Guest post by Sunil R Nair, a man whose mind is always in the future, lover of verses, a teetotaler and collector of wines, goes down a culinary-memory-lane in Pune. Check out his blog pushbuttonthinking.blogspot.com. He tweets @spuriousmallu
Long before Pune became the mini metro it is today, it was the town of three cantonments, a river — Sangam — an army command, few dozen colleges, Parsis and Bohris. While growing up in this town, one had to declare allegiance to one of the two distinct factions on either side of the Sangam — the old conservative Pune with its customs and traditions and the liberal Cantonment ‘Poona’, swinging to the sounds of Jazz at the Jaws Burger Café or the Regatta along the Bund Garden or The Osho Rajneesh Ashram with its free spirit, love and… grass! This is the part that I belonged to — the profuse, rocking Poona of the 70s, 80s and nineties, before moving to that concrete jungle called Mumbai.
My father, communist, trade unionist and closet-rum-drinker ensured that his kids — my sister and I — were “always” a part of the “hipness” of the Cantonment area. So when the rest of the Malayali kids went to schools that were within walking distance, we went by bus to a school 18 Kms away in the heart of the Cantonment, right next to a Synagogue, funnily called The Lal Deval (The Red Temple).
My classmates were mostly, completely insane (in a nice way) Parsis, the comical (again, in a nice way) Bohris, a few radical (in a funny way – at least that’s what I thought) Christians and the likes. Being in the midst of this motley crowd, always an ‘outsider’, had its benefits — I was privy to their hallowed rituals and most importantly their food, replete with ‘soul’.
After 11 years, I went back to the now-called- Pune, to walk down memory lane. Was it guilt or was it nostalgia or was it both? I don’t know, but I was compelled to go back to the old ‘haunts’ and experience the ‘soul food’ again.
The jaunt began with the Blue Nile. It had to! Housed in an 180-year-old building and spread over two floors, it stands as it always had been, right opposite The Poona Club on Bund Garden Road. The Blue Nile seemed to be in a time warp. The ground floor still served “bachelors”, and the first-floor hall was for “Family” — back then, to enter the hallowed portals of the ‘family room’ all you needed was a willing female companion old enough to vote. I am glad; nothing has changed.
The Blue Nile is run by Persians or Iranis who migrated to Poona some 60 years ago and stayed back serving Persian Biryani and Kebabs. They do serve the traditional biryani too. But, why would you want ‘normal’ when you can get the ‘Persian’ — made out of chicken stock flavoured rice, speckled with saffron and a large piece of fried chicken served with a roasted tomato and a slab of butter. It has to be eaten with your hands — the Indian style. That Rs.250 biryani nourishes the soul, worth every rupee.
If you are a foodie like me, you’d still have enough space in your tummy for Blue Nile’s other special — Tandoori Murg.Finish it all off in style — with an ice cream Falooda. All for Rs.180/ But then, as they say, there are few things in this world money can’t buy — like the experience of going back in time and having your heart wrapped in this warm sepia-toned feeling that makes you think — all is well with the world. My soul sings a similar tune at the Britannia Café in Mumbai — but that’s for another day.
The next day, I headed to Marz-O-Rin. Founded by Sheriar J. Sheriyarji in 1965 with only four items on the menu — chutney and chicken sandwiches, cheese burger and chicken roll. All the items had something to with fresh slices of bread and basic fillings.
Long before quick serve restaurants or drive-in eateries came into existence, Sheriyaji established a counter in the heart of Main Street ( MG Road) that served sandwiches, rolls, juices and milkshake. Their motto was simple — you want to eat, get in line. If you complained, they’d throw you out. My face stretched into a smiley when I learnt that they still threw out the whiners, and yes, there was still a winding queue waiting to eat those sandwiches. The folks behind the counter were the same people who used to scold us, boys when we took our pimply girlfriends from St.Mary’s School for a sandwich and some hand-holding. The men still don’t crack a smile; they still wear that attitude that screams ‘We do not need you, you need us.’Sigh! And they are right!
Because Marz-O-Rin is the place where you will find shimmery white butter melting into the warm folds of fresh bread, which then wraps itself around minced chicken and mustard — it’s a symphony that your palate will remember till you are called to the Pearly Gates. Go early, find a place on the balcony of the Bhaktiar Building and I promise you… you will find ‘home’.
While you are there, try their almond macaroons, bite into the coconut ones or the very gooey dark forest cake slice. Then wash it down with cold rose milk or coffee or Bournvita. Back in the day, they used to have glass bottles of nimboo paani (Lemon water) with a foil cap, which we would punch with a straw...I believe, I still haven’t tasted anything as good as that lemon water.
As I walked out of the place, all I could think of was: how the hell did the chutney in the sandwich and the cheese burger taste the same after all these years — flavourful green chillies without the heat. Time, at Marz-O-Rin, stands still; it sucks you into its amazing time machine. And I am a willing time-traveller.
On my third and last day at ‘down memory lane,’ I went for grunge — grimy, sooty rickety King Burger outlet. It is at the end of East Street, and if you have weak innards or paranoid about germs-taking-over-the-world, then this is not for you. But you should know, this is where they serve a ‘mean’ burger — mammoth chicken/mutton mince patty with just the right amount of onion and a sauce that is an audacious mix of mayo and ketchup. It’s comforting food.
By the way, know beforehand, that at King Burger they will not cut the giant burger into two, but will happily let you share the whopper. Yeah, they are quirky that way. But is what makes special. It will take some time to finish the burger so, settle down, stretch your legs, enjoy a young Dylan and Elvis on the wall, relax and soak in the world…then…bite into your burger. It won’t be a pretty sight, but it will surely be gastrorgasmic — charred caramelised bits of meat, buns soaked in the mayo-ketchup mix with the bite of crunchy onions — if you were allowed to bite into heaven, it might taste like King’s burger. And trust me, it lasts 24 hours in the system. Wash it down with a Duke’s Lemonade or Fram’s Raspberry or Ginger. Fram’s is short for Framjee — an antiquated cold drink manufacturer, indigenous to Pune. Do carry antacids as a precautionary measure.
Don’t forget to shoo the flies away. Look out of the windows and immerse yourself in the rich banter of college kids pooling resources, the sweet nothings of the last bite that the guy insists the girl must have — I was transported to twenty years ago when raging hunger would see a bunch of 20-year-old boys and that rare girl on the spare seat of the Kawasaki RTZ, find burgers that were close to what Pop Tate’s served to those kids in Archie’s Comics. Macs and KFC were still in the future. But for those few hours, we were all Americans in Pune Cantonment.
Once I was done at King’s Burger, I had one last stop to make — Ganna Jus, one of the many roadside stalls that sell a tall glass of fresh sugarcane juice with a dash of lime and a bite of ginger. It’s the drink that will seal your memory, in more ways than one.