Located on Perin Nariman street opposite Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CST), near the General Post Office in the Fort area, Pancham Puriwala may appear to be a penny-plain, no-frills restaurant to anyone who enters it.
Do not be fooled though, for when you set foot into this eatery, and onto a narrow staircase that leads to a mezzanine floor, you are stepping into history that is more than 170 years old!
Yes, that’s right. One of Mumbai’s oldest restaurants, Pancham Puriwala is even older than the CST itself!
From the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi to veteran superstar Rajesh Khanna, and music director Khayyam, this unassuming eatery attracts diners from all walks of life from businessmen, office goers, college students to humble taxi drivers.
Now run by the sixth generation of the Sharma cousins, namely: Sandeep, Anupam, and Akshay, this eatery dates back to 1848, and a certain Pancham Das Sharma.
Almost a decade before the debut of the railways in the country, Pancham Das, clad in traditional dhoti, hopped onto his bullock cart in his village of Adhet in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, and travelled to the erstwhile Bombay Presidency of the British Raj.
Little did he know that the quaint food joint he set up at the corner of a busy street that started at six in the morning to feed workers, would transform into a two-storey restaurant that would support six generations of his family while also feeding armies of hungry Mumbaikars!
When Pancham Sharma first came to Bombay, the Perin Nariman street was known as Bazar Gate and had no street lights. His restaurant, Pancham Puriwala, was opposite a building which housed petty criminals. Coincidentally, it is the same spot that now houses the office of DCP Zone 1.
According to a Times of India report, City historian, Deepak Rao added how the iconic eatery faced a pond called Gibbet’s pond. Before 1857, this pond, then locally known as Fasi Talao, was a popular spot for public executions.
Growing up, the children of the Sharma household were told legends of how large crowds that gathered to witness such executions, would later drop at Pancham to eat puri-bhaji.
While we are glad that the public executions have stopped, it is interesting to see the multitude of customers Pancham serves has steadily grown over the years.
With marble tiles and classic perforated steel seats, and without any air conditioning till date, Pancham Puriwala serves more than 500 customers every day!
So if you want to drop by to have a taste of its iconic puri-bhaji, ensure to reach the restaurant before 6 PM. Because post that, the eatery is jam-packed with diners devouring scrumptious meals.
The standard dish that is also a show-stealer at the restaurant is the one that has been passed down from its founder and first owner Pancham Das. Yes, we are talking about the good old, puri-bhaji.
Served now at Rs 45, it cost a meagre 4 annas in 1848. A single plate of puri-bhaji is served with five puris and a sabzi. So why five puris?
The name of the founder was ‘Pancham’ which means ‘five’ in Sanskrit. Thus, the tradition of five puris. These puris made in batches are fried fresh and served piping hot as and when required.
Not only this, apart from the sadha (plain) puri that is being served since its inception, the restaurant now serves different versions of puris like masala puri (stuffed and made with urad dal), palak puri (with spinach greens), beetroot puri and paneer puri too!
Just like its puris, the accompaniments for these puris also range from the regular aalu bhaji (potato curry) to a dry spicy variation of it called sukha-aloo-bhaji, chhole (spicy chickpeas curry), mix-veg curry and mouth-watering potato-pumpkin sabzi.
The different mix and match platters of puri bhaji cost between a reasonable Rs 45 to 150!
Yes, hogging puris is a must if you are a first-time visitor at Pancham Puriwala. Though these deep-fried golden brown rounds of flat bread steal the lion’s share of the limelight, it would be completely unfair not to mention the wholesome thalis that are served at the joint.
A thali refers to an assorted platter of dishes that include everything from puris, rotis, sabzi, rice, dal, kadi, papad, pickles, and even desserts.
Ranging between Rs 100 to 180, you can choose from three different combos.
One such thali is a tribute to the Pancham Das and has been named the ‘Pancham thali’ after him.
The restaurant’s variety of light and refreshing beverages like the sweet lassi, savoury chaas sprinkled with ground cumin and spices, aamras (mango pulp) help you blow off steam in the scorching Mumbai summers.
“Every morning before the food is served, I taste it,” says Sandeep in an interview with The Hindu. A tradition that has been followed for years.
He adds, “The idea is to serve good food in a clean ambience. We do not wish to be fancy. My father once advised me never to change anything if it is doing well and I follow that. People come here for this experience and enjoy the affordability too,”
While most of the recipes that continue to be used in the restaurant were stirred by Pancham himself, it was in the 1980s, when Sandeep took over the reins that he, and his father, added more dishes like chole, kadhi chawal, etc after customers requested a rice dish on the menu.
Despite the rush hours, the restaurant often witnesses a long queue of eager diners lining up at all times.
“Our aim is to feed as many people as we can. Be it a street-side vendor or a high-flying corporate executive, everyone should be able to eat here. That is what Pancham Sharma dreamt of and we want to keep that dream alive,” says Sandeep told The Hindu.
Late Behram Contractor who was a columnist, once wrote that Pancham Puriwala should be included in the heritage list.
Well, looking at its long history, we think the prolific writer definitely had a point.
If you think the same, drop in at Pancham Puriwala between Mon – Sun from 08:30 AM – 10:30 PM
Address 8/10, Perin Nariman St, Borabazar Precinct, Ballard Estate, Fort,
Mumbai, Maharashtra 400001
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)