Dining like a Pune Warrior … Potoba, Kalina, Mumbai

Note: Sorry but this post has got nothing to do with cricket but hopefully does more justice the cuisine of Pune than Dada (Saurav Ganguly) did to its team, The Pune Warriors.

“This is exactly how my dad cooks it” he said as he broke into a big smile.

Well, that’s high praise for a dish from someone in the Prabhune household as Papa Prabhune loves to cook and  cooks every day. The lunch he packs for his son, Chinmai, is often gobbled up by the rest of us at work in true Kindergarten fashion.

Chinmai and I were at Potoba. The new Maharashtrian restaurant opposite the Kalina campus of the Mumbai University. A branch of the Pune based restaurant which our friend Harshad recently told me about. "Finally a place near my house where I can get my sort of food"

Chinmai is a Maharashtrian himself and I was hoping that he would help me navigate the menu.I left the ordering to Chinmai who looked down to the bill of fare, looked up and said “this is the best menu card that I have ever seen”

Me: “Are the dishes authentic? “

C: “Yes. This is Punechi food which people from Pune would cook. My grandmother used to cook these dishes while I was growing up “

Me “Is this the sort of food that you eat at home? “

C: “Everyday “

Me: “Then why would you want to eat it when you are out?”

C: “That’s because I never get to eat this outside. I always end up ordering something else. I have never had the option of ordering any of these dishes at a restaurant before

Chinmai dazzled by the menuThis was after three attempts at a 'non-romantic' picture!

And therein lies a story. The story of the mystery of Maharshtrian food. Not the easiest to discover in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra. For Mumbai takes its ‘cosmopolitan’ tag very seriously. You will find it a lot easier to find Thai or Italian or Lebanese at Mumbai than authentic Maharshtrian. Unless you are willing to walk the streets of Dadar and Lalbaug which are still haunted by the souls of the Maharashtrian mill workers long after the mills have shut down. 

‘Potoba’, from what I understand, means ‘worshipping the tummy’ in Marathi similar to the Hindi ‘pet puja’. The restaurant is a good place to experience the vegetarian dishes of Pune, the erstwhile capital of the Marathas. It is run by Parag Inamdar who set up the chain  around five years back at Pune. He launched his first restaurant at Mumbai four months ago. 

The menu card at Potaba  promises us home-made masalas. Parag said that the masalas used here were mixed by his mother in the beginning and now directed by her as his network of restaurants grew. They are made at Pune and sent to Mumbai for the restaurant here. Parag said that he is focussing on vegetarian food for the moment so that they can specialise in one thing and get it right.

With Prag Inamdar, the owner

Turned out we were the only folks who ordered Maharashtrian food that afternoon. There were noodles at the table to our left. Punjabi paneer makhani to our right. Chhole bature to its right. Tamilian Curd Rice at the table behind the noodles. Everything but Maharashtrian. On asking, Sagar Bhonsle, the manager told me that this was because the afternoon crowd consisted largely of those who worked in the offices nearby. They preferred ‘Indian’ food according to Sagar. He went on to qualify this by saying ‘Punjabi’ obliquely referring to the tragic phenomenon of Punjabi food cooked by non Punjabis coming to represent ‘Indian’ food all over the world. Sagar said that nights were different as patrons then were local Maharashtrians and orders placed then were for their Punechi dishes.

I sipped on a cooling Kokum Serbat made with kokum (a local fruit) seeds while Chinmai went into a serious discussion with Sagar as he placed the order. Chinmai later told me that the kokam sherbat here tasted the way it does when made fresh at home and different from the ones one can buy at shops in small jerry cans. The onions in the accompanying salad cut in an ‘authentic’ way apparently!

And so we waited for our lunch as Chinmai regaled me of stories of Chhatrapati Shivaji the Maratha hero whose navy only the Portuguese could match while the Brits didn’t even try taking on him. All this and more were tales Chinmai had learnt from the books he read about the great war lord and guerrilla leader. Stories of bravery and valour that I had grown up learning at Calcutta at the eastern end of the country.

We started with Bharli Vangyachi Bhaji or stuffed brinjal. Tiny aubergines split into four served on a bed of desiccated coconut and masalas. The masala bed lived up to the promise of ‘home made masalas’ and sparked off visions of loving Hind film mothers from the 70s who would sacrifice everything to bring up their sons. It was coconuty but not overtly, very mildly sweet, delicately flavoured and not hot or spicy at all.

Now the thing about aubergines is that when well cooked they lend themselves as a very good base for whatever you want to conjure. They warmly welcome the spices or sauces that you might slather on them and result in some great food harmony. I have experimented recently with baigan bharta or Indian babaganoush, aubergines steamed in a mustard sauce in Bengali style and a Mediterranean hung curd salad and was quite pleased with the results. The trick is to cook the aubergine properly. Unfortunately at Potoba they hadn’t showered the aubergines with the love and attention that the vegetable demands. As a result that aubergines were under cooked and seemed quite redundant in the dish as the masala hadn’t infused in to them. 

I missed the prawns and crabs with which our friend Harshad’s mom would put into a similar masala and send for us. The aubergines could have done with a bit more cooking if you ask me. I thought that the dish had a lot more potential.

On the other hand the Bharli Vangyachi Bhaji made Chinmai smile with delight and remember that unlike me he knows how the real thing tastes.

Next on was Matkichi Usal which was a dish made with sprouted moth beans. This had a very sharp and near rancid taste. I could see Chinmai wince too. I asked him if the dish was always so acidic. Chinmai told me in a very sombre Homer Simpson-like tone that the sprouts were soaked overnight and could go bad in the heat.

The manager Sagar, assured us that the dish hadn’t gone bad and ascribed the sour taste to the tomato base. Well, in all fairness, we didn’t have a bad stomach after that in which case I guess it was the taste and not the quality that didn’t work for us.

Pithala, which was a runny gram flour based dish, completed our first round. I quite took to this which had the taste and texture of a thick well cooked daal despite being made of gram flour. It was quite light and yet flavourful and perfect for the sunny afternoon.

We mopped these three dishes with Maharashtrian flat breads called bhakris. One was made of rice, Tandoolachi Bhakri, and the other of Jowar, Jwarichi Bhakri. I guess the mummies or tais of Maharashtra knew of the value of multi grains well before it became fashionable in the posh areas of Bandra and Peddar Road. 

The two curries came with a phenomenally potent dry chilli pickle which would give any self respecting wasabi a run for its money with its sting.

Reeta of @delhifoodiesDFZ told me on twitter: "thecha is what u call dry chilli pickle.various versions available..some with garlic.chillies married to the best flavours!!!"

We then moved on to a snack item, Missal. I have eaten missal before and wanted to try things I hadn’t tried earlier. But Sagar, the manager told us that the missal here is different as they use dehydrated green peas instead of the normal mung beans and that the farsan used on top was brought specially from Pune.

Well I am glad that we tried the missal at Potoba. It had the same familiar orange coloured gravy and yet was not as oily, toxic and lethal as the missals one gets in office canteens at Mumbai or at New Sardar at Chinchpokli. In fact this was not oily at all and the curry was mildly sweet and soothing. Chinmai told me that the sweetness was distinctive to missals at Pune. 

With which we went on to the next dish that Chinmai recommended after a deep conversation with Sagar. Fodnichi (tadka) Poli à Scrambled Chapati. A dish that smacked of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of a middle class housewife who has to balance the family budget. Rotis from the previous night, shredded and refried the next morning with onions, tomatoes, chillies and spices. Everyone eats up without a fuss. Food is not wasted. The effort of making fresh rotis are saved. Get a B school grad to beat that. 

The concept reminded me of the shredded rotis dipped in milk sweetened with jaggery that my mom said she had while growing up. The fodnichi rotis at Potoba reminded Chinmai of his grandmother’s cooking and he munched on it happily. What I noted was the interesting mix of fibre, which gave the dish a sense of wholesomeness, and the blend of spices and condiments that livened it up. The dish brought to live the creative brief that all food brands in India give to their ad agencies. ‘Healthy and tasty too’.

We wanted something sweet to end the meal with even though we were stuffed. So we decided to share a bowl of amrakhand or mango shrikhand. Chinmai told me that the dessert is made by straining whey through a piece of cloth. The ones that are commercially available apparently have a very silky and smooth texture. The one at Potoba was rougher and more home like. It had an incredibly light and fluffy feel to it and the zest of fresh mango pulp was heady.

A fantastic end to my introduction to Punechi cuisine. All at the princely price of Rs 305 (6 USD).

So go to Potoba. learn more about Mumbai, Maharashtra, its culture, its soul, its heritage and its people. And for God’s sake don’t order an chilli milli cheese paneer Schezwan spring dosa!

PS: Some of my earlier Maharashtrian fav eats on Finely Chopped:


Kunal said…
A mouthwatering post...although you should taste the bharli vangi that my Mom makes,it's out of this world.Also just one correction,matki is not moong pulses but it is called"moth"in hindi,the bikaneri bhujia is made out of moth flour. The english name is Moth bean or Turkish gram.
Sassy Fork said…
Always a pleasure to discover a new post by you in the morning!! Enjoyed the read and making plans to visit Potoba soon.Made Fodnichi Chapati after seeing it in your album and it made a super snack.
You make a great Mumbaikar!!
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Kunal, changes ...thanks for the info...used the Bush spices that you gave me to season some peri peri rawas that I made last night...thanks man
Ugich Konitari said…
Next time try Masale Bhat-Aluchi Bhaji...(not potato as in Alu, but Colocassia leaves curry). reminds me of typical old sit down wedding lunches in Pune, 50 years ago .
Kunal said…
I'm glad you are finding the bush spices quite useful....
Reeta Skeeter said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Reeta Skeeter said…
What a lovely post Kalyan...Bhareli Vangyachi Bhaji as my Maya didi (a Marathi lady) used to cook was always undercooked and much overrated...never had eggplants so bad...the Matkichi Usal does hv a sharp taste due to some spice or something the Maharashtrians add...but THAT is how they like it...the Pithala or Pithale as it is called is a marvel of Maharashtrian/Punechi cuisine.hv it with hot gol rotis and a lil thecha and u wud need nothing else...thecha is what u call dry chilli pickle.various versions available..some with garlic.chillies married to the best flavours!!!
Missal is a nice snack.Amrakhand..ive not had at a Maharasthrian home but www.chitalebandhu.in do a GOOD commercial version..you've covered many a food eaten at a Pune household under one blog post.Respect!
and u may disagree but chilli cheese paneer Schezwan dosa and the likes are a Marathi way of enjoying different cuisines...i don't like the paneer angle though :P they may b silly versions but r tasty..good news is that unlike some, Marathis will not give up their core food :) Jai Hind!

and here's some more..they serve golgappas or pani puri with the garam chole used in ragda pattis..as a typical North Indian my palete diregarded it and likened it with sins :P but as time has moved on I do miss the hot version at times...the cheese dabeli is another roadside snack and a delectable one that :)
Jai Maharashtra!

28 May 2011 19:51
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Kalyan Karmakar said…
Kunal...I use the bush salts a lot and plan to begin grilling soon and use the chutneys and other mixes that you gave

@Sassy Fork your mails to me asking me why I have not written in a while, if i don't write for 2 days, spur me own. A blogger needs every bit of encouragement so thank you :)

@Ugich...thanks, that's definitely on my list
Kalyan Karmakar said…
Thanks Reeta for writing in. it was great reading your tweets and thanks so much for posting the comments here. They add an interesting dimension to the post ...agree with a lot of what you have said though i must say that the one place where I won't change my mind is when it comes to phuchkas over paani puris ... hope to see more of your comments and more posts on your blog too :)
such a detailed narrative....loved the way you have described each and every item!!!
though i dont stay in pune, if i do land here..will definitely try out this eatery!!!
Kalyan Karmakar said…
Thanks Shooting Star. I went to the one at Mumbai though
Reeta Skeeter said…
:) well I never said I love pani puri over phuchkas...phuchkas are and will remain a favourite of mine too..ALWAYS..what I meant was that no matter how much I loathed the hot stuffing wali pani puri while I was in Maharashtra land...I do miss it now...at times I do feel like having a plate or two...and yeah am trying to be regular on both my blogs...:)
Kalyan Karmakar said…
That I am sure I never will Reeta :)
~j~ said…
This is so close to home and I haven't heard of it! Now I have to try this... Thanks, K!
Maneesh said…
I was disappointed with something as simple as Varan Bhaat.
They used Basmati dry rice and mixed it with plain dal rather than softer (Ambe Mohor?) rice with Varan (which is plainer than plain dal)
Harshad said…
Finally got to read it. Glad you largely* enjoyed Potoba ;)
Your pictures do make it look far better than the actual setting.
But much to my annoyance, I just discovered that Potoba comes attached with a genuinely 'Puneri' service trait. They curtly told me (after having been given their menu with delivery phone number) that I'll have to come pick up my order as my house is too far for stuff to be delivered. It's a 7 minute cycle ride away!
Kalyan Karmakar said…
Thanks for sharing your experiences Manish, Harshad. Your houses would be my first choice to try some Maharashtrian khaana
Unknown said…
Nice recipe is give above blog. I like all the type of Fast food.

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