiently noting down and correcting everything that had gone wrong in earlier attempts, I finally produced a batch of almost perfect pav. Pav bhaji, here I come!

pav 1
Pav after the second proofing
pav 3
Soft pav
pav 2
Ladi pav

 

For great food and great ambience – Cafe Britannia!

Although it’s a bit of hike, tucked away in a corner of South Mumbai, the food is more than ample reward at Cafe Britannia which serves Parsi and Irani cuisine. Our favourites include Salli boti (mutton cooked with apricots and topped with potato shoe strings), Berry pulao (rice dish with bilberries from Iran), mutton cutlets and fresh chapatis. Of course no Parsi or Irani meal is complete unless it is accompanied by Raspberry soda and finished off with caramel custard!

Bakery biscuits

IMG_3314Seeing this shelf of biscuit jars at Kyani & Co. on a recent trip to Mumbai, reminded me how much I miss the taste of bakery biscuits like khari biscuit, nankhatai, almond biscuits and the good old Shrewsbury and ginger biscuits from Kayani bakery in Pune!

Chelo kebab and Iranian rice

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One of the things I enjoy most about cooking is the wonderful diversions you go down when figuring out a recipe and the surprises that await you at the end of those rabbit holes. I had one such experience when I wanted to recreate the Chelo Kebab recipe that made Peter Cat the institution it is (and a dish Priya and I had enjoyed at Copper Chimney too). But all Google searches for Chelo kebab recipes seem to lead to Iranian recipes (which made me believe that this may well have originated in Persia and not Park Street – I know fellow Bongs, it took me some time to come to terms with this too).

All parochial jokes aside, the dish comes from Persia and the recipes I found were for a great, mildly spiced kebab that I decided to charcoal grill to infuse the spiced meat with all the smoke I could muster. And the kebabs turned out great. Without the zing and heat of the galawat and shami kebabs I have made at home before, but a much more delicate set of flavours.

But what’s that got to do with a pleasant diversion you ask? It was the rice. Every Chelo Kebab recipe I found, waxed eloquent about a perfectly cooked rice dish to go with the kebab. And the rice and the tadig (the crispy, crusty goodness at the bottom of the rice that families in Iran seem to fight over at meal times) seemed to be the star of the dish which surprised the meat lover in me.

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The basmati rice, plump, fluffy, every grain separate and finally – infused with generous helpings of butter in the cooking – was outstanding (with a top layer of saffron-infused rice for good measure).

I have heard a lot about the jhojhore (grains separate in the rice and not a gloopy mass) from picky Bong eaters and didn’t appreciate what the big deal was. Till we tasted this rice….I now know what the big deal is all about!

Aniruddha