A restaurant advertisement from 1939.(HT PHOTO)
A restaurant advertisement from 1939.(HT PHOTO)

Taste of life: We are what we eat, but where we eat matters too

Food is often used as a tool to assert religious and cultural hierarchy. says Chinmay Damle
Hindustan Times, Pune | By Chinmay Damle
UPDATED ON JAN 07, 2021 05:37 PM IST

In the first week of February, 1939, eminent Gandhian and social – reformer Acharya Dattatreya alias Kaka Kalelkar, addressed female students in a boarding school in Satara.

“This school has Hindu, Muslim and Christian students studying together. But I have observed that students from different castes and religions do not sit together to eat their lunch and dinner. Why cannot they eat together? Who cooked the food, is something you should not be worried about as long as the cook maintained hygiene in the kitchen. All that matters is the taste. The food should be delicious, that’s all!”

What to eat, with whom to eat, who cooks for whom… are factors usually shaped by religious beliefs and practices. The influence of caste and religion on our plate goes beyond the diversity of eating habits.

Food is often used as a tool to assert religious and cultural hierarchy. People use religion to expand or limit the food they eat. No wonder, food is considered a metaphor for identity.

This identity is sometimes thrust upon the person who is entrusted with the job of cooking food. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the residents of the peths in Pune strived hard to ward off any “external” influence and maintain the “purity” of the city.

Pune was almost an island, with little connection whatsoever with the very “European” Poona Cantonment which was just a few kilometres away from the city. It was no surprise then that almost all of the non-vegetarian eateries were situated on the outskirts of the main city, that is, beyond Sadashiv peth to the west and beyond Guruwar peth to the east.

Some of the very old non-vegetarian eateries like Aware Khanawal, near Lakdi bridge, still exist. When Sir Parshurambhau College (then known as New Poona College) was established in 1916, a few restaurants cropped up to serve the students.

Two particular restaurants, established in 1938-39, demonstrated how religion affected the foodscape of Pune. ‘Lucky Restaurant’ was one of the iconic Irani Cafes in Pune. It was situated where the R-Deccan Mall stands today, opposite Café Goodluck.

Its spacious walls were adorned by photographs of Bollywood stars who frequented the restaurant. It became popular with students of FTII and Fergusson College. The food was good and prices were pocket- friendly. Biryani, chicken and fish curry, omelet-pav were some of the dishes which were popular amongst its fans.

There’s an interesting story associated with ‘Lucky’ which dates back to 1938. When plans were announced by AK Irani to open Lucky restaurant in front of SP College in 1938, all hell broke loose. Visiting an Irani restaurant meant social boycott from the conservative section of society.

The orthodox population of Pune obviously did not want an Irani restaurant in the city. The restaurants were free to operate beyond Deccan Gymkhana or in the Cantonment area, but were not to be allowed in the peths, they said. Social and political leaders like SL Karandikar and SM Mate strongly voiced their opposition. In the former’s case, his antagonism might have stemmed from the misinformed belief that the owners of the restaurant were Muslim.

Karandikar, an associate of VD Savarkar, owned ‘Trikal’, a newspaper known for its ultra-nationalist stance. He lodged a campaign against the restaurant (which was yet to open) in his newspaper.

To counter this, a notice was published on November 1, 1938, in Jnanaprakash.

“We are planning to open a restaurant on Tilak road in the new building built by Sardar Jagannath Maharaj. All the allegations levelled against us in ‘Trikal’ are false. “We are simple businessmen. We know how to run our business with utmost honesty and integrity.

“Our ancestors came from Iran and our religion is Bahai. We speak Farsi. We are proud of our religion. Please understand that our businesses have served Hindus for many years”, it read.

The notice was signed by AK Irani, HA Irani and AF Irani. This did little to assuage the situation. Pamphlets defaming the restaurant and appealing for a boycott were being distributed all over the city. A week later, the police raided a printing press located in Sadashiv peth, and confiscated several pamphlets.

The propaganda continued till much after the restaurant opened to the public in January 1939. Now that it was established that the owners were Bahái, the opposition was centered around the tea and non-vegetarian dishes served there. In February 1939, AK Irani published another note in Jnanaprakash. He clarified that his restaurant did not serve meat at all. Only tea, some vegetarian dishes and eggs were on the menu. This did little to pacify the opponents. SM Mate strengthened his fight against ‘Lucky’.

Finally, it shut its shop and relocated opposite Café Goodluck in June 1939. It already had a branch running there by then. All this while, ‘Lucky Restaurant’ had a neighbour - ‘Greens restaurant’, the first restaurant in Pune to serve “Punjabi” food.

It was inaugurated by Dr VA Gadkari, MLA, on June 27, 1938, six months before ‘Lucky’ started functioning. Several dignitaries like (legendary cricketer) Prof DB Deodhar, Prof Shivnarayan, Rao Bahadur, Capt Kulkarni graced the occasion. According to the report published in Jnanaprakash, Dr Gadkari hoped that the restaurant would be a boon to the students, visitors and residents of Pune.

The interesting part was that in this restaurant run by Sardar Darbarsingh, non-vegetarian dishes were served. It employed Kashmiri Pandit cooks who cooked vegetarian and non-vegetarian wazwan meals.

Sardar Darbarsingh, during the inauguration, had said that the Punjabis were known for their strength which resulted from the good food they ate; and the residents of Pune could benefit from the Punjabi food served at ‘Greens’ restaurant.

MG Sathe, one of the proprietors of Sathe Biscuit and Chocolate Co, lived near Tilak road during his teenage years. A few years ago, he recounted to me how he would spot famous actors like Raja Gosavi and Sharad Talwalkar at ‘Greens’ and how the basement of the restaurant helped several taste their first non-vegetarian meal without being noticed.

Funnily enough, ‘Greens’, while serving meat, faced no opposition from the society, while ‘Lucky’, which served only eggs then, was not so lucky. ‘Greens’ faded into oblivion in the seventies of the last century. ‘Lucky’ shut its shop around 2004.

Sometimes, who cooked the food matters the most!

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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