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    Pancham Puriwala: 150 years of puri bhaji

The Heritage Society should include it on its list: Pancham Puriwala at Bori Bunder. Bombay's, and perhaps India's oldest puri bhaji restaurant. It goes back some 150 years, give or take a half-dozen: the same shop, the same location the same family, the same food. Even the prices have not gone up all that much.

I myself have been eating there for a half-century, perhaps less now than earlier, but still at least once a month. The puris are large, and a little thickish, made by practised hands, which must be making a few hundred (thousand?) puris a day, fried in Godrej ghee.

They have a pleasant fresh taste about them, and are slightly saltish. They always come straight from the frying pan, and they are always hot. Be careful.

They give you five puris per order, more than enough for a person like me, though not perhaps for a large bhaiya chowkidar from U.P. With it is the bhaji, in a katori, it is liquid, not the Gujarati sukki bhaji. It is almost watery, but with adequate taste and strength, always made with potato and bhopla (pumpkin). The puris and the bhaji come in a small round tray. You break the puri, dip in the bhaji gravy, and eat it. And you pay Rs.10 at the counter. Lunch over.

Hundreds upon hundreds of people have their lunch and dinner at Pancham Puriwala every day, and also their in-between meals, always puri bhaji. There is an achar that goes with it, a chilli and lime pickle placed in a large bowl in the centre of the table. You help yourself to it.

The pickle is made of full green chillis with rinds of lemon, it is a Pancham Puri special. In a large drum, they mix the achar with lime, haldi, dhania powder, black salt, season it for four days, then serve it. "It is not very hot, sir, but chatpata," says Akshay Sharma, the fifth pedhi proprietor.

Pancham Puriwala is located at the entrance to Bazargate, the VT end of it, opposite the Bhatia Baug. The lane is also known as Parsi Bazar Street. It is an interesting lane, a part of old-old Bombay. The next time you eat at Pancham Puriwala, walk down the street to Pherozeshah Mehta Road. Incidentally, it is now known as Perin Nariman Street. Who is Perin Nariman, I am afraid I do not know. And not many people in the street may know it either. Such is mortal fame. If they wanted to change the name, they should have called it Baba Pancham Street.

Baba Pancham is the great-great-grandfather of the present proprietors. When he came to Bombay and set up his shop, Victoria Terminus was still to be constructed. He then possessed a small portion of the present restaurant. He sat on the floor, made his puri bhaji, and sold it.

I can visualise his shop, it must have been at the entrance to the British Fort, the gate that opened to the bazar. And if the street was known as Parsi Bazar, it may have been because Parsis were aloowed to have their shops there. Baba Pancham came from Agra as, a few streets away, Sardar Bedi came from the Punjab and opened the city's first Punjabi restaurant-the Sher-e-Punjab at the entrance to the present P. D'Mello Road. Baba Pancham, whose full name was given to me as Pancham.

Pancham Mangalsingh Sharma, came from Agra. After him his son took over, then his son (whose photograph adorns the restaurant), then his son, and finally the present four brothers, Akshay, Abhishek, Anupam and Sandeep. Three of the brothers manage the shop, a fourth manages another Pancham Puri they have recently opened in New Bombay.

It is simple restaurant, Grade III, open to the street, tables and chairs crammed together, a mezzanine crammed with more tables and chairs. A small portion is cut off for the kitchen, also open to the street. Two men roll the puris, using the reverse side of a thali as their base, a third fries them in a large cauldron. They work from 8 o'clock in the morning, when the first customers come in for their breakfast, to mid-night, rolling out a steady steam of puris.

All the workers are from Uttar Pradesh. As Akshay, a presentable young man, speaking English, says: "Proprietors, management, workers, all are from U.P." Mumbai, of course, is their home now. How many of us can claim five generations in Mumbai!

Besides the standard puri bhaji, you also get a masala puri bhaji. The masala is udad dal filled with spices. A hole is made in the puri dough and the masala is inserted into it. Then, with rolling pin, it is rolled out like the standard puri. The standard puri, as I mentioned is Rs.10, the masala puri Rs.12.

Beside the potato-bhopla bhaji, there are other bhajis available, channa masala, aloo mutter, aloo palak. They are all creamy and reasonably gravied, the way I like them-not dry. And there are two Pancham Thalis: sada (Rs.16), special (Rs.20). You get the puri-bhaji, plus rice, plus kadhi (though they call it curry, because all Mumbai people do not understand kadhi), with besan pakodis inside. For the special thali, you get one more bhaji, boond raita and papad extra.

There is no tea, coffee, soda, lemon, though the restaurant will get you a soft drink from next door as a special courtesy. But there is lassi, sweet for Rs.7 and khara for Rs.6. The sweet lassi is made and placed on the cash counter, under a net, the khara lassi is made on order. I suggest you have the khara, it is a good digestive for the puri bhaji, epsecially on a warm summer's afternoon.

And, unless you are extremely finicky, I suggest you visit Pancham Puriwala immediately. You have been missing something.

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