Soul food

From snacks and desserts to a full-fledged thali, in Pune you're spoilt for choice

Uma Karve
A Maharashtrian <i>thali</I> at Shabree

A Maharashtrian thali at Shabree

Like most regional cuisines of India, the Maharashtrian thali is arranged to achieve a balance of flavours and nutrition. So alongside chutneys, wafers (papad), chopped/grated salad (koshimbir), sprouts (usal) and lentils, both tempered (amti) and untempered (sadha varan), you will also find vegetables cooked in different ways (bhaji), rice (bhaat), rotis, yoghurt or buttermilk, and sweets (the popular ones being shrikhand/amrakhand, gulab jam, kharvas, puran poli), followed by betel leaves stuffed with spices (vida).
Traditionally the meal begins with hot rice and varan, to which you add a spoonful of clarified butter, and as any Maharashtrian will testify, there's nothing better in life than varan bhaat. The food described below is designed to soothe your soul.
The New Pune Boarding House gives you everything you want if you are looking for home food (from a Maharashtrian home, that is). Located in busy Sadashiv Peth, opposite the Perugate Police Chowky, it serves a typical Pune meal: two vegetable dishes, lentils, rice, rotis and yoghurt. Don't expect anything fancy in terms of decor here, it's the taste that rules. The vaalachi usal (a watery curry of beans), served every Thursday, and carrot and cabbage koshimbirs are very popular. It's open from 11.30am to 3pm and from 7.30pm to 10pm on all days other than Friday.
When Ramrao Kini started a mess in 1949, he probably didn't think his family would still be running it three generations later. At Asha Dining Hall, on Apte Road, the food is similar to that served in Poona Boarding House. A regular thali consists of three bhajis, lentils with jaggery, roti, rice and traditional salads. But what's different here is that they also offer rasam (mulligatawny soup), a south Indian preparation, along with their meals. On Sundays, the feast gets grander with aalu chi bhaji (a leafy green vegetable cooked with radish, peanuts and tamarind) and raw banana koshimbir. Current owner Arun Kini says that unlike "outside food" theirs is low in oil, salt and spice.
The first thing you will notice at Shabree, on Ghole Road, is its impressive decor. But you'll forget that once the Maharaja thali is placed in front of you. The Konkani special on Tuesday features kala vatana usal (black pea curry); on Wednesdays there's spicy Kolhapuri cuisine - pandhra or tambda rassa (vegetarian versions of mutton soups); on Thursdays it's food from the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra - Raavan Pithla (gram flour cooked with chillies, onion, tomatoes and spices) and Vade bhaat (dumplings with rice), while regular thalis are served on all other days. But don't miss the masale bhaat (a spicy pilaf) served on Sundays. The desserts include puran poli (rotis stuffed with sweetened ground lentils) and Spicecream, which, as the name suggests, is an ice-cream made from spices. At the end of the meal you are given a tray-full of ingredients to make your own paan (betel leaves with spices to aid digestion).
The seven-decade-old Janaseva Bhojanalay, next to the Garware overbridge at Deccan Gymkhana, is a landmark in Pune. While it specialises in traditional Maharashtrian thali food, it's the desserts you mustn't miss: amrakhand, shrikhand (sweetened yoghurt preparations) and kharvas, which is made from steamed milk and is similar to custard.
Hotel Shreyas, on Apte Road, has a big following in the city, especially during traditional celebrations.
On special occasions, all restaurants that serve thalis also serve ukdiche modaks (steamed rice dumplings stuffed with jaggery and coconut).
Meat-eater's delight
Try Srushti for seafood, Hotel Nagpur for mutton. For Kolhapuri cuisine, go to Shambhavi's Kolhapur Darbar, Sugran's Kolhapur Non-Veg or Pure Pur Kolhapur - all of which specialise in chicken and mutton preparations from the region - pandhra/tambda rassa (mutton soups), fried kheema (mincemeat) and biryanis.
There's also Gopi Non-Veg, which is light on the pocket, big on portions and heaven if you need good sleep. Most of these restaurants are open for lunch between noon and 2.30pm and for dinner between 8pm and 11pm, and are shut on Monday.
Heads up: Kolhapuri food is fairly spicy, so if you're not comfortable eating very spicy food, ask for it to be toned down.
Don't leave Pune without trying a Mastani. It is a thick, slightly liquid combination of condensed milk and ice-cream, topped with more ice-cream, of various fruit flavours. You can lick it and slurp with a spoon or suck it slowly through a straw.
You know you are at Sujata Mastani, at Nimbalkar Talim Chowk, when you see patrons busy digging into their paper glasses outside and inside the joint. They opened about 47 years ago, and now their menu boasts of 20 types of Mastani, as well as ice-cream made the French Pot way (but without eggs). Their original flavours - mango, rose, saffron, pistachio and chocolate - remain popular, but the later additions of chocolate fudge and almond as well as Mastani treats made from seasonal fruits have their own following. For Punekars, a visit to Sujata Mastani is a must, especially when entertaining guests for a meal at home. They have 20 outlets in the city, but close to the stadium, you could try the ones at Aundh, Baner or Pimple Saudagar.
A snack Maharashtrians like to eat for breakfast or at other times is misal pav, a spicy curry made from sprouts, chick peas or green peas, served with bread (pav).
In Pune, the place to go to for misal pav is Shri Krishna Bhuvan in Tulshi Baug. Their curry tastes different from all others because they use coconut as its base and serve it with pohe (beaten rice cooked with tomatoes, onions and chillies) and potato bhaji. You can choose from non-spicy, spicy and fiery versions, though you'll probably have to wait a long time to place your order, given the long lines of customers, especially at breakfast. They are closed on Monday, open from 7.30am to 7.30pm on all other days except Sundays, when they serve only till 2pm.
A trip to Pune is incomplete without a visit to Kayani Bakery, on East Street, for the famous Shrewsbury biscuits, Marz-o-rin, on MG Road, for their vegetable sandwiches and chicken burgers, and to the various outlets of Chitale Bandhu Mithaiwale for their famous bakarwadi, a deep-fried sweet and spicy snack, and amba barfi, a dairy-based dessert with mango pulp.