Tucked inside the serpentine roads of Mohammed Ali Road, past the famous Suleiman Usman sweetshop, lies the hat market Dhobi Street. A bunch of Mumbai’s African populace can be seen hanging around, not looking for a bonnet or trilby, but in search of comfort food.
A gastronomic paradise during Ramzan, this area is also where African immigrants congregate for home food. And Puku’s restaurant is one such holein-the-wall eatery.
One of Mumbai’s best-kept secrets, this surreptitious hangout has existed for over 10 years. Ask a local and they’ll direct you to a staircase that is as narrow as a thin-crust pizza, and can only be scaled if you climb sideways.
Puku’s no-frills kitchen is to African Indians what Andhra Bhavan is to Andhra migrants. Named after its proprietor, Puku, the restaurant was started in 1999 for those looking for homecooked African meals at a low price.
Inside, the tiny eatery with blue mosaic-tiled walls can only accomodate two long tables where diners, mostly from Nigeria and Ghana, chug cans of Guinness over communal meals. What’s more, it even sports a wall clock set to Nigerian local time. Plastic chairs face a television set that airs football matches and Nigerian (Nollywood) movies.
What makes this an African escapade worth the jaunt are its wholesome meals that come at cheap prices. However, communication can be a problem as Hindi and English are as good as Greek here. Ask for the friendly server called Jude, he’s a pro at sign language.
Like other ubiquitous lunch homes in the city, Puku has a set menu, and no menu card. The warm water and lime ritual that follows a Mughlai meal is one of the starting points at Puku. On the table, you’ll find Dettol handwash and a plastic bowl filled with water. After washing, Bisleri bottles come your way.
While there is no game meat available here, there is still chicken, fish, lamb and beef to pick from. Infact, no two customers seemed to be eating the same dish. Each meal is accompanied by rice or pounded yam, though eating balls of yam, dunked in gravy, is an acquired taste. The menu contains a smattering of dishes from Puku’s home continent. The curries resemble their Indian counterparts. The fufu (porridge), egusi soup (melon seed soup) and minced beef in red sauce as well as chicken stew are favourites here. If you are the adventurous sort, make the trek in the afternoon to avoid getting lost. And as Omo Ogati, a foreign student studying at Xavier’s says, “If you’re looking for home-style African food, this is where it is.”