The Peshwas left Pune too soon, I feel. Had they been around, they would have been considerably taken by the mouth-watering variety of Maharashtrian food the city offers these days — homemade food gone exciting. In fact, the number of restaurants I encountered made me wonder if Punevasis cook at home at all. They are clearly not looking for ambiance if the subdued façades and crowded interiors of the most popular establishments are anything to go by. Which leaves us with the food — meals, snacks and sweets that are definitely beyond reproach.
The thing about Maharashtrian food is that it’s mildly spiced, generally, or at least when it’s made well. Maharashtrians use a blend of spices, what’s called the goda masala — and if that wasn’t formidable enough, it’s also called kala masala, sometimes. This light and flavourful mix goes into nearly all vegetables and curries, most of which also benefit from a tiny amount of jaggery and tamarind paste, topped off with a dash of grated coconut. The key highlights make up middle India, where wheat and rice play stellar roles. A meal isn’t complete unless the chapattis and vegetables are served with rice and dal (also with koshimbir or salad, please).
I always recommend the thali as the best bet if a long Maharashtrian menu looks a little disorienting. It’s fully loaded and quite a sampler — unlimited servings of four or five vegetables, dal, chapatti-poori-bhakri (a round, flat, unleavened bread made with either jowar or bajra), the reliable koshimbir, papad, some tangy chaat, rice, buttermilk, and then you can order a sweet separately. Go hungry! And head straight for dear Hotel Shreyas(Deccan Gymkhana; 11.30am–3pm and 7.30pm–10.30pm; open all days; thali at Rs 225 without sweets; 020-25532023/25532785, hotelshreyas.in). Shreyas is set at the end of a lane, off a terribly busy road, but surrounded by calming, big trees, which is helpful since you will invariably have to wait for a table. This is hardcore vegetarian Marathi Brahmin-style food, never too spicy, an all-people pleaser. End the meal with their totally melt-in-the-mouth modak, steamed with a sweet, grated coconut filling, served warm with a spoonful of melted ghee. If you must be upright, there’s also the sugar (and guilt)-free basundi and a very respectable fruit salad. The upwaas thali would be my preferred choice if I were fasting, sometimes even if I weren’t — there’s the yummy sabudana khichdi, bhagar (an honest rice preparation made delicious with peanuts and roasted samo seeds) and amrakhand, the divine mango-flavoured shrikhand (strained and sweetened yoghurt whipped creamy and thick). If I have someone along with me, we take one ‘regular’ and another upwaas thali so we get the best of both selections.
Shreyas’ Marathi food fest during the Ganapati celebrations is highly acclaimed (it’s slated for September 13–14 in 2013). It’s where we go to sample rare delicacies from different parts of the state, like the Nagpuri gola bhaat (gram flour dumplings are added when the rice is partially cooked, both spiced separately, and it all comes out as one terrific dish) and the Konkan panagi (turmeric leaves are the secret ingredient in this steamed specialty).
Almost all of the prominent thali joints tweak their lunch and dinner menu, so repeat visits tend to throw up nice surprises. Just be prepared to endure a long wait on weekends and an even crazier rush on public holidays at Krishna Dining Hall (Law College Road; 11.30am–3pm and 7.30pm–10.30pm; open all days; thali for Rs 250 without sweets, only cash, no credit cards; 66013139, wadeshwar.com). Bookings for their upwaas thali, served only twice a year on Mahashivratri and Ashadhi Ekadashi, begin a month in advance! Marathi film celebs and politicians show up here regularly. I go for their efficient and pleasing service and always come away content; I only wish they had more space for people, who end up crowding outside the restaurant. But I like that it’s clean, airy and well-lit and the windows open out to greenery.
If it’s spicy food I want, I head for the fortifying Maratha repasts of the state’s eastern plateaus. That would be at 96 K Maratha (Fergusson College Road; noon–4pm and 7.30pm–11.30pm; Mondays closed; 25679669,96k.co.in), a ‘regular’ restaurant with dimly lit but decent enough interiors, although you can also sit outside, at the tables they have laid out facing the road. Their chicken sukkha and mutton curry with vadas (a kind of poori) are almost signature dishes. It’s not that vegetarians are neglected — try their baingan bharta with bhakri and dal-ambat varan (a hot and sour dal), a truly satiating combo with steaming rice. The pithla (a thick gram flour curry with the kick of chilli-garlic) they serve with their bhakri is delectable, too, and the sides — garlic peanut chutney and thecha, another hot chutney with crushed peanuts — complete the ensemble. Their vegetarian, chicken, mutton and fish thalis are also good options but be sure to down a glass of kokum sherbet if things get too hot to handle. I always finish with their traditional veeda (that’s paan, made here with 16 ingredients).
The state’s generous coastline is rather under-represented in Pune, but one restaurant has found its way into the hearts of Puneites and that’s Fish Curry Rice (Narayan Peth; 11.30am–3pm and 7.30pm–11pm; Mondays closed; meal for two costs about Rs 600-800; 64011082, fishcurryrice.in). The exterior will fool you; so will the interiors, probably. It’s the kind of small place where you can peep into the kitchen when you get up to wash your hands. An award-winning food joint (you’ll find a lot of certificates and news clippings on the walls), their magic lies in their masalas, with every single preparation spiced differently and authentically, whether a chicken, mutton or fish dish, or the vegetables. Think no more and order the prawn koliwada and crab masala with a couple of dashmi (rice flour pancakes) or just steamed rice and wash it all down with a glass of sol kadhi(coconut milk with kokum). Then again, you could simply order the fish thali or even better, the tisrya (shellfish) thali and add on a bangda (mackerel) fry or the baked and stuffed pomfret pedavan afterwards, with a plate of the (vegetarian) kachrya, their scrumptious thin potato slices. I would say everything is absolutely lip-smacking but even that would be an understatement, actually.
When it’s not a filling meal I want but just some characteristic Marathi snacking, I head for Manohar Fast Food (Erandwane, near the Mehendale Garage; 8am–10pm; open all days; 25456745), a simple, bare, open-air eatery set up inside the premises of a marriage hall (no parking worries!). Madhuri and Makarand Date run this eatery, which gives its patrons plenty of room to munch and chat without getting nudged out. Their sabudana khichdi and thalipeeth (a multi-grain roti) are justly popular, as are the humble poha, upma, sheera and vada pav, all of them happily home-madey. I love their danyacha laddoo (made with crushed peanuts). Go for the zingy misal, which is usal (a moth beans gravy, another native favourite) dunked with poha, farsan (fried flour snacks), chopped onions and tomatoes, and tamarind and chilli chutneys, served up with a soothing slice of softpav bread. Another homely Marathi meal can be made of their mugachi (moong dal) khichdi and kadhi, the gently spiced buttermilk always comforting, and I like to finish with their super-soft puranpoli (they serve it here with milk or ghee) or the rarer kharwas — a sweet, steamed pudding made with cow or buffalo milk that’s been procured within a day of calving.
Katakirr (near Kalmadi House, off Karve Road; 8am–5pm; open on all days; 9822448877), on the other hand, cannot be bothered with anything other than misal — they also sell misal masala, so you can take some home and hope to relive the experience. By the way, I usually need a glass of their mattha (lightly spiced buttermilk) to tone down the spice.
I have often been among the thousand-odd people who make their way to another oldie, the 1940-born Prabha Vishranti Griha (opposite Kesari Wada, Narayan Peth; 7.30am–noon, 4.30pm–8pm; Mondays closed and no phone numbers) for the bestest vada pav.
A trip to Pune and not one to the world-renowned Chitale Bandhu Mithaiwale? (Deccan Gymkhana and Bajirao Road plus a dozen franchisees; 8.30am–1pm and 4.30pm–8.30pm; Mondays closed; 25671748,chitalebandhu.in) Not a chance, and not least because they top the mithai chain with their divine kaju katli, gulab jamuns, laddoos, shrikhand, dry fruit sweets and stacks of pedas. But it’s their bakarwadi, a perfectly spiced namkeen that looks like a quirky Swiss roll, and rich amba (mango) barfi that brought them their aforementioned fame. Their Ganapati modaks lead to serpentine queues on D-Day, even though they are amazingly organized in the way they run their stores. Now, if they could only do something about the dratted parking, since their outlets are bang on arterial main roads.
If I am allowed one digression from all that Marathi classicism, I would pick the colonial Kayani Bakery (East Street, Camp; 7.30am–1pm and 3.30pm–8pm; Sundays closed; 26360517), set in a stone building with wooden doors and counters. The store timings are irritatingly strict and they insist on producing less than they can sell, so they keep running out — and it doesn’t help that their Shrewsbury biscuits and sponge cake attract crowds even on a weekday afternoon. Forgive all, go early, and pack some chocolate walnut cake.
My final halt is Sujata Mastani (flagship on Sadashiv Peth, 14 other outlets across the city; 11am–11.30 pm; Mondays closed; 24484841, sujatamastani.com). It’s utterly ‘made in Pune’, though it has nothing to do with Bajirao Peshwa’s muse, the gorgeous princess Mastani, and you’ll know why when you see it — the mastanis here are plump scoops of fruit-flavoured ices (their website insists a mastani is not an ice cream) served with flavoured milk. The khus, chikoo, fig and mango are the most sought after among them, although I feel you can’t go wrong with any combination of pista and kesar, and seasonal specials like custard apple and strawberries. It’s almost a shop, mind you, and in the summer, their customers spill over to the roadside waiting for their orders to be delivered, probably the reason why they have switched from glass bowls to paper cups. The mastanis are crafted in a French Pot, and doesn’t that sound odd — it’s a spinning contraption that uses a blade to scrape off the dessert as it freezes, and it’s eggless and organic, they say. All said and sampled, it’s quite delicious.