Punjab da Bummer. A sociological analysis of why it's so difficult to get good Punjabi food at Mumbai

Punjab Sweets, Bandra
People occasionally ask me to name favourite restaurants, make a list, etc etc. I never could. And then out of boredom I made a list a few days back. I realised that I did have a strong point of view on some restaurants.

Of course the list was biased. It consisted of restaurants at Fort, Colaba and Bandra. No, I am not the sort who travels miles in his own town to check out new places to eat. I am too lazy for that. The list was based on meals I paid for and therefore only covers parts of menus. I chose one restaurant per genre. Some of these such as Ling's or Ideal Corner, not the most obvious of choices.

There was a little bit of controversy after I posted. Not because of any of the stuff above. But because I wrote 'none' against Punjabi.

What about Papa Poncho? What about Copper Chimney? What about Dhaba...Moti Mahal...the questions poured in.

I am not Punjabi. Nor have I had many meals at Punjab. Yet, I stick to my stand.

Let's step back a bit and look at my exposure to Punjabi food so far. Punjabi food is the most abused cuisine going around after Chinese in India. The latter's ok...they deserve that as they keep stepping on our toes. Punjabi food doesn't deserve this though.

The problem with Punjabi food lies in the fact that it has become synonymous with 'Indian food'. It is our Cantonese. So you have Bangladeshis making 'Indian' curries. Punjabi. I have eaten 'chicken tikkas' made by a Bangladeshi woman in KL. So spicy and hot that all the rivers of Punjab couldn't soothe your tummy. I have stared with shock at a cream coloured 'tandoori' chicken in a hotel buffet at Bangkok. I have suffered through the channa masalas and paneer burjees of Udipi Shiv Sagars and their ilk. Super oily channa bhatures in Bombay Blues. And had a local rather flaky lady, point at dosas in the menu of an Indian  restaurant called 'Santoor' at Dhaka, and say "this is nice Punjabi food". That was a decade back and I was upset in any case that the'special' lunch in my honour was in an Indian restaurant.

The revenge of  The Green Curry: Tandoori chicken made by a Swiss Hotel at Bangkok

I have survived on honest home made Punjabi vegetarian food at my PG aunty's place when I landed at Mumbai. Rotis straight from the heart to the burner to the plate. Round as footballs. Piping hot. Heart warming back daal on the tap. With a day's notice. Called 'Maa ki daal' (literally mother's daal but actually Udad Daal as pointed out by Satya in the comments) as I found out. Rather appropriately.

I ate a decade back at the vegetarian Vaishno Dhabas of Ludhiana in Punjab with salad carts standing in attention. Our request for ghee free daal resulted in a brass pail of daal with two inches of ghee (clarified butter). Kulche chhole on the Golden Shatabdi, breakfast on a train was never zestful. Langar at the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Halwa offered to the Gods and then to those who had come to the temple. No questions asked. Laden with ghee and dry fruits. No half measures. A temple of peace so different from the blood soaked images that we had of Operation Blue Star from our half pant days.

Yes, I can't claim to be an expert on Punjabi food. But I instinctively know that you can't get good Punjabi food at Mumbai. That's because there is a fundamental disconnect.

I have eaten Punjabi food at Delhi. That too at least three years back. I still remember the tastes vividly. Once was from a place called Chawla's where the folks we were working with ordered from. There was chicken, there was daal, rotis. Unwrapped from humble plastic bags. A creamy, dreamlike treat of sheer opulence.

Once when I stopped at one of the Moti Mohals at either South Ex of Def Col market on the way to Delhi airport. I ordered the famous 'butter chicken'. First bite and I knew that what was paraded as 'butter chicken' in Mumbai were a series of impostors. The curry was like a bed of roses. You fell in love as you sunk into it. Never wanting to stop. And the chicken, oh so tender, so juicy, it had blue blood running through it... meat the way God  meant it to be in the Garden of Eden. Not the scrawny soul-less meat that we mortals have to be content with at Mumbai.
So here's my thesis. Punjabis as a race are a full blooded. They live life to the fullest. They don't hold anything back. The Punjabi ethos seems to be emotional, unrestrained and that of wearing ones heart on ones sleeve. Very different from the pragmatic, goal oriented, no time to stop and smell the flowers creed of Mumbai.

'Dildaar' or big hearted is a term associated with them. After all it took a Punjabi in a focus group at Delhi to come up with the word 'Josh' for an American car manufacturer who wanted a term to connote 'full of life' for its new car. That was a decade back. Since then I learnt that this race is different in a way we Bengalis can never comprehend. For we would check the menu before a wedding feast. They would break into a Bhangra, the folk dance of the Punjabi, before dinner.

Think Punjab and you think of green fields, festivities, emotions, vivid colours, boisterous music, blue skies and rejuvenating rivers. And when I look around at Mumbai I see grey, I see concrete, I see traffic, I see busy people, I see purpose, commitment...lowered eyes, focused at goals.

Which brings me back to why you will never get good Punjabi food at Mumbai. Get it? Never 'the twain shall meet'.

This, in my opinion, is the problem with Punjabi food in Mumbai. It lacks soul, passion, grandeur, pomp and splendour. It lacks life. The meat would be tough here. The curries artificially coloured. Pale imitations of full blooded Punjabi food. The 'Punabi' food of Mumbai lacks the pure and noble spirit of what the British called Poonjab. Mumbai, with its life on a treadmill, is not psychologically attuned to the mood of Punjab.

So what have I tried of Mumbai's Punjabi food? Of course I have been to Copper Chimney. To the convenient corporate buffets at Worli and the odd a la carte. All I remember is the paapdi chaat in the buffet. That says it all. I've been to Moti Mahal at Bandra. Almost lost a tooth biting into a so called (Lucknowi) Gulauti kebab. By definition meant to be melt in the mouth. Yes, I have eaten at Papa Poncho, Bandra  Thrice in seven years. Was underwhelmed by the mutton curry the first time. Impressed by the sarson ke saag and makai roti the next time. Baffled by the unevenly micro-waved black daal the third time. A far cry from the restaurants I have named as favourites. Some of which have never served me a bad meal in ten years.

I have eaten at Mini Punjab and Great Punjab at Bandra. Again don't remember what I ate at GP but I remember it was a pleasant experience. Mini Punjab was patchy. The less famous Khane Khaas somewhat works for us. A friend introduced me to the black daal and tandoori chicken there after a drink at Toto's years back. She's left the country since then. I haven't gone to Toto's in a lifetime. But Khaane Khaas's black daal and tandoori chicken never disappoint. The other dishes have the odd bad day though.

Punjab sweets, chhole kulche, jal jeera

But wait. I have had a couple of good Punjabi food experiences at Mumbai recently. Neither of them was one of the 'usual suspects'. One was at Punjab Sweets at Bandra's Pali Naka. An old landmark which had recently opened a vegetarian restaurant section. I had a lip smacking, heartfelt meal of jal jeera, padi chaat, chhole bursting with the martial spirit of the Khalsas and royal kulchas. Transformed a grey wet afternoon at Mumbai  into the bright sunflower fields of Yash Chopra's Punjab.

Punjab Sweets: My first taste of stuffed kulchas

The other experience comes from a restaurant called The Legacy of Punjab. Set up by the young scions of the Dhingras, a family of restaurateurs in Mumbai. It is actually on the Mumbai Nasik highway. I had the chance to taste their stuff at  a dinner hosted by Rushina of A Perfect Bite for the launch of Yashbir Sharma's travelogue, 'The Food Trail (sic) of Punjab'.

The menu was vegetarian in deference to the venue. But I was wowed by the chhole, maa ki daal and rotis and kulchas made by the cooks of The Legacy of Punjab. The food was rich and oozing with the same maternal love and care one would associate with cheerful Punjabi ladies in their flowery salwars and kurtas with their huge smiles and big hugs. This was food that came straight from the heart.

The fare at Punjab Sweets and Legacy of Punjab captured the zest and fervour of the Punjabis of North India which is so missing in frenetic and frantic Mumbai. Pity that neither meal allowed one to taste the national bird of Punjab, Tandoori chicken. Though as Pooja of Le 15, the proud sister of the young owner of LOP, whispered into my ears, you apparently get a stellar lemon chicken at Legacy of Punjab. I won't argue with the lady who has been instrumental in making macarons the new cheesecakes of Mumbai. Well, next time one plans a Faraway Foods post I guess.

So there you have folks, the reason why I don't have a favourite Punjabi restaurant at Mumbai. It is all about loving your Tandoori.

Legacy of Punjab's chhole...this is the pomp I was talking of: Pic possibly taken by Jyotika Purwar of Curry Spice with my camera
"Maa ki daal'....Legacy of Punjab...as maternal as food can get

Legacy of Punjab: Kulchas with hidden treasures inside

Rabdi from Legacy of Punjab...Punjabi for so 'cho chweet'

If you ever get a chance for a good Punjabi meal at Mumbai then grab it with both hands: 'Food trail of Punjab' launch, catered by Legacy of Punjab. Pooja's in the black sweater. Vikram Doctor, food writer for ET, in the beard