At first glance, it is impossible to spot it. On the first floor of a rundown two-storey building, sandwiched between the ‘Golden’ bag shop on the ground floor and a carrom parlour on the second level, lies the Yuvraj Saoji Bhojnalaya — the restaurant that is said to have introduced the fiery, oily Saoji cuisine to the world. Well, at least, commercially. The restaurant, which celebrated its diamond jubilee a couple of years ago, is located at the busy corner of Ganjhaket Chowk in Nagpur, and is now run by Hukum Girmaji Umredkar, oldest surviving son of Girmaji, the founder of the restaurant.
As we climb the rickety wooden staircase, holding a rope suspended from the upper floor for support, it is evident that business is not as it used to be. “Earlier, we used to have 10-12 staffers, now it’s down to half the number, so we have to run a lot of errands ourselves,” he says. Today, an ‘authentic’ Saoji restaurant stands at multiple corners of the city. “Saoji has become so popular, that every second person is opening up a restaurant and calling it authentic,” says Hukum with a smirk. “The real saoji food comes from a special set of masalas which are ground by hand. The recipe, originally, lies with our community — the Halba Koshtis. Traditionally, our community was into handloom weaving. When that industry shut down, we turned to other jobs. My grandfather was a weaver but the family went through a tough time when there were no takers for cloth. So, my father Girmaji started working in milk shops and small eateries,” says Hukum. A municipal corporation officer — one Bhange saheb — happened to ask Girmaji to start a chana-chivda joint for farmers who came to trade in the cotton market area.
“Soon, farmers started asking for more filling food and proper meals. So, my father started with roti-sabji. Then, one day, he made mutton, cooked in our traditional recipe. The farmers demanded he bring it again, and then again. That’s how Saoji food came into the market. That place was too small, not more than 10-15 people could sit. So we moved to this place, at least 40 people can sit here and there is a market nearby, so farmers could come here, too,” says Hukum about the history behind the eatery, named after Girmaji’s youngest son, Yuvraj, who is now no more. The masalas that go into the food served at the bhojnalaya, still come from their home and the recipe is guarded zealously. There are basically two types of masalas — wet and dry, each with two variations. The dry masalas include the bhukni and the kala masalas, which need about 30 ingredients — these can be ground and stored for sometime. The fresh or wet masalas include the baatlo, a paste of ginger, garlic, onions and jeera; and, another wet paste that needs more expensive ingredients like dry fruits, khas khas, melon seeds and poppy seeds. Variety plays out in the choice of meat though: gaoran chicken (desi and Hyderabadi), mutton, kheema, jhinga (prawns), khoor/paya are the regulars. But the real star is the sundari — made from the intestines of a goat. “Cleaning it is a trick, not everyone can do it. It takes hours but it is the dish most in demand,” says Hukum.
However, the new generation prefers hanging out at chic, air-conditioned cafes and fine-dining restaurants. Not many care for the plastic chairs and open backyard kitchen where cooking is still done on chulhas. Many old-timers have closed down shops and opened beer bars instead, which are more profitable. Tastes have changed over time too. “Saoji food is supposed to be spicy, hot, oily. It is supposed to make your eyes weep and your nose water. That’s how people ate it. The new generation wants lesser spice and less oil, because it is fattening. We will do what we can to survive,” he says.