On a quick visit to Pune, I set up a meeting with a lawyer, who was an old school mate of my elder brother, and off-chance we decided to meet at the old South Indian café in one of the famous Peth areas in the old city.
As I waded my way through the bylanes to one of those old ramshackle buildings, I wondered whether it will be trick or treat, coming back to a place that was part of our daily routine in my childhood.
It evoked the same pleasant smells of fresh food, freshly brewed Coffee and the strong scent of the incense sticks (agarbatti). The place was rather vacant which helped us a quiet chat but I wondered where was the bustle gone – usually one even had to wait for a while to get hold of a place to sit. It was run by a young chap in his thirties – the old proprietor had passed away and the place had exchanged hands.
The server standard reciting the standard menu in a Udupi hotel – Idli, Vada, Pongal, Masala Dosa … and the food we ordered was placed in front of us in the traditional manner – on a green Banana leaf. At least some things had not changed. I had ordered Idli and it came along with 3 varieties of chutneys. I looked askance for the ‘Malaga Pudi’ without which the ensemble looked incomplete. And so he gave me the Gun Powder that is to be mixed with Sesame Oil. The server said that they do not serve it nowadays unless it is asked for.
My friend was quite amused by my antics now. He explained that the place had changed a lot – it used to be the haven of bachelors in the old days but not any longer. The real money was made in delivering ‘parcel meals’ in those shiny aluminium Tiffin boxes but that business had dwindled. Even on weekends it was not that popular as people preferred to experiment that have food that was popularized once as ‘home-made’ food.
But the place survived with a loyal clientele that still liked the old experience. To cut overheads and attract crowd, the owner had introduced certain innovations that would have been so out-of-place in the past. So during the evenings they tried to promote traditional snack items like Dhokla, Khaman, Papra, bhel, pani poori and other chaat varieties. They also celebrated culinary weeks like ‘Chinese’, ‘Punjabi’, ‘Pasta – Pizza’ day to garner interest. Well desperate times do call for drastic measures.
We had come to the end of our meal and work as well. It seemed like it was time to go but wait how could one leave without a cuppa of the traditional Filter Kaapi. The coffee beans will be freshly ground and a ‘Coffee’ decoction will be brewed. The final Coffee hot and creamy will be served in a traditional dabarah and inverted Tumbler. Thankfully that tradition was still continued and it did not disappoint.