Saturday, 13 December 2014

Heritage Breakfast Walk in Pune

There I am waiting for Jayesh Paranjape under the ornate carved-wood balcony of  Vishrambaug wada, once the residence of Peshwa Baji Rao II, early on a Saturday morning. It is another bright sunny day in Pune, the nip in the air more pronounced than it has been in the past few days.  A parade of school children marches by, screaming slogans in unison, in Marathi. I try to figure out what it is that they are rallying for. Then I spot Jayesh waving at me from across the road and forget all about the rallying children or their cause.  I had met the Jayesh over a delectable Maharashtrian thali at Janaseva Bhojanalay a couple of days earlier and today he is taking me on a Heritage Breakfast Tour in the old town area. The idea is to eat at a few of Pune’s oldest and best eateries. I am excited. It is food we are talking about. 

Jayesh runs the show at Western Routes, a local out fit that organises interesting tours and trips in and around Pune and across Maharashtra. And I have signed up for their Heritage Breakfast Trail, only this one was going to be an exclusive one-on-one affair.

 “Let us buy the bakarwadi first,” Jayesh says once we have exchanged pleasantries. Ah he remembered. I had mentioned the other day how I wanted to take bakarwadi for the family.  One of my aunts had especially ordered for “a couple of kilos at least.” She, of course, didn’t bother much about the fact that air tickets come with a restricted baggage allowance. 

Across the lane adjacent to the Vishrambagwada, on the corner, stands the septuagenarian Chitale Bandhu Mithaiwale’s shop, one of Pune’s most illustrious sweetshops especially famous for its bakarwadi. “They sell over 3000 kilos of bakarwadi a day,” Jayesh tells me as we enter the shop. Inside it takes me much resilience and self control to stay off the mind-boggling array of sweet and savoury treats sitting pretty in large glass showcases.  I manage with little assistance from Jayesh, he keeps reminding me how much eating we had to do that morning. I do not want to ruin my appetite of course. So I train my eyes on the guy packing bags of Bakarwadi, willing myself to think about other things, for instance the thalipeeth I would get to sample at the Poona Guest House later in the morning. 

Finally I walk out with little less than 5 kilos of bakarwadi, all the while running in my mind the things I would say to the airlines officials. I could cry a little perhaps. It had worked once. Our next stop is the New Sweet Home in the Sadashiv Peth area. Originally Western Routes’ Heritage Breakfast walk starts with a tour of the Mahatma Phule Mandai, the city’s old fruits and vegetables market  followed by a treat at Sri Krushna Bhavan, another heritage eatery of the city. However, I had taken another tour with Western Routes around the historical sites of the city like on an earlier date when I had toured the Mandai and sampled the fabled Puneri Misal at Sri Krushna Bhavan. 

Misal pav is another archetypal Maharashtrian dish. Though there are numerous versions of the Misal, the most common version comprises fiery gravy called Kutt and curried sprouts (usually moth beans) topped with a generous serving of deep-fried gram flour crunchies or sev. It is served with bread. I had had Misal Pav once before, on another trip to this part of the country. I had come on a press trip to the Four Season’s winery in Baramati, a couple of hours drive from Pune. 

However, the Misal Pav served at Sri Krushna Bhuvan is interestingly different. So instead of sprouted beans, SKB serves a mildly spiced poha, a pilaf made of flattened rice which is topped off with crunchy sev and some chopped coriander. Finely chopped raw onions and lime wedges come along with it. The kutt, called sample locally, is very spicy with a mighty heat quotient. The idea is to pour the kutt onto the poha, add a squeeze of lime, sprinkle some raw onions and then scoop the mix up with bread and relish it. 

My companion on the walk, a young girl from Estonia who was currently staying in Pune, working as a yoga instructor, had a difficult time dealing with the Kutt. She seemed to be in pain, this despite the fact that we had requested for a mildly spiced Kutt for her. We had ordered for some buttermilk to wash down our missal with and that provided some succor, and not only to my companion.  I had rather condescendingly declared I wanted to sample the real deal, despite my guide Shruti’s warnings, and but the time I had taken a few mouthfuls of the missal doused in the chili-laden kutt my tongue had been on fire. But it was so good there was no stopping me. On our way out we saw there were 30 odd people waiting to get a table at Sri Krushna Bhavan and the queue had trickled onto the streets.  I knew exactly why.

Anyway so today I choose to give Sri Krishna Bhuvan a miss. So we head straight to New Sweet Home. The shop, almost six decades a part of the Puneri food scape offers a few rare treats. “This isn’t the most popular sweetshop in town but they serve a few things that you just cannot miss,” Jayesh tells me as we settle for a table outside the sweetshop cum restaurant, in the open. Jayesh knows exactly what to order and wastes absolutely no time. Minutes later we have a plate of Matar Karanji and one of Upvas Kachori in front of us, one comes with pain coconut chutney, the other with a mint-coriander chutney, this one has coconut too. A third plate arrives soon after, this one with three different kinds of laddu, gond, atta and khajur/dates. 

I go for the Matar Karanji first. Karanji is usually sweet, deep fried pastry stuffed with a sweet coconut, dry fruits and jaggery filling. But this one, crisp and flaky, is a delightful savoury version with a mildly spiced coconut and green peas stuffing. I take small bites lest I finish it off too soon, and with it I savor spoonfuls of the green coconut-mint-coriander chutney, relishing the heat from the green chilies. Jayesh;s phone wouldn't stop ringing. The morning paper carried news of an exciting camping trip Western Routes was organizing and too many people seemed interested. Jayesh is apologetic. I tell him not to bother,  I have food to keep me busy. 

Next I turn to the Upvas Kachori. Upvas means fasting and as the name suggests this dish is especially made in Maharashtrian households on the traditional days of fasting. The upvas Kachori is nothing but deep fried potato croquettes with a sweet coconut and dry fruit centre. I am qite impressed by the play of sweet and savoury in the same mouthful of Upvas Kachori. The potato is merely seasoned with salt and tempered with little cumin, the coconut stuffing is nothing but sweetened fresh coconut and dry fruits. It is simple, and it’s the simplicity that makes the dish so endearing.

Next I turn to the Upvas Kachori. Upvas means fasting and as the name suggests this dish is especially made in Maharashtrian households on the traditional days of fasting. The upvas Kachori is nothing but deep fried potato croquettes with a sweet coconut and dry fruit centre. I am qite impressed by the play of sweet and savoury in the same mouthful of Upvas Kachori. The potato is merely seasoned with salt and only a hint of spice is added and the coconut stuffing is nothing but sweetened fresh coconut and dry fruits. It’s the simplicity that makes the dish so endearing.

From Sweet Home we head straight to Poona Guest House on Laxmi Road, the busiest commercial street in Old Poona.  Poona Guest House was founded in 1935 and has over these eight decades maintained its illustrious reputation for serving superlative Maharashtrian food , authentic and delicious. The restaurant is on the first floor and  when we walk in  it is relatively less crowded. We find a table without having to wait and Jayesh immediately places the orders - Thalipeeth and Dadpe Pohe, two of Poona Guest House's iconic dishes.

Thalipeeth, which is nothing but  spiced multi-grain fried bread,  is not new to me but I have never sampled Dadpe Pohe before. Jayesh explains that it is uncooked flattened rice or poha that is lightly doused in buttermilk, and then tossed with finely chopped onions, green chilies, fresh grated coconut, seasoning and crisps& crunchies like crumbled papad. With a squeeze of lime, Dadpe Pohe is one of Maharashtra's favourite snack.

I like the idea of Dadpe Pohe, but when I finally eat it I realise am not crazy about it. I like the play of texture, especially the large grains of sugar that add a sweet bite to the Poona Guest House version of the dish but after a couple of spoonfuls I decide I could do without it. It was the thalipeeth I was excited about.

The thalipeeth we are served comes with a dollop of fresh Buffalo milk white butter locally known as loni, and with it some dry garlic and peanut chutney. I can spot the sesame seeds and the finely chopped onion studding the deliciously crusty, deep-fried disc of spicy goodness. I waste no time. Jayesh tells me about the specil mix of flour that is used to make the dish, he even shares a healthier recipe for making thalipeeth at home, I nod and mumble something from time to time but otherwise I expend all my energy in wolfing the thalipeeth down. I am so stuffed I can hardly breathe but I can't  stop. And we have another place to check out before we can call it a morning!

After I had polished off the last crumbs of the thalipeeth, I find it difficult to move. But a walk now is all  the more necessary. And the walk down to the Gujjar Cold Drink House does me good. The struggle to dodge collisions with cycles and scooters for once helps in settling the food down. We are at eight decade old  establishment to sample one of Pune's most iconic drinks Mastani - a Puneri version of a milk shake with ice cream or an ice cream shake. Though you get mastani in numerous joints across Pune, Gujjar Cold Drink House stands out, says Jayesh. We order for a Mango Mastani, split into two. I like the name Mastani. I think of Mastani, the woman, the lover, the wife of Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao 1. A muslim in love with a Hindu Brahmin, at that time. Just then some one orders for a Bajirao Mastani. Ah so they have a drink named after the lovers. I sigh.

Inside Gujjar Cold Drink House it is dark - power cut - but the legacy of the place is unmistakable. I sit on one of the benches, across the cramped little room three men relish their mastanis with utmost concentration. The glasses full of creamy goodness look delectable. My stomach does a somersault. On the opposite wall hangs a huge mirror framed in an ornate wooden frame. The mastani arrives soon. It is a delicious milk shake with scoops of ice cream and mango pulp. I go through the next few minutes oblivious to my surroundings. No the drink is nothing unique, but it is delicious nonetheless! 

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