Hunger Games: A Puneri paean
In my childhood, when there were neither malls, nor online shopping spaces to delve into, I would wait eagerly for a chance to visit the warren of old Pune. The visits were rare, reserved typically around one of our birthdays, or for Diwali time, which meant a shopping trip for new clothes.
The one and half hour ride in the old, battered red city bus excited me because I got to add to my restricted wardrobe— but mostly, it was the primacy of sampling traditional Puneri dishes. Growing up, meals at home were either the south Indian staples of idli, dosa, and upma with roti and sabji making an appearance at lunch. But as with most children, it was always the food from outside that tempted me the most. And so I would wait with bated breath, for an expedition to the peths (settlements) of Pune, which have existed since Chhatrapati Shivaji’s days.
Long been known as a pensioner’s paradise and the Oxford of the East, Pune today is bursting at its seams. But tucked away in the city’s heart, is the Pune warped in its glorious past. Peppered around the peths are dilapidated wadas (two storied traditional dwellings), standing as legacies of the erstwhile Peshwas. My family’s shopping was primarily focussed in and around the popular, crowded Laxmi Road and Tulsi Baug. Here, people jostled, cows trudged, buses honked, and hawkers sold knick-knacks on pushed-carts.
But as you get over the initial shock of it all, you’ll find Shri Krishna Bhuvan, an eatery tucked in the confines of Tulsi Baug. Though Shri Krishna has been serving poha and sheera (rava halwa) since 1941, their speciality is their misal— a perfect potpourri of flavours with poha, potato sabji, sev, onion, and a generous helping of a fiery red curry called sample. The special curry is a heady composition of tomato, onion, dried coconut, ginger, garlic and an assortment of spices. My usual order there was a “medium misal” with a bowl of yoghurt, my way of coping with the raw deliciousness of the curry’s heat. I would then mix the yoghurt in with the misal and dig into it with bread slices.
While the misal is popularly prepared with sprouted moong, matki, and peas, at Shri Krishna it isn’t. Of the many ways that misal is made through Maharashtra, Shri Krishna Bhuvan’s is special, and hasn’t changed in taste and quality over years— the crunch of the raw onions and sev, the starchiness of the potatoes, the subtle hints of ginger and garlic have remained just right in coming together to elevate the taste buds. And so, when last year in June, the Foodie Hub Global Awards in London declared the misal pav as the tastiest vegetarian dish in the world, I was elated, and not the least bit surprised.
Another no-frills eatery called New Sweet Home is just a stone’s throw away from Tulsi Baug, in Budhwar Peth. The piping hot khichadi and vada, made of sabudana (sago), are the why I remember this place. A go-to if you’re fasting, the khichadi with its translucent pearls of sago and a liberal helping of coarsely ground peanuts and green chillies is an all-time-favourite for me, especially since my father didn’t think much of the “thermocol balls”, which he said were low in nutrition. Given that he never much enjoyed these jaunts, he eventually gave up coming with us, and the shopping and food walks around old Pune became a mother and daughter affair.
What we found next therefore, became just mine and my mother’s secret— a nameless hole in the wall which served ukadiche modak—cotton white steamed dumplings stuffed with jaggery and coconut. Considered lord Ganesha’s favourite, these splodges are irresistible till date. Not to miss also, is matar karanji, a half-moon shaped pastry stuffed with peas could be gobbled up with green (mint) chutney, leaving behind greasy hands and a content soul. Clearly, on these sprees, Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “Eat to live, don’t live to eat” didn’t apply to us.
The Poona Guest house on Laxmi Road was another regular stopover. Standing tall since 1935 in one of the wadas, it also has a dormitory that’s seen the likes of yesteryear heartthrob, film actor Dev Anand. Their thalipeeth, the perfect comfort food that provides pure gastronomic joy, is a multi-grain spicy Indian bread made of wheat, rice sorghum, and pearl millet is high on nutrition quotient. Each thalipeeth is served with curd and garlic chutney is enough to stuff a famished soul. When the wonder plate is shoved below your nose, the ambience and the crowds fade into irrelevancy.
Shopping trips to Pune were an excuse to explore and indulge in simple Puneri food. Today with numerous online shopping portals, I miss those shopping benders.