Because I went to school in North India and had to eat things like paneer and rajma, I am accustomed to people making fun of Gujarati food. One Dusshera, when our school took us on a trip to Ahmedabad, a delegation of boys went to see the cook at the guesthouse we were staying at and handed him an empty jar. “Please put all the sugar you were going to put into our food into this jar,” they requested him. “We hate sweet food and so just give us the sugar, we’ll make coffee with it.”
I’m surprised the cook didn’t give the delegation a couple of tight raps because apart from the rudeness, the boys were displaying pure North Indian ignorance. Gujarati food is not just sweet. Like all great cuisines, it relies on the interplay between sweet and sour flavours (what the Chinese regard as the yin and yang of cuisine) and in any case, the sweetness usually comes from gur, not from refined sugar.
That experience taught me two things. One: North Indians can be very limited in the flavours their palates can handle. That’s why they miss the subtleties of, say, Thai cuisine, where sweetness is one of the basic flavours in main courses. And that’s why they are foxed by the European tradition of pairing sweet (often fruit) flavours with meats: duck with orange; pork with apples; foie gras with a balsamico reduction; etc.
Soon Gujaratis had taken inspiration from the UP chaatwallahs (or bhaiyyas as they called themselves) and created paani puri (a variation on the batasha of UP; they call them golgappas in most of North India now) and had added such typically Gujarati touches as sprouted pulses and small chickpeas. Even the paani took on a more complex dimension.
But then they went further and taught the chaatwallahs a thing or two. Bhelpuri was not an adaptation. It was invented in Bombay and combines all the strengths of great Gujarati cuisine: a mix of sweet (the khajoor chutney), sour (a little kuchaa kairi or aam went into it) and hot (the red chutney). The texture was a work of genius: crunch (sev), softness (the boiled potato) and bite (the kaanda or pyaaz). It was neither dry (because of the chutneys) nor wet (like all that papri chaat-type nonsense).
Even now, a well-made bhelpuri is a work of art. Many Gujaratis still make it at home but you can get the real thing at Bombay’s Soam (and perhaps Swati; I am not so sure about Vithal any longer).