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Pune City can well be considered a foodies' paradise. Gastronomic offerings range from top-of-the-line cuisine to street fare and everything in between, both desi and videsi, vegetarian and non-vegetarian.
A visit to Pune simply must include a typical Maharashtrian meal. Food is always served in a 'thali' -- restaurants have a preset menu that is changed every week. A thali usually includes two vegetables, a dal, salad, rotis, rice, papad and vadas. Some offer more preparations of each type along with a range of steamed or fried farsans. Food is usually eaten by hand (unless you insist on a spoon) and most eateries have special menus on festivals or special occasions, which are advertised in local newspapers.
My tip -- make sure to skip breakfast to do full justice at a Maharashtrian restaurant, even if your dietician advises against it! On the positive side, lunch is available from 11:30 am onwards, so your stomach fire need not burn too long!
I decided to shut my kitchen for the day and check out what some of the popular vegetarian eateries have to offer.
Durvankur, located on Tilak Road attracts the eye from afar with huge hoardings. Negotiating your way through Tilak Road is tricky enough, but trying to find a spot and then park can test one's patience to the extreme. I choose the stairs over the lift to reach the restuarant and reached the second floor out of breath! We luckily secured a table by the large windows, which give you a panoramic view of the city. Tables laden with plates and katori sets await hungry mortals. Once you are seated, be prepared for an attack from a veritable army of waiters, all eager to serve you. Tangy chutneys form colourful palettes that zing the palate. Sweets can be ordered at an extra charge on weekdays. Do try the sitafal rabdi -- thickened milk, sweet with luscious pieces of custard apple.
Shabari Restaurant at Hotel Parichay is another eatery worth its salt. The interior greets you with huge pots and floating flower arrangements. There is a separate air-conditioned hall as well as some open-air seating that is screened off from prying eyes with bamboo curtains. The Sunday lunch menu usually includes 'aloo chee bhajee'. Folks, that's not aloo as in potato but the Marathi term for colococia. Its leaves are used to prepare a delightful broth with groundnuts and fresh coconut -- a tasty preparation to get reluctant kids hooked onto leafy vegetables! Shabari serves jwaree and bajree bhakrees (made from milo/jawar and millet respectively). Both need absolutely no fat when cooking and are the staple diet of interior regions within the state. Packed with nutritious elements and fibre, they are best eaten hot off the griddle with roughly crushed onions and garlic chutney; the crowing glory is a dollop of homemade butter!
Another Maharashtrian food haven, Krishna Dining Hall is prominently located on Law College Road, flanked by Barista caf�, Kobe Sizzlers and Caf� Coffee Day on three sides -- just goes to prove my point of culture fusion in this tradition rich city! Krishna, however, seats fewer people so I had to wait my turn and idled my time under a canopy of old trees watching traffic on this busy road. A short flight of stairs takes us to the hall, which doesn'tt afford you too much space to manoeuvre. There was no elevator, so those with any problems climbing stairs, please take note. The staff is well dressed and polite and the promptly-served food satisfies both the eye and the palate! On this particular day, I was lucky to enjoy the traditional 'walachee usal'. Pulses are an important part of Marathi meals and waal (field beans) is a delicacy. De-skinning waal is tricky but the final bittersweet dish, heavily garnished with coriander and coconut, is worth a mouthful. With a constant stream of incredibly thin and soft fulkas, I just lost count of how many I ate! The best part was unlimited 'taak' or buttermilk. The sumptuous spread was well worth the wait.
Hotel Shreyas, tucked away in a quite bylane of Apte Road, offers some creature comforts like air conditioning along with delectable fare. As I had reached early, the place was relatively empty and peaceful so I could enjoy the piped music. Eight pairs of eyes kept a sharp eye on my plate, keen to refill it at a moment's notice! Typical 'amti' (sweet-sour tur dal preparation) are best enjoyed here, accompanied by both 'puri' and 'poli'. Ghee is generously served with rice, so be sure to indicate your preference well in time or scrap your calorie counter for the day! They offer 'modak' every day for lunch (chargeable extra of course) and at dinnertime only on 'Sankashti chaturthi' -- the fourth day after the full moon each month. This steamed sweet is said to be the favourite of Lord Ganesha [Images] and needs great skill in preparation. The fresh fig-shaped modak has a soft covering made of rice flour. Split it and drench the coconut-jaggery stuffing with ghee before devouring it. Don't be ashamed if you are tempted to lick your fingers as you scrape the last bits off your plate. Shreyas also hosts a two-day Marathi food fest during Ganeshotsav each year, which features rare recipes from the interior regions. A beautifully packed 'masala paan' (betel nut leaf) completes the meal as we drag ourselves out.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Roads like JM Road and FC Road have several streetside vendors and restaurants at every step. Roadside eateries spring up every morning in student or office areas selling homemade Maharashtrian snacks. The kande pohe pohe (pressed rice snack with onion) and misal-pav (a spicy sprouted pulse curry with local buns) here are God-sent, especially for those in a hurry. Khichadi made from sago is especially delicious and widely available on Thursdays from these vendors.
This is just a snapshot of some excellent Maharashtrian cuisine available in Pune and it's a good way to familiarise yourself with our beautiful city!
Asha Dining Hall on Apte Road: Simple homely fare that does not burn a hole in the wallet.
Rate: Rs 45 per head, sweets charged extra.
Rate: Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday Rs100,
Thursday/Saturday & Sunday: Rs110 with unlimited sweets
Durvankur on Tilak Road:
Rate: Rs 70 on weekdays (sweets charged extra)
Rs 100 on Sundays (inclusive of sweets)
Shreyas on Apte Road:
Rate: Rs 100 (sweets charged extra)
Valet parking available.
Krishna Dining Hall, Law College Road:
Rate: Rs 110 (sweet charged extra)
(Rates and phone numbers as of October 2007).
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