The restaurant is easily one of the oldest in the city, a landmark in its own right. Its gifted Mumbai not just the iconic butter chicken, but also a sense of community.
From the first conversation with Pritam’s staff to the last glimpse of the restaurant as you leave, there’s a sense of welcome and warmth embedded in every little tile and smile at Pritam.
Coming off the high of its 80th anniversary, the restaurant continues to captivate the hearts and stomachs of many Mumbaikars. And what keeps them coming back for more – brilliant food apart – is the story they always seem to leave with.
Here, you’ll find carefully enforced rules in the kitchen, simple recipes used since time immemorial, and adaptation that hasn’t left heritage behind. Using this meticulously constructed formula, Pritam’s managed to become a spot appealing to all generations.
There’s no secret recipes or ingredients, that’s all bullshit, says Gurbaxish Singh Kohli, Jt Managing Director at Pritam. It’s all about the authentic Indian ‘haath ka swaad’ factor (literal flavour of the cook’s hand, so to speak). It helps that most of the people in the kitchen have been around as long as Pritam itself, trained by the OG Harkaur Kohli.
But before we delve into the specifics of it all, it’s important to establish two key points. Where did Pritam come from all those years ago, and what makes it tick?
For Prahlad Singh Kohli and Harkaur Kohli, 1942 was a year of transition like so many others. Caught amidst the chaos, their time as wholesalers of dry fruit in Rawalpindi (pre-independent Pakistan and India) seemed to be reaching an untimely end. Tumultuous times apart, their journey took a seemingly innocuous turn to Bombay, eventually culminating in what would prove to be an eventful purchase of a small eatery.
Says Gurbaxish Singh Kohli of the early days, “There weren’t more than two or three Punjabi restaurants back then in all of Mumbai. You had to describe your hotel and the manner of cooking and culling your meat. So it was called XYZ Hindu Hotel so that Hindus know this is the way your meat is culled.”
And thus began the story of Pritam Punjab Hindu Hotel, or simply Pritam as its known today. In a country where Indian food is often a vague amalgamation of North Indian, Mughlai and the like, Pritam brings an important distinction with its cuisine.
They offer what one might label quintessential Punjabi cuisine, that comes with a side of the family’s journey across borders. It was Harkaur Kohli who rounded up the first few boys to work in the kitchen, putting in place recipes that have not been tampered with almost a century later.
Of many appealing factors, Pritam prides itself most on its traditional slow-cooking techniques. There’s strictly no cooker in the kitchen, so customers can always count on the 14-hour long labouriously cooked yellow dal. The same is also Sr. Kohli’s favourite, evident in how lovingly he describes the preparation of this staple. And of course, it all comes back to the legendary haath ka swaad. He’s confident that anyone with the same recipe and set of ingredients in the kitchen wouldn’t be able to recreate it to perfection.
“It wouldn’t be bad, but it would still taste different because the hand would differ,” he clarifies. The same is substantiated by patrons who’ve been around decades, for whom the slightest difference in the roasting of spices is easily discernable.
The Butter Chicken
But of course, one can’t speak of Pritam’s food without acknowledging the much-loved Butter Chicken.
What most know as butter chicken today probably comes from the north, presumably Delhi or surrounding areas. With its origins allegedly dating back to the 60s or 70s, it’s mostly a straightforward semi-sweet tomato-based gravy consisting of boneless chicken, packed with oodles of cream.
However, the butter chicken at Pritam has evolved right alongside the restaurant. What they initially sold as butter chicken was actually an entree!
“It starts with a regular tandoori chicken, chopped up and tossed with Polson butter (saltier and darker than we know today), green chillies, and other basics,” says Gurbaxish Singh Kohli. The Tandoori Chicken is essentially tossed in butter, rich yoghurt, and tempered with spices, ginger, and chillies for a nice unctuous bite.
And it’s for featuring this very iteration on their menu in the early 50s that Pritam is credited with being the birthplace of butter chicken in Mumbai. However, the advent of curry culture has led to the transformation of this popular item into a main course with the addition of the makhani gravy — creamy, aromatic, and gently spiced.
What’s in a name though, when the dish in front of you is just pure deliciousness either way.
Over the years, Pritam’s expanded in more ways than one. Starting with the dining space, of course, backed by a nearly 3000 square foot kitchen with demarcated spaces for vegetarian and non-vegetarian cooking.
Helmed by Jaibir Singh Kohli, Director – Pritam Group of Hotels & Restaurants, the eatery is slowly but surely turning its gaze to the newer generations. As he says, they are the money spenders of today, after all.
His most adventurous addition to the restaurant’s legacy is perhaps the quirky Bollywood-inspired cocktail menu. Although the bar’s been around since the 80s (one of the oldest bar licenses in the city!), the new concoctions up for grabs are refreshing from origin story to the last sip!
With actors frequenting the hotel since its inception, the heavy Bollywood influence is hardly surprising. So one day, Jaibir sat down with Chandrakant (their Bar Manager since before he was born) to get a better picture of the past.
“I asked him questions about who would visit since he’s seen them and their journeys. The way we came up with the names was – we sat down, bartenders, managers and all. We discussed who would come in and what they would like. We came up with the actors’ personalities, asking what kind of drink a Zeenat or Sridevi would be,” says Jaibir.
So while Pran is a blood red cocktail garnished with a smoking sprig of thyme, Jeetu is simply a plain white cocktail!
Film influence aside, there’s a bit of Jaibir’s own history with Pritam in the cocktails as well. Describing it as the ‘big boy version’ of aam panna, the Aam Chaska is a punchy cocktail made with raw mango (kacchi kairi) from the 100-year-old tree in Pritam da Dhaba. It’s fruity, spicy, and just a fun drink perfect for any season or mood.
So where does Pritam go from here? For Jaibir, it’s about creating the ultimate experience.
“In the past, it was always about food. But for newer generations, we’re looking for a whole experience. It’s about ‘I had a great time at this place and I’m going to go back’,” he adds.
With a potential Juhu outlet on the horizon and some engaging social media campaigns, it might seem that a lot is changing at Pritam. All it takes is a seat and a call for your favourite server to know that the restaurant’s homey essence is indelible.
Your grandparents possibly have stories there, as do your own parents, and now so will you. The menu’s gotten bigger, the cocktails quirkier. But the stories remain just as heartwarming as ever. Community lies at the heart of Pritam, and that’s pretty much what makes it tick.