Thirteen types of puris from eleven states of India. All in one city. The Mumbai Finely Chopped Puri Trail. All hail the Republic of India!

Sev puri, alu bhaaji, dhebra, dahi, undhiyu puri, matar kachori, dahi alu, green garlic
Left to Right. Soam Restaurant, Mumbai.

Note: Long read to take care of your Republic Day weekend. Read till the end to see the faces behind the stories.

Of being #FortEnchanted

There’s something about Fort in south Mumbai which makes me break into a smile whenever I go there.

Fort is the original Central Business District of Mumbai. Some would say that its ‘importance’ has lessened over the last decade as the city has spread rapidly since then. The commercial power centre has now moved to places such as Lower Parel, BKC, Saki Naka and Powai one could argue. Yet, the magic of Fort remains unchanged in my eyes. The smiles of the humans of Fort remain as warm as ever. The food as delicious as ever. Its streets continue to remain packed with stories; thereby ensuring that I make a new discovery each time that I go to Fort. It is my happy hunting ground in Mumbai. The city I call home after I moved in here two decades back. 

I went to Fort a few days back and the story remained the same.

It took us about an hour to reach from Bandra by road in the morning. We reached our destination and parked. I got out. I broke into a smile. For no particular reason. Except that I was back at Fort.

Buns Puri from Mangalore... New Special Anand Bhuvan

Buns puri at Anand Bhuvan

We parked by Kabutar Khana near the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and crossed the road. We were to turn right when a signboard outside a restaurant that I had never been to before, and had never noticed before, caught my eyes. Specifically,  the words ‘bun puri’ written on it.

This brought back memories of the trip that I had made made to Mangalore in July 2018. That was my first trip to the city. That is also when I had first come across the dish bun puri. Or buns puri, as they say in Mangalore. A dish that blog reader, turned friend, Vikram Bondal, introduced me to when I met him for filter kaapi at the New Taj Mahal Hotel opposite the Ocean Pearl Hotel at Mangalore soon after I had landed in the city. I fell in love with the buns puri that evening in Mangalore. No wonder that these two words scrawled on the simple signboard in Fort had me in their spell.

The romance of buns puri

The restaurant was called New Special Anand Bhuvan as I discovered when I looked up at the signboard above the door.

How new? It was founded in 1936 as I gathered from the two brothers, Ashok and Ananth Hegdekar, who currently run the place. They are both Mumbai born. The restaurant  was started by their father, the late Vasudev Hegdekar who had come to Bombay from Mangalore, as I learnt from them. Papa Hegdekar worked as a waiter in restaurants in Mumbai before setting up his own here. A story typical to many Mangalorean migrants to Mumbai. 

Just as the owners of the New Taj Mahal Hotel in Mangalore were, the Hegdekars too belong to the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin community and speak a dialect of Konkani. The community traces its origins to Kashmir. “We GSBs are very hard working,” said Ashok. “I wake up at 5 every morning and go to the market at Byculla near my house to buy the freshest of vegetables and fruits for the restaurant and try to get the best prices for my customers.”

This was not just empty talk as I realised soon after I tasted the buns puri at Anand Bhuvan. Buns puri, in case you did not know, refers to a fried puri where the dough is made with a mix of refined flour, fresh bananas, salt, sugar and a choice of spices such as whole cumin. It is a tad sweet but not extremely so. Balancing the sweetness of the buns puri at New Anand Bhuvan was the flavour packed coconut chutney made with freshly ground coconut and green chillies.

While I already knew that buns puris are made with bananas, the prominent taste of the fruit in the puri  at New Special Anand Bhuvan would have made it clear even if I did not. Such was the quality of produce used here! “I buy the ripest of bananas from the market," explained Ashok. His younger brother sat at the counter and smiled proudly. The taste of the buns puri at Mumbai's New Special Anand Bhuvan was right up there with what I had eaten at Mangalore.

I asked for some filter kaapi to go with my buns puri and was astounded by its smooth, caramel-like taste. The sugar balance was just perfect. “The taste comes from chicory as much as the coffee beans and we do not add too much of sugar as the taste of the coffee should not be masked,” explained Ashok, the elder brother. Looking visibly pleased to see my expression of deep satisfaction.

As I got up to say bye, I realised that the Mangalorean buns puri with filter kaapi at this somnambulant and cosy 82 year-old restaurant, could be one of the best breakfasts that I have had in Mumbai till date.

I forgot to mention this earlier in the post, but I was on a puri trail that day.

By ‘puri' I am referring to any Indian fried puffed up flat bread. The name used could vary depending on the dish and would not always be called puri to be honest. Purists, no pun intended, might not agree with this definition and very rightly so, but still, here goes, and with a bit of creative license. The story of puri trail in South Mumbai.

The Finely Chopped South Mumbai Puri Trail.

Puris from Agra that started it all off in Mumbai... Pancham Puriwala

Clockwise: Palak puri, bhopla curry, alu curry, kadhi pakora
saada puri, masala puri, mirchi achar, beet puri
Puncham Puriwala

I next went to the big daddy of them all. Pancham Puriwala, established in around 1840. It is possibly the oldest running restaurant/ eatery in Mumbai. The eatery is run by the fifth generation descendants of the late Panchamdas Sharma. A gentleman  who had walked over 40 days, as the legend goes, from Agra to Mumbai before he settled here and set up a road-side stall selling puris. Five to a plate were served then. It is no coincidence that Pancham in Hindi means fifth.

Why did Panchamdas walk from Agra? That is because the Indian Railways was yet to be started then. This is ironic given that this humble and busy eatery today stands opposite the railway junction formerly known as the Victoria Terminus. The grand old Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

I tried the plain puri, the masala puri, the palak puri and the beetroot puri at Pancham Puriwala that day. All freshly fried in the corner of the shop, once your place your order. Open kitchen as you would say in today's parlance. When I asked him the question, the manager estimated that they sell around 2,000 puris in a day but said that he could not vouch for it. I did meet the ever smiling Anupam Sharma, descendant, of Panchamdas Sharma who helps runs the place and who ensures that his ancestor's legacy is retained and refreshed and carried on into the future.

Along with the puris at Pancham, I had the chilli specked fiery potato curry, the starchy and robust bhopla curry (pumkin) and the mellow and soothing, dahi and besan based, curry pakora. Dishes that belonged to the original menu at Pancham I was told. I have had readers of mine, who are from UP, go to Pancham Puriwala and say that that puris reminded them of home. That is as good a stamp as ‘authenticity’ as any I would guess.

Vade from the Konkan Coast...Pradeep Gomantak

Kombdi vade thali at Pradeep Gomantak

My next stop was after a ten minute walk down from Puncham Puritwala, at Fort. This was at Pradeep Gomantak, a small restaurant located opposite Ideal Corner and in the lane parallel to The Bombay Store. They serve Gomantak food here. The cuisine of the Hindu Goans. A place I was first taken to by a Goan  who told me that she goes there when she misses home food. Pradeep Gomantak is a small eatery. It is packed during lunch time with its elderly waiting staff working efficiently to feed economically priced food to the worker bees of Fort. The owner’s daughter, Manisha Nervekar, is a fixture at the cash counter at the restaurant which was set up in 1968. Keeping an eagle on eye on what is happening inside and ensuring that her customers leave happy.

I ordered a kombdi vade thali there. Kombdi means chicken in Marathi from what I gather.  In this case, it refers to a a freshly ground coconut based chicken curry which is paired with a sort of puri called vade. An elderly waiter at Pradeep’s told me that they give a mix of bajra and jowar millet grains, rice, channa dal (gram), whole-wheat grains, house spices and chillies to a local flower mill from the restaurant.  This is this ground into flour and given back to the folks at Pradeep. The flour is then used to make the dough for the vade, the multigrain fried puri which stars in the Gomantak and Malvani (coastal Maharashtrian) cuisine. The vades are fried fresh and served when orders for the same are placed.

The mixture of millets and pulses and rice gives a coarse  texture to the puri and this acquires another textural dimension when it soaks it in the curry in my experience. The flavours of the chicken curry are distinct from that of the vade. The two when combined in a bite, give birth to a stream of new flavours in one’s mouth, and make the simple thali a gastronomic experience that is so full of adventure. I washed my food down with a bowl of cooling sol kadi from the thali at Pradeep before moving on.

Ghar ka khana. Chhole bhature at Punjabi Moti Halwai

Chhole bhatoore, Moti Halwai

Konkan coast done, it was time to head to Punjab. I walked down past the Bombay Store to the lane where Yazdani Bakery is located. I said hi to Tirandaz Irani, who belongs the family that runs the bakery, and walked on. I was looking for puris that day after all and not soft bun or crusty brun which is what Yazdani Bakery offers.

I walked into Punjabi Moti Halwai which is located opposite Yazdani. It is a restaurant set up by a Punjabi family which lost everything during the Partition and came to Mumbai. They set up this restaurant which has flourished over the years and is now run by the descendants of the original owners. One of whom, is the ever smiling Mr Sumit Sehgal, whom you might often see at the cash counter. The place is a local gem which you will not find in too many lists.

I ordered a chhole bhature. This was the first time that I did so at Moti Halwai though I had a feeling that it would be good. I had first had this Punjabi favourite dish, which is legendary in Delhi, as a kid in Kolkata thanks to my mother who had grown up having it in Delhi. Ironically this was at a South Indian restaurant called Rim Jhim in Kolkata which is now shut. I later used to have chhole bhatoore with her at places such as Indramahal and New Friends at New Market when she would take my brother and me for our ‘puja shopping’ in Kolkata.

I was shocked when I first had the chhole bhature at places such as Cream Centre and Kailash Parbat when I moved into Mumbai. The bhatures there were massive, oily and too crisp for my taste. The chhole served at these places was too spicy and too little in my opinion. The food that we like is often a function of what we have grown up on of course. I know of many Cream Centre and Kailash Bhature loyalists in Mumbai.

The chhole at Moti Halwai deserves a Nobel Peace prize

I did get a taste of simpler and more comforting chhole bhature in Mumbai too though after I moved in here. This was at my PG (paying guest accommodation) in my early days in Mumbai. I lived with a Punjabi family then and chhole bhatures would come out of my landlady’s kitchen on Sunday nights as a treat and those reminded me of the simpler ones that I had eaten at Kolkata and was besotted with.

Memories of the chhole bhatures of Kolkata and of my PG in Mumbai were rekindled at Punjabi Moti Halwai that afternoon. The puffed up bhature served at Moti was crisp and yet pleasantly soft and spongy inside and were perfect to mop up the very ‘home-like’ chhole with.

I said home-like, as the spicing of the chhole at Moti Halwai was subtle, the curry was not too thick, nor too heavy on masalas. The chickpeas (chhole) were boiled to tender and loving submission. Tealeaves had not been used to artificially darken the chhole unlike what is often the case in restaurants. The chhole bhature at Pujabi Moti Halwai smacked of the taste of ghar ka khaana or home-made food. It spoke of the feeling of gratitude which Sunil Sehgal had once told me that his family feels to the city which helped them rebuild their lives after their forefathers took refuge here.

Yes, before you protest, let me point out that adding bhature in the puri trail was the sort of creative license that I alluded to earlier here.

Go Gujarat. Undhiyu puri and sev puri at Soam. Plus matar kachori from MP

Undhiyu puri at Soam.

I then left Forth and headed north to a place not very far from where we were. I am talking of Soam at Babulnath. Soam is a 13 year old restaurant and is the brain child of its most gracious and gentle owner, Pinky Chandan Dixit.

Pinky is a Mumbai girl who belongs to the Gujarati. She studied catering first at the Sophiya College here and then at the Le Cordon Bleau abroad. She had worked in five star hotels in Mumbai, both as a pastry chef and on the business side. When she had first identified the property where Soam stands, she had planned to open a bakery there. Her father, who runs a hotel at Mahabaleswar, was not convinced of the plan though and had urged Pinky to think more. Pinky then came up with the idea of opening a Gujarati vegetarian restaurant, offering the sort of food that she had grown up on. The  rest is history and the eatery has gone from strength to strength. Along with Swati Snacks, Soam is a rare Gujarati restaurant in Mumbai that offers an a la carte menu and not a thali. The warm service, great food and cleanliness of Soam has made it a favourite of Mumbaikars and foreign visitors too. It is one of my favourite restaurants in the city and I am not even qualifying that by adding 'vegetarian' to it. Soam is short for Somnath, the deity at the 240 odd year old Babulnath Temple, which is located opposite Soam.

My plan was to have undhiyu, the seasonal Gujarati winter special dish, with puri at Soam and the light mustard seed, curry leave and green chilli tempered potato bhaaji that my wife loves. Undhiyu is paired with both rotis and puris traditionally. Pinky told me that in social gatherings puri is preferred with undhiyu as they are quicker to make compared to rotis. The puris at Soam were remarkably well puffed even though they were made with wholewheat or aata.

Methi dhebra with dahi at Soam

After I placed my order, Pinky suggested that I try the methi dhebra. This is bajra millet based, sesame seed specked and methi leaves spiked puri, which is had with dahi. I have had this in the past here and love it. There is something about the combination of texture of the coarse but crisp bajra dough and crispy sesame that I find to be a very grown up pleasure. Plus it is made with millets which has a low GI value and that is something that I look forward to these days. I packed a couple of dhebras to eat at home too and they stayed well.

Matar kachori with dahiwala alu

Pinky also urged me to try the matar kachori with dahi wala alu. A winter special from Madhya Pradesh from where her husband hails from, she added with a bashful smile.

I did so and then, on seeing people around me enjoying the chaats at Soam, I ordered one more dish with puri. Sev Puri!

The puris in it are small round refined flour disks of course, and are flat and crunchy. But they are called puri so I thought it was apt to have them on the puri trail even though they are not the puffed up air filled flat breads that we think of when we say puri.

When I complimented Pinky on the excellent quality of the sev puri, she said that she owed it to a lady in south Mumbai who makes and supplies the sev and the puri to her. If you need any convincing, Vir Sanghvi seems to be a big fan of the chaat at Soam and the rest of the fare too.

Sev puri

I asked Pinky about the reason for the Gujarati fascination with puris and she told me that it stemmed from the fact that Gujaratis loved to travel and the deep fried puris, dhebras and theplas turned out to be convenient, nutritious and tasty fodder to travel the world with as they last long and are delicious too.

Deep frying is considered to be better than shallow frying in terms of absorbing low oil among Gujaratis added Pinky. I have heard others say this too. I do not have a point of view on this but would love to believe it to be so!

Coming home to luchi chholar dal. Grandma's kitchen recreated in Mumbai's Mustard Restaurant.

Luchi, chholar dal, kosha mangsho. Mustard Mumbai

Talking of fascination with puris, I could not end my puri jaunt without having luchis could I?

Luchi is the Bengali version of puri and is made with refined (maida) and not whole-wheat flour. As a fussy ‘foreign born’ kid, who refused to eat Indian food when we first came to India, it was the luchi and chholar dal made by my granny that first won my heart when  it came to desi food. I was eight years old. The love affair has continued since then.

I went to Mustard Restaurant at Worli that evening before heading home. My heart cried out for luchis and chef Prasanta Mandal at the restaurant turned out some pretty stellar ones at the flick of his hand.

The luchis were shaada and fulko as they came out of the kodai. White in colour, thin and puffed perfectly as they came out of the wok in which they were deep fried. The mark of a good luchi. Prasanta told me that he was taught to make luchis when he first joined Mustard at the Goa outlet by Pritha Sen. Pritha Sen is the consultant of the Bengali side of this restaurant that serves both Bengali and French food. I enjoyed the luchi along with chholar dal and kosha mangsho (slow cooked mutton) on the side at Mustard for jolkhabar (evening snacks), but there was more!

Koraishootir kochuri, alur dom.
Mustard Restaurant, Mumbai

Since, it was winter I got the chance the try the Bengali version of matar ka kachori too at Mustard. What we call korashootir kochuri. Here the puri (kochuri) is made with maida and not aata unlike in the version from MP that I had at Soam. It is crisper and lighter than the matar kachori and the mashed pea stuffing in it is showcased in its full glory thanks to the diaphanous nature of the kochuri. Unlike the mellow dahi alu curry that I had the matar ka kachori at Soam with, the koraishootir kochuri at Mustard was served with the robust, garam masala and chilli based Bengali favourite, alur dom.

I marvelled at the excellent quality of Bengali food that was served at Mustard that evening. I felt very at home in the very British Calcutta club, and the stately Alipore house of Kolkata-like, ambiance that they seemed to have recreated here. The Jim Morrison tracks playing there that evening, instead of the usual Rabindra Sangeet that is played at Bengali restaurants, reminded me of my college days in Presidency College, Calcutta. I happened to met co-owner of Mustard, Poonam Singh, that evening and she smiled when I pointed out this to her.

“Mustard is our endeavour to celebrate the regional food of India,” she said. “We started small with the branch at Goa. Then garnered the courage to come to Mumbai. Now we are extending this mission of ours by doing pop up festivals showcasing food from Punjab and Kashmir, which use mustard in some form too, and we plan to do more.”

The restaurant is less than a year old here and seems to be running packed whenever I pass it by in the evening.

Thirteen puris that starred in my South Mumbai puri trail

The Finely Chopped Puri Trail

At the end of it all, I realised that I had thirteen types of puris before I headed home. From eleven states of India. In six hours. In one city. Mumbai. Thankfully I had enthusiastic company with me to help me finish the food!

To sum up what we ate that day, there was buns puri from Mangalore in Karnataka, saada, masala, beet and palak puri from Agra in UP, vade from Goa's Konkan coast and Malvan in Maharashtra too, bhature from Punjab, puris (puffed and flat) from Gujarat, matar kachori from Madhya Pradesh. Luchi and kariashootir kochuri from Bengal, also had in Assam, Odisha and Bihar.

Each variety was with served very different and distinct accompaniments. The only other favourite of mine in Mumbai, that I missed out on, was the Maharashtrian puri with sukha bhaaji which I dote on at Prakash at Dadar. A dish which I had first encountered in the south Indian run canteen at IMRB, my first office in Mumbai, which is located at Dadar. And the bedmi puri of old Delhi which I have not come across in Mumbai yet though some home chefs have offered it in pop ups.

Mumbai, India's regional food hub?

The Unsavoured Punjabi pop up thali at Mustard Restaurant, Mumbai

As I headed home that evening, it struck me that the puri trail that I had just finished in the city captured everything that I love about Mumbai. What made me feel at home here and stay back after I first came here on work twenty years back.

I am alluding to the fact that everyone is made to feel welcome here. That you get to meet people from all parts of India…and increasingly so, the world. And enjoy their food!

Your life gets enriched in the process. Your mind expanded.

I would go a step further to stay that the puri trail shows why Mumbai should consider positioning itself as a hub for regional Indian food. Do keep in mind is more to what is available here beyond what you got a glimpse of in the post. Exploring the fish curries on offer or the biryanis or the South Indian tiffin places or the north Indian sweet shops would show you what I meant.

We might aspire to be a world food city in Mumbai but unlike in cities such as Sydney, London, New York and Paris, which are bonafide world food cities, we do not have immigrants from other countries yet in Mumbai and this limits the quality of international food that you get here. Given that this is made by chefs who are usually Indian, with limited access to travel as well as produce, this would rarely match up to what you get abroad.

However, when it comes to Indian food, Mumbai often dishes out food that comes from the heart. Food that touches your soul. Food that is unforgettable.

The reason for this is simple. It is because the regional Indian food that you get in Mumbai is made by immigrants or their descendants and that shows in the quality of what is available. What they put out there is much more than just food. It is the story of their lives and of their dreams.

The only hitch, as popular food writer and Mumbai boy,  Kunal Vijayakar pointed out when I spoke to him about this, is that most of the regional food restaurants in Mumbai that we love were set up in the period between 1940 to 1970 and that not much has come up in recent times.

I would ascribe this to the fact that most of us in the 80s and 90s and early 2000s were enamoured by international cuisine, and could not get enough of it in the years following the economic liberalisation, but we are slowly coming back to appreciating our roots today.

What the some of the ladies in this story, Pinky Dixit Chandran of Soam,  Punam Singh and Shilpa Sharma of Mustard for example, have shown though is that there is a lot be savoured when we look inwards at our own kitchens and that there is an audience willing to lap that up today. We have seen sparks of this happening in the home chef pop up movement too where you get a taste of regional food in Mumbai.  The very popular Bombay Canteen in Mumbai celebrates regional Indian food. Then there are some such as O’Tenga run by Joyee and Priyangee from Assam, who are doing Assamese food as a delivery option. We want more though. Odiya, food from the north east, Andhra, Telengana, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Kashmit…there’s so much more that Mumbai needs. Even Maharashtrian food beyond Malvani and Puneri as some would rightly point out.

What we need for that is people with conviction and big dreams to drive the new regional food revolution in Mumbai, just as an earlier generation of intrepid restaurateurs had done so in previous century in Mumbai.

Mumbai is waiting to welcome them with open arms and help them realise their dream. For that’s what Mumbai does so well.

Happy Republic Day folks.

The people behind the puris

With Ashok and Ananth Hegdekar at New Special Anand Bhuvan. The brothers
were rightfully rather  proud of the breakfast buffet that they offer these days.
Rs 80 unlimited. Penalty for wasting. We want to instil good values, they told me

Manisha Nagrekar at Pradeep Gomantak
Love her spunk

The ever smiling Sunil Sehgal at Moti Halwai

The lady with the golden heart. Pinky Chandan Dixit
of Soam

Chef Prasanta Mandal at Mustard

Chef Prasanta did Pritha Sen proud with the luchis

With Kunal Vijayakar and Sherry Malhotra at the Punjabi food pop up at Mustard

That's Swati Singh of Mustard in red and Poonam Sharma in black
when  we there for the lovely Unsavoured Punjab pop up at Mustard

More Fort Stories:

  1. My latest Times Kitchen Tales article in the Sunday Times of India which is about classic business districts such as Fort and how we miss their magic in new India. Here is the online link
  2. Radio Finely Chopped podcast episode on Fort. You will find it here on the Anchor app. You can also listen to it on Apple podcast, Google Podcasts, Audioboom, etc
  3. Link to where you can order my book, The Travelling Belly, and read about many of the places that I have referred to here
  4. A Fort Food Walk video by me

5. A video from when I went Puncham Puriwala

6. A video on undhiyu:

7. Video from when I first had a buns puri in Mangalore

8. Chatting with Pinky Chandan Dixit of Soam about Undhiyu

9. Bedmi puri at Old Delhi's Shyam Sweets