(This piece, on Gujarati food, was carried in Outlook Traveller’s July 2006 issue, but was slightly terrifying to write because the trip on which it was based was made in December 2004. That’s when I discovered two things about myself 1) I keep frighteningly detailed notes 2) which I can’t read because my handwriting has deteriorated in the post-keyboard area to the point where it looks like an army of ants had a drunken, staggering orgy across the page. Oh well.)
In the middle of The Last Jet Engine Laugh, Ruchir Joshi inserts a long ode to the Calcutta sewage system:
“….What was designed to carry small amounts of transformed porridge, cabbage soup, beef stew, roast chicken and mild kedgeree.. ended up carrying a far more thickly cosmopolitan mixture than that.” He describes “the waste of the great kitchens of Bengal”, “the ghee-rich rejections from Marwari havelis”, “the authentically pungent defecations” of Chinatown, the offerings of poets, the poor and revolutionaries.
“And then… the system began to receive increasing traces of the best cuisine in the world. From Badabazar, Bowbazar and Bhowanipur, came more and more the deconstructions of delicate patra, of dhokla and undhyu, of the simple rotli, daal, bhaat aney batata nu shaak, of bhakhri, of puri and kadhi, of thepla and proper, thick, masala-wali-chaa, and on the days after big occasions, remains of laadu, magas and shrikhand. In 1940… Calcutta had a population of around sixty thousand Gujaratis.”
This passage i a perfect example of how to upset two communities at one stroke: Bengalis, notoriously touchy about their jol-khabar, were not pleased at the demotion to second place in the “best cuisine in the world” stakes, nor were Gujaratis thrilled at their cuisine being praised as raw material for the finest sewage in the world.
I’m staying out of this debate—the scars from the Lucknow-versus-Hyderabad battle and the war wounds from the Bengali-fish-curry versus Goa/ Kerala/ Mangalore coastal versions are still fresh welts on the Roy psyche. But I’m curious.
Gujarati food travels in odd, half-hearted ways outside the state. The appetizers–dhoklas (sandwich, nylon, khaman and plain), khandvi, assorted farsans—are popular; the extras—athanus, assorted fresh and to-be-bottled chutneys—are sought after; and shrikhand is arguably as well known as, say , mishti doi. What’s missing is the main course—the dals, the subtle vegetable dishes, the shaaks and kachumbers, the handkerchief-thin rotis and the apparently endless variteies of khichdi.
According to Lizzie Collingham, one of the earliest khichdi converts was a Mughal emperor. She writes in Curry: A Biography : “…Jahangir sampled a local version of Gujarati khichdi which used millet instead of rice. He pronounced that ‘it suited me well’ and ordered that on his vegetarian days ‘they should frequently bring me this khichdi’.”
The only restaurant in Delhi that “does” Gujarati food isn’t consistent, and often commits the great culinary sin that Gujaratis are supposed to perpetrate: they add sugar with an over-generous hand to everything. For this trip to Ahmedabad, I pack an open mind, a healthy appetite and a willingness to explore a cuisine so strongly identified with vegetarianism that most people have forgotten that Surat was famous during the Raj for its robust Mughlai-inspired meat curries and pulaos.
Bearing past slurs on “sugary” Gujarati food in mind, I’m willing to eat my words, but what Ahmedabad has on offer is dust. It comes free with the softies at the local icecream parlours; it coats dhoklas with an earthy patina; it’s more prominent than chaat masala on the street vendor’s offerings; and it settles like baleful brown cream on glasses of chaas (buttermilk). After a while, all the delicacies at Khau Gali in Law Road, taste distinctly muddy. This may offend Amdavadis who’re justly proud of the variety of street food, but the dust imparts a flavour that’s a touch too local for my palate.
For outsiders in search of a crash course in Gujarati cuisine, the two places in Ahmedabad that offer the best introduction are Agashiye and Vishala. Agashiye is the rooftop restaurant at the House of MG, Abhay Mangaldas’ heritage hotel in the heart of old Ahmedabad. The best time to come here is at night, when the dust finally makes itself useful, casting an optimistically romantic haze around this bustling city whose edges could do with the softening.
Take a table outside on the terrace, if the weather permits; Agashiye also has an indoor family dining room, but the soft lights of diyas and candles and the clever seating adds a lot to the open-air experience. Dinner is served in courses, beginning with a lemon-honey-ginger juice (or spiced chaas, which was rapidly becoming a favourite addiction). The first course is usually a choice of farsaans—this could be as homely as deep-fried capsicum fingers or as complex as paatra patervelia, rolled colocassia leaf cylinders with a besan, coriander and jaggery stuffing.
The kachumbers—salads—are simple but extraordinary; Gujarati cooking has a taste for sesame seeds and peanuts (used to add crunch and protein) that’s not dissimilar to Thai food. The Thais swear that Gujarati traders travelling to Thailand and Malaysia borrowed the idea from them; other historians say it was the other way round. Either way, I’m not complaining, especially as the second proper course arrives—fresh vegetable curries, ranging from a crisp-fried bhindi to the classic, humble batata shaak, the potato curry in a tamarind-tomato base that was standard fare in many of my Gujarati friends’ homes.
The standouts are the kadhi—the besan and curd dal-like preparation tempered just right with asafetida, mustard seeds, whole red chillies and curry leaves—and the rotlis, which offer different textures from the slightly rough bajra rotli to the delicate puran polis, miniaturized here so that they disappear like Communion wafers on the tongue. For dessert, try Agashiye’s signature anjeer icecream—home-churned, rippling with chunky fig pieces. The presentation is memorable, from the bell-metal thalis to the paan served on a bed of ice frozen inside terracotta plates, garnished with rose petals.
On the way to Vishala, the sprawling restaurant complex often seen as Gujarat’s answer to Dilli Haat and Chokhi Dhani rolled into one, I’m thinking that Gujarati food has at least one hallmark of the world’s great cuisines. Really good Gujarati food must be fresh– the menu at both Vishala and Agashiye changes daily in accordance with what’s available at the local market, and the person who shops is almost as important as the chef.
Vishala is a great, often imitated concept; in fact, mentioning Chokhi Dhani here is less than tactful. The Management bristles. “That chap saw what we had done here, and THEN he did his place,” Management.says. “We were the first,” says the waiter disdainfully. “See our kitchen?” says the maharaja in between supervising the rolling of khandvi for the lunch service. “Even the way we set up the counters other restaurants imitate. But I will show you there is only one taste like Vishala.”
The idea behind Vishala was revolutionary a decade ago: create a place where traditional folk arts and dances, crafts shopping and other local attractions are available alongside the food. Perhaps it’s the indelible childhood memories of Republic Day “tribal” dances and schoolchildren doing the farmer’s harvest dance, but the mere mention of folk dancers has me sidling towards the nearest exit. Except for the lovingly curated Utensils Museum on the premises, the rest of Vishala’s entertainment programme can teeter dangerously between kitsch and Village Belle tourism—but for every jaded sceptic like me, there’s a family of twelve avidly lapping up the entertainment.
The food is in another league. The tables are out in the open, and most people prefer to sit on the ground. The maharaja has a knack for balance. “The secret of Gujarati cooking is not in the sweetness,” he tells me as he runs a professional eye over the chutneys (an unusual, tart kerda preparation, a sweet mango chhundo). “It’s in balancing sweet and sour, light against heavy.” He didn’t say it, but it’s also clear that Gujarati cooking is an exploration of texture: the rough crispness of ragda patties versus the silkiness of khandvi, coarse puris bringing out the smoothness of shrikhand or aamras.
Some of this is classic traveller’s food—so much of Gujarati cuisine, from the flaky bhakras like the brittle ghosts of rotlis, to the drier farsaans were designed to sustain a restless, curious bunch of people on their journeys. Some of it is practical village food. Even undhyu, the famous vegetable stew from Surat, was originally designed for no-fuss cooking: Surati papdi (similar to lima beans), yams, sweet potatoes, brinjal and tuvar beans were slow cooked with a complex green masala in a pot placed underground beneath the dying embers of a coal fire.
At Vishala, the masalas are never allowed to overpower the ingredients; the taste of each vegetable comes through cleanly. This is a delicate cuisine, and I’m beginning to realize why it doesn’t export easily: the emphasis on freshness and the subtle blend of tastes is difficult to replicate for all but the most dedicated chefs.