Nagpur: In the by lanes of old Nagpur, in an area called Ganjakhet chowk, on old Bhandara road ( just off Golibar chowk) I discovered a precious relic of Nagpur.
Our city has become well known for its fiery yet addictive Saoji cuisine served mostly in dhabas or small eateries run by individual Saoji families. Those who care know that these are a community called ‘Halba Koshtis’ and traditionally have been handloom weavers… for literally centuries they spun cotton and weaved the soft cotton dhotis for men and ‘lugadas’ ( nine yard sarees) for women. But that industry got doomed as fashion changed and cotton clothing became out of favour.
To survive, this community turned to the second thing they knew best to do – cook non vegetarian food in their special masalas. Thus began Saoji eateries.
But we were curious to know – which was the first Saoji restaurant of Nagpur? Not just Nagpur, of Vidarbha, of Maharashtra -of the world! (Because we know, one day all the world will start liking Saoji non veg food!)
The unanimous verdict was – Yuvraj Saoji! It will soon be celebrating its half century of existence. The founder of Yuvraj was a weaver’s son called Girmaji.
Girmaji was son of Mahadevrao, a traditional weaver of Nagpur, whose family fell on bad times when cloth woven by them had no takers. When Girmaji had just finished 2nd standard, he had to get out to work. He began by working in Shankar restaurant in Danaganj, near Harihar Mandir for a grand salary of Rs. 1.5 per month. After 3 – 4 years here, he changed jobs and went to ‘Chafekar Doodh Mandir’ where his salary was increased to Rs. 4/
It was this beginning that led him to enter the food business as an adult.
He began with a tea stall in the then newly established Cotton market area. When the market grew he lost his stall”The then Collector ‘Bhange saheb’ asked my father to start a refreshment joint selling Chana – chiwda ( the precursor of Tarri – poha) along with tea for farmers coming to sell their ware from villages around Nagpur and allotted him a proper shop in the market. So my father began serving Chana chiwda at 25 paisa, and chai…at 10 paisa for half cup.” Remembers Hukum , full name Hukum Girmaji Umredkar, oldest surviving son of Girmaji.
“Soon the farmers began asking for more filling food. ‘Give us sabzi-roti’ …and ‘mutton’ spicy like you make it at home” they began demanding. So this was added to the menu and became very popular. To fulfill this demand a proper restaurant called ‘Shivraj Bhojnalaya’ was begun and it became very successful. Rotis were for 4 anna, rice 2 anna and non veg Rs. 4/ a plate. ( ‘anna’ was 6 paisa, it was a unit commonly in use). But only ten persons could sit here and space became a problem. They then shifted to rented premises in Ganjakhet, which was adjacent to ‘Cloth market’ of Itwari – a place also frequented by farmers and cloth merchants. This new place could seat 40 people! It was decided to call it ‘Yuvraj’ after Girmaji’s son. It was the first authentic local cuisine eatery – till then only Khalsa and Punjabi dhaba style food was available, which not everyone liked.
Yuvraj for almost fifteen years was the monopoly Saoji eatery – now there are about 500 strewn all over Nagpur. There is no count of others situated in the smaller towns of Vidarbha from where the Halba koshtis come.
They began with mutton and chicken but the demand was so much that they introduced other saoji fare like ‘Sundari’ ( intestines and inner organs of goat), khoor/ paya and jhinga. The Bhandara prawns. Thus began Yuvraj – so named after Girmaji’s first son who died at the age of 2 or 3. His photos hangs at the eatery,next to his now deceased father, Girmaji, both with flower garlands. Such artefacts, if you can call them that, render a homely touch to the restaurant with other signs on the wall like “Door to exit” and a poster that says ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever’ and shows the picture of a young man wearing a hat and sun glasses! Why the directions to exit? When men get drunk they forget the way out!
Like all good things in life, you have to struggle a bit to access Yuvraj. There is a steep climb of old wooden steps, spaced far apart. Apart from bannisters, there are ropes hung to help you climb. It is on the first floor with another landmark enterprise, the Vidarbha carrom board association, situated on the second. The restaurant itself is a big square hall with well cushioned chairs and three curtained off booths for ‘families’. There is smell of soot and the delectable masala in the air, since all cooking is done on coal chulhas.
The unique flavour and taste of Saoji food comes from the very special Saoji masala for which each family has its own recipe – guarded very zealously. Thus the women folk are also involved in the business, because they make the masalas at home under their personal supervision.
Hukum was kind enough to share the secret masalas recipes’ with me. He even gave me some to take home!
Basically there are four masalas – two dry and two wet.
The dry or powder masalas have 32 ingredients. They are made in two forms: Bhukri masala ( 12 ingredients) and Kala masala ( 20).
The third is ‘Batlo’ a fresh paste made of ginger, garlic, onions and jeera.
The fourth is a paste of dhania seeds, cashew nuts, Magj beej, khas khas, badam etc. (Here different families used different dry fruits).
When we went in the first half for lunch, only mutton and chicken curries were available. Khoor and jhinga is made for evenings. Further it was a Saturday when many farmers fast and thus dont eat non veg so it is made sparingly.
I had one plate of each with the piping hot tawa rotis served by Hukum himself. Saoji style, he gave ‘pieces’ in a katori and just the curry in a bowl.
The chicken used is only Gaorani – desi and Hyderabadi.
Surprisingly, or may be not so, it was very cheap. We had mutton, chicken, anda bhurji, rotis and rice and he charged us only Rs. 300/ !
The meat and chicken pieces were tender ( but not too soft, overcooking is considered sinful! ) and succulent, really taste filled. The gravy was aromatic, spicy but not very oily. In fact one could drink it just as it was without chocking up with the oil or heat of it.
“Earlier people prefered the non veg very teekha and spicy and also oily. Now tastes have changed and we have altered too” says Hukum.
Yuvraj had opened branches in other parts of Nagpur as well. (Naturally since they have quite a fan following). They had opened one branch in Sitabaldi ( in front of old Variety theatre, now Cinemax) called ‘Girmaji’ and one in Manewada but due to the buildings being demolished both have closed down.
So if you want to savour Saoji as it is meant to be, drive to old Nagpur – park where you can ( best of luck!) and walk up and climb.
Guaranteed you will not be disappointed!