Hometown/ˈhəʊmtaʊn/ The town of one’s birth or early life or present fixed residence.
This is the one word that terrifies me (apart from injection, , earthquake, heartache, mocktail & rattlesnake)
Why, you ask? Simply cause I don’t have one.
And the pressure to stake allegiance to a region, in these last twenty something years has been tremendous. From Bank Execs, Employers, Drivers License Renewal People, Visa Forms, Friend’s mothers, to all the Aunties trying to set you up at said friends’ weddings (Imagine channelizing all that stress into something productive and I would’ve cracked IIT, CAT and all the wet academic dreams people have)
Even today the ‘permanent address’ column gives me the shivers, like the kind you’d have a night before a dental appointment. And I can hear my heart quicken, at the mere thought of having to explain it to you.
It’s time for the metaphoric root canal.
I am a certified Army brat. Ergo, my birthplace is different from my high school, is different from my place of graduation, is different from my post-graduation and none of these are the city I live in right now.
And with that background, try opening a bank account. I dare you.
While my family claims roots to coastal Maharashtra, at some point folks moved to the interiors of the state and my grandfather moved to (what was then) a little town called Pune. He chose the city to be his post retirement haven, and so began the confusing saga of how Pune came to be known as ‘hometown’.
And apart from a visit every now and then, Pune’s been a little less mysterious than the mind of Donald Trump.
So I’ve decided to start the year by trying to get in touch with my roots. And what better way to do it than with food. Also, it’s the only way I know how.
My recent trip to Pune began on a begrudging ‘have to go’ note. But the more I saw, the more it got me thinking -maybe this is a city I could WANT to belong to. Let’s assume for a second, we have a choice. Each of us gets to pick one place to call home. Would Pune qualify, for you or me?
And could my ‘hometown’ be cooler than yours?
It’s 2016, and I feel obliged to welcome you to the future. Now, let’s begin with a little bit of the past.
Street Sights and City Lights
Pune is what an Indian version of The Simpsons would be set in. Vaishali would replace Krusty’s, you’ll be drinking Doolally instead of Duff. Homer’s bike riding scene from the motion picture would be girls riding scooties, with faces wrapped in scarves cause you know, dust.
Pune is a heady cocktail of the young & urban muddled with the old schooled Marathi Manoos. You’ll pick up notes of indie music, just around the corner from classic Marathi theater and art. Drink in the sights and sounds of the vibrant FC Road, dance in the spiffy neon lights of Koregaon Park and feel like a king at the namkeen kingdom of Budhani Wafers.
But there is one thing that really stands out. So out that it needs an area code of its own: Pune probably has more food than people per square kilometer. I am not kidding when I say that nearly every third establishment has something to do with food – whether it’s a restaurant, a quick café, a snack shop or even a fast food hawker. I am yet to witness this kind of culinary abundance in another city. And Pune-ites seem to absolutely love their food.
Clockwise : Bowls of curries waiting to be dished out, Kothmir Wadi (coriander cakes) and Pao Bhaji (spicy veggie curry with bread)
As my mentor Julia Child says, “People who love to eat are always the best people.” So you can imagine why this is already a great place to call hometown.
The Pune Advantage : More food than people. Impossible to complain right?
Another one bites the crust
Food in Pune is like a warm hug at the end of a nasty day. Its comforting, easy on the senses and oh-so-safe. Whether its Joshi’s Vada Pao or Marzorin’s Chicken Rolls or Yohuman Café’s melt in your mouth Cheese Toast, you’ll be happy fed and feeling like a well scratched cat.
For the first timer, Pune’s food seems to be neatly divided into what is authentically Maharashtrian and everything else that’s an import of ethnic influence. To this effect, the simple vegetarian thali is as culturally symbolic to the city as Bruce Lee to Kung Fu movies. This big plate of food consists of vegetables and curries that are usually accompanied by chappatis (whole wheat flatbread) rice and kurdaya (crispy poppadums) and koshimbir (salad).
A typical lunch thali
Apart from being a well-balanced meal, the mix of textures on a single plate is incredibly palate pleasing. While the choice of veggies is seasonal, the usual suspects include a dry vegetable such as potatoes spiced with mustard seeds, semi dry veggies like bharli wangi (baby aubergines stuffed with spices) to the more saucier gravy like the paatalbhaji (spinach in gram flour). A portion of lentils or curries is just as important. One of the favorites is a curry featuring sprouts and coconut called Usal. The other lentil versions are called varan (this is my comfort food) and aamti. You’ll notice the lentils & curries are more diluted in consistency, compared to their other regional counterparts. Turns out Maharashtrian people like their rice well soaked with gravy, and so its always gravy-er.
And while the food is not too spicy, it relies heavily on turmeric, coriander powder and a certain spice blend called Goda Masala which is the Maharashtrian equivalent of Garam Masala. And it’s put in literally everything, even the Paani Puri is not spared! Jaggery and tamarind are usually used in unison to balance out the flavours.
But the real ‘fire out of your ears’ quotient comes from the chutneys that are served along with the meal. The fiery coconut & garlic ‘lasan’ chutney and the pounded green chilli ‘thecha’ is not for the faint hearted.
Look at that, my hometown is hot, hot, hot.
The biggest draw for me, even as a child has always been the desserts. Srikhand, Puran Poli, Aamrakhand and the whole universe of fresh and sinfully sweet decadence.
I had a meal at a restaurant called Atithi which is great value for money and its super healthy if you ditch the desserts. But then you won’t be reading my blog, you’d be reading some smart person who’ll live up to 110. Honest recommendation, you’re palate deserves the love that is srikhand. Don’t deprive it.
The Pune Advantage : Serious comfort food alert. You could be staying away from home but you won’t miss out on home food.
Snacking in Pune is delightful. How delightful you ask? Like being licked by a puppy or watching Seinfeld reruns or sleeping in a warm burrito. Now multiply everything with butter. Get the picture?
Like a universal mother, Pune has something for every type of hungry– from the single portioned Bhajiya Pao to the family plated Sev Puri and an epic-ly proportioned ice cream sundae called Mastani. Food for the eyes, the stomach and the soul. All rolled into one city.
I sampled some classics on the quest to discover my snack inherited roots. Here are the two things that stood out for me – Dabeli and SPDP.
At Yashwant’s special Dabeli, Clockwise: The giant mountain of dabeli stuffing, a dabeli offering to the gods, grilling the dabeli & the owner holds out a ready plate
It may not be Maharashtrian (it’s originally from the Rann of Kutch) but it’s as native to Pune as Black Label to New Delhi weddings. The word ‘dabeli’ means ‘pressed’ in Gujarati which is made of a spicy potato mix, then stuffed inside a pao (or bread) and is literally pressed onto a buttery pan, much like a grilled cheese.
I experienced this explosive snack at roadside stall called Yashwant Special Dabeli. Their day starts with an offering of dabeli to the gods gracing the counter top. So I figured, if it’s good enough for Laxmiji, its good for me.
The potato mix gets its signature flavour from a spicy dabeli masala which is made of red chilli powder, garam masala and a host of other spices. The mix is then doused in sauces or chutneys – tamarind, date and (sometimes) coriander to balance out the sweet and spicy. Oh and we’re not done yet. A generous sprinkling of roasted peanuts and pomegranate seeds is key to your dabeli experience. And while it sounds overwhelming, I will promise you this – each mouthful is well balanced and the flavours come together beautifully. It’s the Jennifer Lawrence of between meal snacking, the opposite of Hunger Games.
The other thing you’ll notice about Pune is the abundance of chaat carts. For the uninitiated, chaat is bite sized street food which is doled out in the form of papdi chaat, gol gappas, bhelpuri, sev puri and all its variations and combinations. Now most cities have their own special chaat stars, but Pune’s blockbuster is its very own Sev Batata Dahi Puri or SBDP, which I tried at Wadeshwar.
Sev Batata Dahi Puri or SBDP
By now, you’re familiar with Pune’s obsession with stacking food like a Jenga tower. So SPDP should come as no surprise. Crisp puris topped with potatoes, onions, tamarind & mint chutney (the holy duo of sweet & spicy), yoghurt and crispy sev. What stands out is the great balance of textures in each bite which makes it impossible to put down. Trust me, you’ll never look at junk food again.
The approach of balancing basic flavours – sweet, spicy & sour seems to be crucial to traditional Maharashtrian food, whether it’s a single dish or a summation of individual servings put together with great thought in a traditional thali. I love that there is seldom a single flavour clouding your palate and that its true beauty lies in its simplicity of thought and execution.
The Pune Advantage : Honestly, how many cities can claim such serious commitment to the advancement of snacking?
One of my earliest memories of Pune is our entire family gathering on summery afternoons at my grandparents place, devouring spicy fish curry with rice & sol-kadi, while the dads drank beer and the kids had lemonade spiked with generous helpings of said dads beer (“But it’s almost not there na” was the usual explanation offered to the mums).
It was at that time when my love affair with kokum began. Kokum or Garcinia indica (now that you know better) is best known for its acidic nature that lends itself to both food & beverage. Dry it and use in curries (it’s a popular souring agent) or add it with coconut milk to make sol-kadi (a great digestive) or better still make a sugary concentrate for a sherbet (beat the ruthless summer heat). Not to mention, it’s gorgeous pink-red colour will make a Cosmopolitan blush.
Clockwise: A Neera centre selling fresh produce, Kokum sherbet & a glass of unfermented Neera
The other beverage that I distinctly remember being kept out of our reach was Neera, which is the sap extracted from a date palm (called Shindi). Now the reason it was kept at arm’s reach was because of its tricky nature. Tapped fresh from the palm in the mornings, it is a sweet and milky drink known to have amazing health benefits. Shortly after, it begins to ferment, turning into palm wine or toddy which is sour and acidic.
Pune’s corners are full of Neera stands, serving unfermented versions of the drink all the way up to 4 pm (sometimes even longer). I managed to catch the last of the lot, and it turned out to be just as refreshing as I remember it. The trick of course is to have it freshly tapped, so I’d highly recommend a visit to the Shindi farms located outside the city for this experience. And even though I am the last person to advocate waking up before lunch, this early morning visit is completely worth it.
The Pune Advantage : Drink your way to beat the heat and bad hangovers. And its all natural!
What is soft, sticky and spreadable?
Maska-pao, obviously. What were you thinking?
Clockwise: The bun-maska counter, a waiter slices & poses at the same time, hot Irani chai with caramel custard & the entrance to the cafe
Bread & Butter, together since 1935. Only at the GoodLuck Cafe
This simple Iranian café has become one of the city’s most iconic spaces. The serpentine queues are made of college students, office goers stopping for a chai fix and pretty much anyone who has a hankering for butter.
There’s full fledged lunch & dinner on the offer as well, the kheema dishes, biryanis and tawa chicken are some of the best-selling dishes. Don’t miss the giant butter dish on your way in, it boasts of using up almost 20 kgs of butter in a day!
The Pune Advantage : For when you’re done loafing around and you knead your butter half.
After four distinct advantages and multiple foodgasms, the moral of the story is clear. Pune is home to great cuisine both small, big and extra delicious. Its home to warm biscuits, cold beer and an easy going lifestyle that is native to a large-hearted city. Pune is home to Parsis, Anglo-Indians,expats and to anyone who wishes to call its own.
But most importantly, Pune is family, food and an unrequited love for all things we call home. And no matter where you live, you take your Pune with you.
Ladies & Gents, I am happy to announce that Pune is indeed my hometown. Watch this space for more native swag.
Special Thanks to Deepali of lemoninginger.com and Kritika Naphade for making this post possible
All Images by Ishita Thakur