Bombay is a city of contrasts in all spheres of life. Food is no exception.While there are posh,curated restaurants of the like of The Table at one end, the other end of the spectrum has eateries like Pancham Puriwala which believes in good food sans the decor and the frills.It was past 8 PM on a weekend and all I could see was a queue in front of the oldest operating restaurant in Bombay. The queue was fast moving,the eatery was an open one,it had no glass doors,no airconditioning and no plush seating.Yet the people who came out after their meal had a smile on their lips and looked satiated.The buzz at the restaurant was overwhelming. This is Pancham Puriwala,established in 1848 ,even before the Sepoy Mutiny and the Church Gate station was built. Pancham Puriwala is undoubtedly heritage both in terms of age and in taste.The yearning for a crisp puri any time of the day among the Indians live on. Puri can be had for all the three meals as well as a quick snack.The charm of a puri in various forms though remains unscathed.
Puri or Poori is a traditional breakfast served in most parts of India both in homes as well as a street food. The name Puri is derived from the Sanskrit word Purika meaning filled. Puris are known by different names and differ in taste in various regions and are served primarily with a potato sabji which too differs in taste and texture. Khamiri green peas Puri, Bhedawi Puri,Khus khus Puri,Farsi Puri, Thunka puri are some of the various varieties of puris across India. Puris are also served with non vegetarian Naharis for breakfast as well as dishes like Keema matar. While Puris are rolled out of whole wheat flour in the northern regions,in the eastern part of the country Puris known as Luchi use refined flour. Puris have stuffed variety too like Matar stuffed kachori and Lentil stuffed Radhaballavi or Karai shutir kachuri(green peas) in Bengal. Gur stuffed puris are also a regional speciality. Innovation has entered the world of puris too as they are now being stuffed with beetroot,spinach or palak, cheese and even chocolate. Puris are also served with Halwas of various kinds and Kheer too.
Puris have traversed countries too. Puris went to Mauritus with the indentured labourers and came to be known as Dholl puri. The Dholl puri is however not deep fried ,it is cooked on a tawa or griddle and has some lentil stuffed in the refined flour dough with salt,turmeric and roasted cumin powder as seasoning. Dholl Puri is also eaten in Trinidad but is known as Buss-up-shirt as the texture resembles rags. Europe too has its varieties of deep fried flat breads.In Hungary it is known as Langos made from flour,milk,yeast and salt.Deep fried,the Langos are stuffed withsour cream,mashed potato and yoghurt. It is eaten fresh and warm ,topped with cheese,sour cream or with garlic butter.
The eatery located on a busy corner of Perin Nariman Street,not far from Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus has a fare of only different kinds of Puris.The variety however is unlimited- Chole puri,Alu Palak puri,Alu mutter puri,Alu Methi puri, Ali Gobi puri,Alu Bhindi puri,Masala puri and so on.One can choose from a Saada thali ,a Jain thali and the bestseller Pancham thali. While the flour doughs are constantly being rolled and deep fried in oil ,stocks of fried puri hardly builds up.They vanish as soon as they are drained out of the oil.After waiting patiently at the queue with tastebuds going for a toss as I sniffed the aroma and was practically salivating .Chatting up with the fifth generation owner I was amazed to know that he had not taken a break in the last two decades,to the extent he did not have time to get married.
Pancham Das Sharma who started with a nondescript stall selling ordinary breakfast fare hailed from a village called Adhet,in Tundla near Agra. The details of his journey are hazy but he definitely carried his art of puri making and the technique of rustling up a dry alu sabji to go with the puri. There are stories that he travelled to Bombay on a bullock cart ,as it was the age before the Railways.When Pancham Sharma first came to the city, Perin Nariman street was known as Bazar Gate Street or simply ‘Bazar Gate’ and had no street lights.
According to old city maps of Bombay there was a pond called Gibbet’s pond–locally known as Fasi Talao–facing Pancham Puriwala which was a popular spot for public executions. Popular stories in the Sharma household narrate that large crowds would gather to witness executions and afterwards they would drop in to eat poori-bhaji.The eatery today serves a social purpose too…food truly is a class equalizer. At Pancham Puriwala a white collared corporate honcho shares the table with a migrant labour picking up the pickled green chillies from the same bowl.You cannot book your table and therefore you are at liberty sharing food as well as stories.Pancham Puriwala in a sense erased class distinctions and reiterates food creates no distinctions…a gulp of the Palak puri dipped in the Kaddu sabji or the runny potato gravy tastes as heavenly as to a person residing in an apartment in Peddar Road as to the one who sleeps by the Churchgate station after a grueling work day.
We got a seat upstairs and shared the table with a group of migrant labourers from Bihar who were a regular there for dinner.We ordered a Pancham Thali. The thali was huge- an array of five kinds of puri including a plain one,a Palak stuffed, a masala stuffed spicy puri, a Beetroot puri and a Paneer puri. Went overboard with the variety and rustic authentic taste of the accompaniments. A dry potato sabji with generous spluttering of cumin and hing,a runny potato sabji which reminded of childhood Sunday breakfasts,a pumpkin sabji which tasted sweet as well as fragrant with the five spices,a traditional kadhi pakora,a matar paneer sabji. A chaas to finish it off and offcourse the hot Gulab Jamun.The mixed Pulao was also good with each grain of rice separate and fragrant of fresh vegetables and garam masala. We also ordered a glass of a Kesar Lassi on the recommendation of the owner. The kesar syrup was home made and the lassi thick.
We finished the thali in about 15 minutes and heard the owner who managed the crowd and the tables with a great finesse announcing as the last two orders.We quickly vacated to make space for the next lot. No finger bowls, we made ourselves happy with a basin for washing our hands and bunch of paper napkins.No frills but full on taste and comfort.For the countless people making Bombay their home ,the puris at Pancham were a dollop of home and love of their mother or grandmother.People keep coming back for the runny potato and kaddu sabji so much home,so much own.
Migrating from the north of India the family made Bombay their home for over a century and more,satiating thousands with the every day food of puri and sabji. The oldest eatery in the foodscape of Bombay ,still flourishing and charting new courses.Good food, unabated quality, service and love for their work permeates every corner of Panchsm Puriwala. The next morning demanded an extra couple of kilometers walk but was worth every morsel I had at Pancham Puriwala. At once I was transported to the days of train journeys to Delhi where Tundla was a junction station and my father would always jump down at the station and come back with some puris and a potato sabji in a sal leaf tokri where the puris went mushy in the potato gravy.The aroma of the hing flavoured aloo sabji which was a childhood memory came back that evening at Pancham Puriwala. Food is undoubtedly emotion,nostalgia,memory and offcourse acculturation.