Once Upon a Time in Fort... Pancham Puriwala, Khao Gulley, Cutting Chai

Note: Lots of photos with a few words in between

Around a hundred and fifty years ago a gentleman called Pancham landed in Mumbai from Agra. 'Paidal' (he came walking) said our affable waiter (in the white shirt in the left corner of the picture below, barely visible). He did say that he had heard the story from the owners and didn't vouch for its authenticity.

Mr Pancham apparently came to Mumbai before train services had started in India. He set up a puri (Indian deep fried flour breads) stall where Pancham Puri stands today. The shop is run by the seventh generation of the family according to my source. The photo of the gentleman below is that of grandson of the  original Pancham and the grandfather of the current owners. One could be a few generations here or there though.

Ironically Pancham who came to Mumbai before the start of railway services pitched his tent close to where the majestic Victoria Terminus or CST would come up. Over the years it became the favoured pit stop of those landing at Mumbai to try out their fortunes. Or those leaving for home after an honest day's work.

I'd noticed Pancham Puriwallah years back as I had crossed VT. And was intrigued ever since. A place named after puris? One of my many weaknesses. I had always wanted to try out the place.

Got the opportunity today when I mustered a group from work to travel with me. Deepak led the way. He initially made a face when I asked him about Pancham Puri. He said that the food was decent but that the ambience didn't count for much. Then he remembered something that I had said at Yoko the previous day.

"You will like it. It is a hole in the wall place".

The four of us set off down the snaking lanes that connect Fort to VT. A road Deepak walked everyday on his way to office. Every Indian stereotype was there. The cow causing a traffic jam. Roadside hawkers. Beggars. Religious buildings. Parsi, this being old Mumbai. Winding lanes. Old mansions. I was told that the street was a lot less crowded as most offices were closed today on account of Eid. We passed a street selling stationery and a memorial to a certain Mr Wadia. Grand and yet locked up. Ruins. No placard explaining what it was or who Mr Wadia was. Another tourism opportunity missed.

Pancham Puriwallah finally appeared. One could see the towers of VT in the distance. I had thought the place to be much larger due to the signage. Turned out that Deepak was right. A 'hole in the wall' in the truest sense of the word. There was a section downstairs and one up. Most of the customers were either busy folks taking a break from work or people who seemed to have just landed at Mumbai. Definitely not high brow. Deepak told me that the place was normally jam packed on a proper working day. Pancham Puri was grimy and sooty. Not for the faint hearted. It was on the seedier side. Even the fans didn't cool.This was pure guerrilla eating. Reminded me of the humble hinger kochuri shops outside Howrah station. Honestly, I was happy that I was with other people than alone. But I must say that I enjoy going to these sort of places more than mid level air conditioned empty restaurants. Experience shows that a  no pretensions place, packed with locals is a good bet for authentic heart-warming food. Hygienic? Well you are far less likely to fall ill after eating at a place where the customer turnover is high than in a pricey deserted restaurant.

The waiter tried to sell us deluxe thalis. This would have rice, puri and sabzis apparently. We decided to go for the jugular though. Why come to a place called Panacham Puri and have anything other than the puris? So we ordered a mix of puris.

The way they serve it is in plates which come with puris, a standard potato curry and a vegetable of your choice. The potato curry was nice and light and the best part of the meal. They keep refilling it as your bowl gets empty. The puris were fresh and voluptuous. Piping hot. Fried downstairs. Flour dough rolled into little balls. Flattened by a rolling pin. Dunked into searing hot oil. Your puris blossomed and were at your service.  I later discovered that they had a dry potato subzi which was meant for those who carried puris onto the train home. I missed that.

We took two kinds of puris. Sada (small and plain) and masala (larger with a faint lentil stuffing). The pumpkin curry and channa masala were just about all right. Didn't live up to the standards of the puris and the potatoes. The masala bhindi (lady's fingers) thrilled our palate. The kadhi (gram flour based curry) was really good. It had a thick texture and an accompanying tang to it. Was approved by the Sindhi amongst us. It is their staple after all. There was a bowl with pickled green chillies which vied for our attention. They had a nice sharp taste to them without being fiery. We also ordered dahi vadas at the end in between us guys asking for extra puris. The dahi vadas were made they were meant to be in the North. Not the overly sweet Gujarati influenced dahi vadas of Mumbai. Stuff I often substitute desserts with in buffets. There was chhaas

Four plates of assorted puris, extra puris, three dahi vadas and two mineral water bottles came to Rs 260 (5 USDburpy afternoon though which continued into the night. Must have been a function of the oil the puris were fried in.

We headed back to work. Stuffed to the gills. I noticed more food shops on the way back. A South Indian non vegetarian shop. Countless vada pao stalls. Fruit sellers. Dabelis (buns stuffed with sweet mashed potatoes). Peanut and muri (rice crispies) sellers. A Gomantak or Coastal Maharashtrian seafood joint and so on.

We suddenly stumbled upon a 'khao gully' or food street. These are typical to most old business districts of India. Here yuo had food which was quintessentially Mumbai. Toast sandwich. The owner did get a bit shifty when I wanted to photograph the chutney though. Trade secrets. Dosas of course. Then there was a man making pao bhaaji or the smashed vegetable dish which office goers in Mumbai thrive on. Those waiting to eat insisted that I took photos of the man making the pao bhaaji. "Champion" they called him. They then jumped and waved to get photographed themselves. Once the 'champion' had finished posing for his photos. There were the ubiquitous vada pao guy.

And there was the gentleman with a white moustache who was selling tea. A 'chaiwallah'. He was from Rajasthan and was serving tea to the office goers of the Fort for the last twenty years. We got talking as it begun to rain. The boiling tea looked very tempting. The famous 'cutting' chai of Mumbai. Named after the relatively smaller measure (to cut) of tea. If only he had earthen kullhars or clay cups as they used to use in Kolkata. Eco friendly and more hygienic.

The rain stopped and I moved out the of the plastic sheet covering us and headed back to office. Unruffled by the Facebook status of those who had Friday off and were gloating about their three day weekend. After all, how many people could have claimed to have time travelled as I did this afternoon.