During these wintry months, few meals would be more appropriate than a sarson da saag and makkai di roti, followed by a gajjar ka halwa, and a lassi or beer to wash it down, at Sardar Trilok Singh Gandhi's Great Punjab Restaurant at Dadar. Instead of the makkai roti, which is particularly heavy for delicate Mumbai stomachs, I would suggest a crisp khasta or butter roti. But I leave that to you. Whatever you have, the food has a pastoral taste about it, of Punjab fields and Grand Trunk Road dhabas.
The Great-Punjab is among my three or four favourite Punjabi (Sikh-run) restaurants in town. Others being the Sher-e-Punjab, which is Bombay's original Punjabi restaurant, established 1938, Pritam at Dadar, a dhaba adjoining Khar station, and, perhaps, Neelam, directly opposite the GPO, though its standard has gone down in recent times. In the old days, I used to eat at Neelam every night, one night mutton saagwalla, next night chicken saagwalla.
I have eaten at the Great Punjab also off and on, and, if not very often, it is because Dadar East is a little out of the way for me. Though, where the food is good, no place should be out of the way. And, at the Great Punjab (established 1959), the food is good. There is an added bonus, the place has been done up recently, three dining areas, a special dining-room for non-smokers, a party room, a spanking new bar, granite everywhere, split air-conditioning.
Mr. Gandhi comes from a restaurant family, Sher-e-Punjab belongs to a maternal uncle, Gupta, where once the stars of the Ranjit Studio ate, is his, a brother runs a restaurant in Bandra, a cousin has started one in Pune, and my friend Jaspal Singh Gandhi, another brother, late of the Ambassador, runs Bombay By Night in Melbourne, Australia. That kind of pedigree is hard to beat. So is his kitchen staff, everybody trained on the job, and uninterrupted services extending 15 and 20 years.
The sarson, which is actually mustard leaf, comes from Palghar and Dahanu. Occasionally, it is brought from the north, Delhi and Punjab, where the sarson has a much stronger mustardy flavour. The leaves are cooked on low heat in a mud tandoor, then ground into a fine puree. I understand in Punjab they do not grind the sarson, eat it in its leaf form, but in Mumbai, whoever serves sarson grinds it. I am thankful for that. It is cooked in ginger, onions and fresh red chillis, then, when the order comes, fried in white butter, with a tadka of lassan. You eat it with the crisp roti. Happiness. Or you can scoop the sarson on a thick papad and eat it. The papad is rather peculiar, made by a woman who has been supplying the restaurant for years, thicker than normal, with full kali mirch, urad and jeera. The thickness keeps it crisp even an hour after it has landed on your table. Yes, the price, the saag is Rs.45, the roti another Rs.15.
The gajjar halwa I mentioned earlier, is also seasonal. It costs Rs.225, a bowlful. There are two types of carrots, the orange colour ones from Mahabaleshwar, and the more satisfying red colour ones from Delhi in the winter. They are grated and cooked in milk, with sugar, elaichi, etc. Some people add mawa to it, but that makes it too gooey. Other sweets include badami kulfi, phirni, kheer.
Before I proceed to the rest of the menu, let me give the exact address. It is 186, Dr. Ambedkar Road, opposite the Dadar fire brigade and the gurdwara, near the Asiad bus stop, two minutes from Dadar T.T.
The food is exclusive Punjabi. The Punjabis are great chicken eaters and most of it is chicken and more chicken. I mention the chicken Peshawari masala (Rs.80), a half chicken roasted in tandoor, a chicken stock gravy of ginger, garlic and Kashmiri mirch, bhunaoed in a frying pan, thus making the gravy real thick. No need for corn flour or onions here. Too dry to be eaten with rice, try it with kadak naan or butter naan.
Chicken latpatta (Rs.90) is two drumsticks, 'latpataoed' (wrapped) in a paste made out of a gravy of spring onions, tomatoes, mustard and a liquidly curd, cooked till the curd dries up, leaving behind a strong mustard taste. It is semi-dry. And pepper chicken (also Rs.90) is a Great Punjab innovation. A paste of black pepper powder with garlic and malai, wrapping boneless chicken pieces. There's more: chicken kadai, chicken stuffed masala (Rs.250 for a full bird), chicken tikka masala, chicken malai, chicken palak, chicken liver masala fried.
I move to the kababs, and the most juicy and succulent (that's the same thing, I know, but I like both the words) among these is the Amritsari kabab (Rs.90), made from the inside of the chicken breast, stuffed with a paste of dry fruits and grated boiled eggs. The kabab is then wrapped in butter paper and deep fried. The butter paper and (which is removed before serving) is to keep the oil out, and the restaurant guarantees there will not be a drop of oil on your kabab.
An equally interesting kabab is kasuri kabab. Kasuri is the name of a town in West Punjab, now in Pakistan, and it is the methi from the place, very tiny and crisp. It is now grown in other parts of North India and the restaurant gets it from a company in Delhi, which specialises in cleaning it and packing it in boxes. The cleaning is important, as it grows in mud. The kabab, with the minced kasuri, is brushed with egg yellow and then done in an earthen tandoor. The egg gives it texture and colour, the kasuri the aroma and taste. And the chicken achari kabab, which has the masala of the mango achar (sauf, rye, mustard seeds, peppercorn, juice of ginger, juice of lime), but, instead of the raw mango pieces, chicken pieces are put in the achar masala. Most of the kabab potions are six pieces and the price between Rs.70 and 90.
In seafood, there is a pomfret, medium sized, served full, done in a paste of garlic, ginger, Kashmiri mirchi and dahi, steamed in a non-stick pan, no water, only the water generated by the curds and the fish. Fishy and garlicky. Rs.120.
A word about the dals, before I conclude. Lunchtime, they serve the pili (yellow) dal, dinner, the kali (black) dal. The pili dal is urad without the black skin, plus chana dal. Nobody else in Bombay prepares this combination, with onions, green chillis, and a lot of ginger. Ask them to fry the dal in ghee. Soak a naan in it.