Mumbai is choc-a-bloc with history. A cafe where the struggles of independence were discussed in hushed tones. The Irani owner of a bun maska place who is privy to the romantic entanglements of many a Bollywood star. There’s so much history, especially related to food. Restaurants and cafes that have stood the test of time and testimony to the fact that good food never gets old. Some restaurants have been there even before we got independence from the British Raj. One such spot is the iconic Pritam Restaurant in Dadar. When I visited this place for the first time, it was my parents who were much more excited for me as they’ve eaten the food here as kids. The history and heritage it comes with is undeniable.
Launched in 1942 by Prahlad Singh Kohli, the restaurant brought slow cooking to the city. But it’s even more famous for being the first to introduce the universally loved Indian dish aka Butter Chicken to Mumbai. That’s not all to Pritam’s story though. There’s so much more! And today, as the legendary restaurant completes 80 glorious years, I’m not here to give you a review of the food (I leave that up to you to go and taste yourself) but to tell you about its beautiful journey and secret ingredients behind some of their crowd favourites. My chat with Mr. Kulwant’s grandson, Jaibir Singh Kohli turned out to be an exciting history lesson I wish I had back in school.
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Started From The Bottom, Now We Here
As I sat there and relished the tasty meals ranging from butter chicken (of course it was delicious) to karari roti to kaali daal, I began to wonder how a tiny shop in 1942 expanded into such a large space. How did it all begin? “During Quit India Movement, my great grandfather had to come to Bombay to test the waters and see if this is a good place to move to in case the partition happens. He had a dry fruits and fruits export business. So when he came here, Pritam was just a small shop run by one of his friends. As he had some knowledge about food because of his export business, he took it over in a partnership with his friend, whose wife was a great cook. It worked out in everyone’s favour and that’s how Pritam Restaurant came into being. It was first called Pritam Punjab Hindu Hotel,” Jaibir shares.
The partnership ran for about five years. And Jaibir’s great grandfather spent most of his time with his business before partition. Post that, there was no doubt about moving to Bombay and taking over this restaurant. “His friend whom he was running the restaurant with gave him the space. We were supposed to return the investment back, but he didn’t take it. So that’s how the business began. They slowly took over the surrounding shops and expanded till the restaurant became what you see today. The ‘80s is when the Dhaba opened and they decided that we would do an outdoor Alfresco kind of space. Till today, almost 40 years later, there’s no such space in Mumbai. A couple of years later, they opened a hotel. That’s how we got into the hotel business,” he adds.
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Pritam’s Bollywood Affair
Among the loyalists that Pritam has acquired over so many years, Bollywood and sports stars made the cut. Raj Kapoor had a great bond with Kulwant Singh Kohli. He loved the food at Pritam so much that whenever he was shooting in the nearby film studios, he and his unit’s food always went from the restaurant. Sunil Gawaskar stayed just behind the restaurant and visited often for a cup of tea with his friends and family. Dharmendra, Dilip Kumar, Pran, among others were equally fond of the food at Pritam.
“Post independence, it was a fresh start for everybody in India, and with the rise of Bollywood, there were so many film studios nearby. Many actors were from the north (mostly Punjab). When they saw the word Punjab in front of Pritam, they immediately knew that it was Punjabi food. So, that’s how they started coming in. They were all struggling actors at the time; sometimes they didn’t have the money to pay for their meal. So my great grandfather would let it slide at times. That’s how we built a relationship with them and Pritam’s whole affair with Bollywood started. The restaurant picked up in the initial ‘40s and ‘50s. Once the actors became famous and people got to know that Bollywood stars would visit, they started flocking the place even more,” Jaibir says.
“In fact, Raj Kapoor was invited to inaugurate our restaurant in 1975, when we had converted it to the first AC restaurant in Mumbai,” Jaibir shares. Dara Singh, Sunil Dutt and Pran had also attended the event.
Butter Chicken Was Served Dry
While Bollywood stars accelerated the restaurant’s popularity, it’s ultimately all the food here that has created its patrons. Let’s begin with what Pritam takes pride in–bringing butter chicken to the city. But did you know that the dish you enjoy as a gravy preparation today was actually served as a starter when it was first introduced? Yup, you read that right–the dish was served dry with just butter and chicken. It was tandoori chicken tossed with a little bit of yoghurt and spices with butter over the top. It’s hard to imagine eating butter chicken dry. I mean, we all end up licking that gravy from our fingers, right?
“It’s really yum,” admits Jaibir. “And this was back in the late ’40s early ’50s. The butter chicken that we know today, the one with the gravy, evolved when curry culture stepped in the ‘60s and everyone wanted to have curries with their rotis and rice. Initially, it was just sukhi roti and sukhi sabzi with some dal (the only wet thing on your plate). So with curry culture coming in, butter chicken slowly evolved. And back then it was only served with bone because people didn’t eat boneless chicken. The tables have turned now and our butter chicken is served boneless. When we reintroduced the old butter chicken, it was shredded tandoori chicken instead of cutting it up to the bone, as our younger customers prefer boneless pieces.”
Pritam is known for its butter chicken which is undoubtedly a lip-smacking dish. But I wouldn’t stop at that. I got to taste some of the other classic dishes (which have been here since 1942) such as the Black Dal, Baingan Ka Bharta, Lasooni Palak, Amritsari Chole Kulche, Rogan Josh. And I’ll be honest, I actually preferred it a tad bit more. The credit goes to the traditional cooking techniques used here for years that still retain some of the original flavours. For instance, the kaali dal is cooked for 14 hours and doesn’t make use of any butter or ghee.
“The only reason we can afford to do that is because back then the norm was that if your restaurant is 1000 square feet, your kitchen has to be at least 400 square feet. To have 40% of your restaurant space be equal to your kitchen space today is almost impossible. But since we have that much space, because the restaurant was built back then when norms were completely different, we have that much equipment to be able to feasibly do these things. In a smaller restaurant, they will not be able to leave a pot of dal on for 14 hours because they need that burner for something else. However in our case, we have the space and we don’t sit and boil the dal for 14 hours, that’s just a waste of gas. So what we do is, at night, when the tandoor is being turned off itself, we just put the dal in the tandoor. While the embers are just slowly dying all night, it keeps cooking the dal slowly. So in the morning, when the tandoor goes off, the chef comes in the morning, takes it off, and puts it on the gas for a few hours. So that’s how the dal thickens up without cream and butter,” Jaibir shares. And trust me, it tastes way better without the additives.
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Old Is Gold
It’s not just the cooking style but also the second and third generation staff that is responsible for retaining the flavours here. “My staff members have been here before I was born, and since the time my dad was a teenager. There are some who have been working because their older siblings or parents were with us,” says Jaibir. “And I think that’s very important. Because if I have someone who’s been making my daals for 25 years, and I lose him, then I have to train another guy in 25 days to do what someone’s been doing for 25 years, which isn’t possible. So it’s very important that I have these people on my team who are able to control both my cooking as well as my service. Some guys on my service team know 60-70% of the guests that walk into Pritam. And they know that Mr. Shah wants a Johnnie Walker Black Label, with two cubes of ice and 10 ml of water before he even sits down at the table. So if I lose that guy, I’m going to have to sit down with each staff member and tell them that this is what this person expects, because they’ve been coming here for so long. But if he’s around, he can direct the rest and tell them to start making the drink a minute before the reservation time so that he gets it as soon as he sits at the table.”
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The Authenticity Factor
There’s often a misconception about Punjabi food. People think it is spicy and heavy, and only has ghee or butter in it. But that’s not true. “For a lot of people, Punjabi food is all about three things–makki ki roti and saag, butter chicken, and chole. But it’s not just that. Our food is simple and homely. We have Punjabi curry, rajma, and very dadi-style dishes that you would find in any household. And, yes, Punjabi food can be very rich but that rich masala gravy that you talk about, is actually Mughlai. It’s not even Punjabi. So a lot of people confuse the two. When Pritam started out, it was only Punjabi. And since curry culture came about, Mughlai food just took off. And that’s when a lot of restaurants became North Indian Mughlai. Punjabi food is simple and flavourful. But it’s a very small niche. So the expansion in the menu is something that you need to always look into,” Jaibir adds.
Punjabi Food Is Incomplete Without Drinks
Speaking about drinks, did you know that Pritam’s bar is also one of the oldest in Mumbai? It’s one of the first 50 bars in the city! Initially, there were only a limited number of brands, whiskeys and single malts but as trends came in, people started experimenting with cocktails and mocktails. Very recently, Pritam has given classic cocktails a desi twist with drinks such as Garam Masala Whiskey Sour and there’s also a Bollywood cocktail menu with drinks like The Sridevi, Prem Naam Hai Mera, to name a few.
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Now, Jaibir has plans of introducing wine and having you pair them with Indian food. “It pairs amazingly. I feel like that is something that we’re trying to educate people on. I’m working on curating a wine list and getting brands on board for collaborations and tastings. Wine culture is picking up a lot in the country. But I feel like people just need to open up to the idea of being able to have wine with Indian food and not just with a salad or a pizza or, you know, or pasta.”
What’s In Pritam’s Future?
There are plans of expansion. “We are aiming to open a second outlet this year. Pritam is such an old, seasoned brand that we can’t rebrand it at this point, we just need to accept how it is and let it age gracefully, if I may say so myself. We’ll be focusing on a lot in terms of CSR as it was something that was very dear to my grandfather. In the Sikh tradition, we do something called as Seva when we go to the gurdwara. So I think it’s time we started doing a little more Seva to express gratitude for people who have supported us for 80 years. So, you know, now it’s time to start giving back to the community. One of the plans included collaborating with the Agastya Foundation in order to raise money for kids’ education.”
We often head to some of the oldest restaurants in town for the iconic food. But when you learn so much about its legacy, the taste amplifies multifold. For me, eating at Pritam feels homely but it’s also like eating a slice of history, for our parents and grandparents, it’s nostalgic. This week, Pritam is celebrating its 80th birthday and reintroducing classics from its 1942 menu. If you decide to head here, be rest assured you’ll get comforting and authentic Punjabi food, which won’t make you feel heavy and make you come back for more!