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The taste of Gujarat

Gujarati food is a complex interplay of flavours, and if you think it is only sweet, you’re just plain ignorant, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Dec 12, 2014 20:30 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

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.

A feast in one plate: Gujarati cuisine is thali-based and usually has fresh vegetables, sprouted pulses, mithai, poori, papad and God alone knows what else.

And two: the rest of India (and perhaps the world) knows very little about Gujarati cuisine. The average Punjabi may abandon his primitive paneer masala to try a Gujarati dish but its sophistication will pass him by. A delicately flavoured cauliflower sabzi, for instance, will strike him as no more than the Punjabi version with a little sugar added.

When people ask me to recommend a quintessential Gujarati dish, I always suggest the kadhi. In North India, kadhi consists of thick robust gravies. In Gujarat, our kadhis are thin and when cooked expertly, can show off sweet and sour flavours.

The same is true of the classic tuvar dal. In North Indian restaurants, dal has come to mean a thick, viscous black substance that is packed full of dairy products. In Gujarat, the tuvar dal is as complex as, say, a great Tom Yum soup in Thai cuisine. It will have four or five flavours and yet each will live in perfect harmony with the others.

Delicate delight: I yield to nobody in my admiration for a good steamed idli. But a dhokla takes steaming to another level entirely.

But these are dishes from Gujarati home cooking and hard to find in restaurants. So the one easily available dish that captures the complexity of Gujarati cuisine is bhelpuri. By now, you should know the story of its origins. Chaat was taken to most parts of India (except the South) by guys from UP (and perhaps Bihar). When they got to Bombay (as it then was), the local Gujaratis had very little time for all the papri chaat-type rubbish that they still serve in Delhi.

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).

Roll over: Delicacy is a hallmark of Gujarati cooking. Try eating khandvi – you will be astonished by how delicately it has been rolled and by how subtle the flavours are.

Complexity of flavour and texture is one hallmark of Gujarati cooking. Delicacy is another one. Try eating homemade dahi wadi (sometimes called khandvi). You will be astonished by how delicately it has been rolled and by how subtle the flavours are. Or consider a perfect homemade dhokla. I yield to nobody in my admiration for a good steamed idli. But a dhokla takes steaming to another level entirely.

We are right to think of Gujarati food as a thali-based cuisine. In my grandfather’s house in Ahmedabad, the thali had at least three fresh vegetables, one dry dal or some sprouted pulses dish (ugaadayla mug, for instance), a wet dal, kadhi, a kathor (a savoury), a mithai, poori, rotis, rice, papad and God alone knows what else.

But we forget the subtlety of the snacks and breads. In North India, you make a bread interesting by ripping apart something that already exists and by introducing vegetables or meat into it: aloo or keema thrust into a paratha, a kulcha or a naan. But in Gujarat, we play around with the flavours of our breads (a thepla can be flavoured with methi or garlic) and their textures (a khaari puri, for instance).

Even our simple, basic breads have so much flavour that you can eat them on their own. In Kathiawad, farmers would carry two bajra rotlas, an onion, a chilli and a little garlic chutney when they went out to the fields – and that would make for a delicious lunch.

Because most of the people North Indians think of as Gujaratis are vaaniyas (the Sarabhais, the Ambanis, Amit Shah etc – but not Narendra Modi) and because there is an absurd intolerance towards non-vegetarians from Gujarati residents of some Mumbai housing societies, we forget that a significant proportion of Gujaratis are non-vegetarians. The Rajputs have never been vegetarians and the former royal houses of Gujarat have great non-vegetarian recipes.

And then there are the Gujarati Muslims. One of the ironies of the freedom struggle was that while the men who won our independence and united India were both Gujaratis (Gandhiji and Sardar Patel) even the guy who broke India up was a Gujarati: MA Jinnah was a Khoja.

In Pakistan, Gujarati Muslims who used to be among the richest people in that country have been forced to play down their Gujarati identities, first going through a process of Punjabification and now, like all Pakistanis, a kind of murderous Arabisation. But in India, we celebrate such Gujarati Muslim success stories as Azim Premji and Alyque Padamsee.

Hip Chaat: Bhelpuri was invented in Bombay and combines all the strengths of great Gujarati cuisine: a mix of sweet, sour and hot.

Sadly, the rest of India is as ignorant about their cuisine as it is about Gujarati vegetarian food. The Bohras, the Khojas and the Memons (both Kutchi and Halai) have world-class cuisines that are hard to find outside private homes.

You find traces of their food in parts of Mumbai: the crisp patti-keema samosas have a Bohra origin and many of Bombay’s dhabas and biryani joints are run by Gujarati Muslims who have never been to Lucknow and don’t really give a damn about kewda-soaked Awadhi pulao. In many ways, their cuisine is one of the true cuisines of Mumbai. The city was built by Maharashtrians, Gujaratis (Hindus, Jains and Muslims) and Parsis.

Perhaps my love for Gujarati cuisine emerges out of a certain chauvinism. But given that two of the three most powerful politicians in this government are Gujaratis, maybe you should give the cuisine of our current rulers a fair shot.

Its subtleness and delicacy will surprise you.

From HT Brunch, December 14

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First Published: Dec 12, 2014 20:17 IST