Gujarati cuisine is perceived to be deceptively simple, thanks to its vegetarian profile. It is, actually, multi-layered, subtle and nuanced and is one of the most fascinating Indian cuisines, personally speaking
One of the coolest perks of having worked as a journalist across different corners of the country, has been about getting close and personal with the novelty of unique regional cuisines. One such cuisine which has left an ever-lasting impact on my palate, mind and soul, is the deceptively simple, subtle-yet-nuanced, part-robust, Gujarati food. Though I must confess, that it took a while to get used to the earthy, hardy and distinct flavours of the predominantly arid state’s cuisine.
Today, however, Gujarati farsaan (snacks) such as khakhra, sev mamra and bhakarwadis have found a permanent corner in my pantry and I make methi theplas almost every other week. I even dare to try making the odd dhokla and khandvi out of ready-to-make mixes, far away here in Hyderabad. I shamelessly ask every friend visiting from Ahmedabad to bring along a stash of Induben’s globally famed khakhras. And every time I unpack Induben’s super-crunchy khakras made of wholewheat, besan and a minimal number of spices and seasoning, from her original store in Navrangpura, I am hit by a wave of nostalgia. I am transported at the first bite, to my first visit to her tiny store (packed to the beams) two decades ago on a friend’s recco and being a ‘bhakt’ ever since.
My moment of revelation, however, about how nuanced Gujarati cuisine truly was, is when I had Dal Dhokli for the first time, ironically while leaving Ahmedabad after four long years. It was the centrepiece and if I am not mistaken, the only dish (other than dessert) at a farewell dinner for us hosted by Ms Ela Bhatt (the founder of well-known NGO Sewa) at her home. A simple and austere affair, in keeping with her Gandhian way of living, this dinner was made memorable by the absolutely splendid one pot dish, often referred to Gujarat’s version of pasta.
Diamond-shaped whole wheat steamed dumplings soaked in a lovely Gujarati dal, resplendent with boiled peanuts, green chillies and loads of fresh coriander. It was of a soupy texture, part-sweet, part-tangy and drop dead delicious!
Of course, I was more familiar with winter special puri-undhiyu, which can definitely count among Gujarati signature specials, originating from Surat, and which restaurants got on their winter menus, without fail. A one pot dish, undhiyu is made of an assortment of vegetables like yam, sweet potato, baby brinjal, green pigeon peas (the green tuvar dal beans available in wnter), ivy gourd, and Indian flat beans or Surti papdi. Steamed fenugreek dumplings made of besan or methi muthiya are also a lovely addition to the vegetable casserole, which is a festive treat dring Makar Sankranti.
Undhiyu is derived from the Gujarati word Undhu which means upside down. Undhiyu was traditionally cooked in earthen pots placed upside down in a fire pit and fired from above and cooked on a slow fire to get that rustic, earthen flavour.
Come summer, every Gujarati’s attention veers to aamras-puri, a combo catered to by every F&B establishment. The taste of hot and fluffed up puris dunked into chilled, thick and delicious aamras (made mostly from Alphonso mango pulp) is heavenly. Gujarati desserts are not too many and are mostly milk-based, like the creamy and rich shrikhand and phirni. Or their thickened version of kheer called Doodh Pak, which is made more luxe, with the addition of saffron and nuts.
My favourite, however, remains the little-known Sukhdi, also known as Gur Papdi, made of wholewheat flour, jaggery and ghee. The texture of sukhdi is a perfect balance between smooth and hard, and is always a wholesome edible experience.
Ironically, Gujarat boasts of India’s longest coastline and is the frontrunner in fish production, and yet the state is predominantly vegetarian. While shops selling fish and meat are few and far between, I recall shopping for our weekly fish basket from the Gujarat Fisheries vans parked outside the IIM campus in Vastrapur. All the Bengali, Malayalee and Telugu folks living in that part of town would be patiently waiting in queue for their turn. Friends tell me things have changed since in terms of the supply chain, and there are of course fish and poultry delivery apps today.
Though five-star buffets had a separate non vegetarian counter, it was only a handful of restaurants who had meat dishes on their menu, and obviously found several cosmopolitan patrons. Meat lovers throng the Muslim-dominant older parts of the city, like Lal Darwaja and Sidi Saiyyed Mosque as well as Teen Darwaza) for the best Bohra Khichda (mutton-broken wheat stew much on the lines of Haleem) and beef samosas.
Gujarati restaurants are not so much about ambience and atmospherics. However, a few fine-dine Gujarati speciality restaurants like both Agashiye and Green House (which blend tradition and modernity with the most pleasing aesthetics) at the House of Mangaldas, Vishala which, besides providing a typical ethnic dining experience, has an amazing Utensils museum worth a look for any tourist, Swati Snacks (branches in Ahmedabad and Mumbai) are definitely worthy of mention for doing their bit of putting traditional Gujarati specials like Handvo, Panki, and other notables in the sun, by giving them a contemporary makeover. In recent times, the Mumbai-based Gujarati restaurant Soam is making waves for its modern plating and makeovers. This is one place I have been waiting to visit for re-visiting the flavours of Gujarat.