Roopali Hotel. A ‘hotel’ in the Indian sense meaning an inexpensive food joint rather than a place to stay, it’s a Pune institution, along with sister restaurant Vaishali, just up the street.
It’s on Fergusson College Road, opposite the University of Pune’s Ranade Institute, noted seat of learning and where I had the pleasure of studying for a year. For my circle of journalist friends, Roopali is our ‘adda’. I guess the closest English translation would be ‘hangout.’ Event though our student days are sadly behind us, we still meet there regularly. In true student fashion, we can easily spend a couple of hours chatting about everything and nothing over a couple of cups of chai or coffee, shared ‘two by two’, much to the annoyance of the management.
The waiters – who we either know by name or nickname depending on how friendly they are – are fine gentlemen, looking pretty sharp in their white uniforms. They can easily discern between the proper customers – who eat proper meals then leave – and jokers like us, doing ‘timepass’ (my favourite Indian English expression). But then we are regulars, with our preferred tables and favourite orders.
Everyone thinks I always order the ‘Special Tomato Uttapa’. This is not true, but it probably is probably my favourite item on the menu. Rather than dip mouthfuls of uttapa into the side bowls of coconut chutney (very tasty) or sambar (uh… a kind of mildly spiced watery tomatoey dip… more appetising then my description makes it sound), I tend to slather everything over my plate and mix it all up. This horrifies everyone, although usually I can get away with playing the eccentric foreigner card. I believe that in the same way that the English invented cricket and football (and rugby, and let’s claim baseball, basketball, kabbadi and cross-country skiing whilst we’re about it) yet other nations teach us rather brutal lessons in how to play them, so India invented the dosa and the uttapa and I alone know how to appreciate them properly.
I almost always have a fresh lime soda at Roopali. A healthy and inexpensive option. Now while James Bond may like his vodka martinis shaken not stirred, I like my lime sodas “No sugar, no salt. Plain.” The waiters all know this but they still ask me every time. It’s their little joke.
Now despite my fondness for Indian cuisine, Bollywood movies, Hindi music and Kingfisher lager, I’m still very much the Englishman abroad. Perhaps not quite the white-suited Man From Del Monte, but I have been known to stroll around in the mid-day sun ready with a newspaper tucked under my arm, casually waving cheery hellos to all and sundry. I’m not tanning much either. The other day I was described – by a fellow Brit! – as looking like a ‘frozen milk bottle’, a harsh if not inaccurate description. And I still speak better Geordie than Hindi, alas.
Speaking of which, in Newcastle’s Bigg Market, there’s a great Indian restaurant called Rupali. The manager is a real character, going by the magnificent name of Lord of Harpole; I suspect he purchased the title many years ago from one of those outfits that advertise in the back of Private Eye. His restaurant is home of the infamous ‘Curry Hell Challenge’. Basically, if you can finish what is alleged to be the world’s hottest curry, you get your meal for free. It’s a wonder Lord Harpole hasn’t been prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws. I remember Matt giving it a crack several years ago and ending up with chemical poisoning. Beware.