I came to Pune from the US exactly 20 years ago. My fiancé (now husband) brought me here, his hometown, to experience the city and see if I could make it my home. His patriotic self wanted to return to his motherland—no exaggeration. I had always loved Indian food, so that aspect of my adjustment was something that I had not considered. If I had, perhaps I would not have stayed….

Don’t get me wrong–Pune was charming 20 years ago but in terms of food options, choices were severely limited. Maharashtrian food is an acquired taste and it took me a very long while to acquire it. There were only a handful of restaurants that served the untraceable “continental” food. Italian, Thai and Mediterranean were unheard of. I used to get pizza from Supreme, roadside place on the corner of BMCC and Law College Road. It was Indian pizza with Amul cheese and finely cut onions and capsicums but it had its own taste and still a refreshing change from the regular home food.

The Place will always have a place in my heart because it was the one of the few restaurants that served consistently good sizzlers. Remember Viceroy on FC Road – the Scampi Newburg kept me from divorcing my husband and heading back home. Three continuous days of Maharashtrian poli-bhaji was just too much—I needed meat and fish at least every few days, something I was accustomed at every meal. The combination of American sandwiches for lunch and a Saraswat fish dinner had made my body accustomed to meat and I would crave it after a few days. I went to Varun Raj, off Karve Road, every day for 6 months during my pregnancy and ate wanton soup –chicken of course.

Coffee shops at 5-star hotels always had decent sandwiches but the same coffee shops seem unreasonable now, not just in terms of money but value for money. Paying Rs.400 plus tax for substandard coffee and a sandwich just do not seem worth it. Is it because our refined tastes are more demanding or is the fare just not good?

This brings me to the point of cost. The cost of eating out has risen 60 % after taking into consideration inflation. Many people feel cheated after paying such an exorbitant sum, not because of the figure but because of the product. There are very few fine dining restaurants in Pune that serve food that is worth the price, it is Russian roulette –hit or miss with food quality and service. Most of bill goes in salaries and attempted ambience, maintenance does not seem to be in the vocabulary. Many restaurants do excellent business when they first start, then down the line, six months or a year later the place begins to deteriorate. First the service, then the food and then the upkeep steadily go downhill and you feel swindled when you are paying over Rs. 600-700/- per person and the dining experience is not up to the mark.

Mid size eateries are better options these days. Places like Vaishail, Roopali and Ramakrishna give consistently good quality food, albeit the choices on the menu have not changed for the past 20 years either. But there are some smaller restaurants that you will get excellent food without the fancy tablecloths or air-conditioning. Purepur Kohlapuri in Kothrud and Fish, Curry and Rice in Narayan Peth are examples.

Street food seems a better option—nothing compares to pani puri and dahi bhalla. It is satisfying, filling and you don’t feel cheated after eating it….luckily I have an iron stomach.

There are some long-established eateries that still give excellent food today and will do so even 20 years from now—Mazorin for sandwiches, Kapila for kathi rolls, Zamu’s for sizzlers, Blue Nile for biriyani, German Bakery (it will come back) for juices and omelets to name a few. We also have a plethora of cuisines to choose from—Thai, Italian (La Pizzeria is admired even by Italian visitors), continental, and Goan. Hotels have food festivals showcasing foods from all over India and the world.

In 1993 I would look forward to visit Mumbai to have Smokin Joes pizza and was a regular customer when it came to Pune a year later—the first branch initially located at Gera Plaza next to Blue Diamond. I find that Smokin Joes is still the best option for pizza home delivery. All the fast food chains are here–McDonalds, KFC, Subway, Dominos and more recently Papa John’s all have several outlets in the city. These chains, amongst other reasons are making Pune a fat city.

Over the last 20 years our prosperity is literally showing around our girth. Obesity is increasing in the city as it is all over the nation. The prevalence of overweight and obesity in Maharashtra is higher than the national average for both female and male. Among the urban female population Pune is counted to be above the national average of 29% obesity.

The traditional Indian thali is healthy since it includes dal and pulses for protein, vegetables for essential vitamins, curds for calcium and rotis for complex carbohydrates but how many people eat a thali or similar to a thali twice a day. In these 20 years lifestyles have changed dramatically. Longer hours in the workplace, more competition in the education systems, the proliferation of convenience foods and congested roads that make it difficult to walk or cycle to destinations are just a few reasons amongst many in the entire scenario that has made us overweight and unhealthy. Traditional “roti-subzi” or “poli-bhaji” is shunned, especially by the youth who prefer burgers, pizza or sandwiches. This will not only add to obesity but adolescents will not get the essential nutrition during the important growth years. The next 20 years there we will see a correction as we try and reduce obesity and the diseases associated with it. Health foods, gyms and yoga classes are already popular and will continue to grow.

Getting the ingredients for cooking different foods was a task 20 years ago. Many times 3 different stores had to be visited to make pizza. Italian ingredients were just not available at least not easily and an Indian brand of macaroni was the only choice of pasta. The difficulty of making lasagna in 1992 is a case in point. A nice lasagna dinner was planned for my husband and his friends for his birthday. There were no lasagna sheets available in the market and I made the sheets from scratch the day before, a tedious process with no pasta maker, then made the tomato sauce followed by the filling using paneer to replace ricotta cheese. I sharpened my culinary skills by making many dishes by scratch and the lasagna came out heavenly, at least I thought so at the time. The dish was gobbled up in less than 25 minutes by 4 hungry guys who had no idea how much work went into the meal. Two days of work did not seem worth it.

Dorabjee’s had some cold cuts and a few imported items. Though it had nothing like the variety you see today. Today I can buy olives and Skippy peanut butter at the local Big Bazaar. There are a handful of stores that stock specialized meats and cheeses. Ingredients for Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern and Italian foods are much more available. The proliferation of expats in Pune and the broadening palates of Puneites through travel abroad had increased the demand for such goods such as olive oil, pastas, sauces, and vegetables such as broccoli, bok choy and iceberg lettuce.

With age and experience I prefer vegetarian food now and I prefer to eat at home. The days of eating out 5-6 times a week are gone. Food in restaurants is just too rich and there are very few if any low calorie options –something I would like to see change. And with all the available ingredients it is easy to cook homemade lasagna now!

Published in Citadel, September 2010

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