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Dhokla-fafda-handva-thepla—the breathless hyphenation to which a range of Gujarati snacks is routinely reduced to, a stereotype even Bollywood feeds upon, isn’t particularly kind to the cuisine’s true repertoire. Underrated, misunderstood, underexplored—that is what Gujarati cuisine essentially is, and those sensitive to the many nuances of Indian food know this only too well. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find a reliable Gujarati diner that would do its cuisine proud outside of its home state and parts of Mumbai. Vishalla and Agashiye of Ahmedabad or Chetana of Mumbai have no comparable cousins elsewhere when it comes to serving authentic Gujarati thalis, and introducing patrons to its true flavours.
Sure, neighbourhood markets over the decades have dedicated shelf space to khakhra and thepla, while dhokla and khandvi readily sit beside the kachoris and the malpuas in sweet shops in very many non-Gujarati regions now, but does the food genuinely occupy pride of place on the Indian gourmetscape? Not quite so, and far from it.
Of course, it could have a lot to do with the fact that Gujarati food suffers from some damaging misconceptions. Madhur Jaffrey was only being extremely laudable when she termed Gujarati food the “haute cuisine of vegetarianism”, but it probably did the state’s culinary variety no apparent favours. “Gujarati food is rich in heritage, with influences from so many dynasties, but it all gets lost in stereotypes like Gujju food is only vegetarian, and that it is mostly too sweet,” rues Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna. “Meat undhiyu, and the non-vegetarian food in Kutch blew me away. If I had to have my very last meal, it would be a thali at Surat’s Sasumaa. No one serves you food quite as warmly as the staff there. You are made to feel like a member of their family,” he says.
Gujarati fare is certainly a plateful of comfort food: richly flavoured veg preparations paired with delicate kadhi, an army of sweet and sour pickles and chutneys, the softest of rotlis and appetising khichudi topped with dollops of ghee along with a side of gur. The preparation and choice of veggies (or meat) changes from region to region, from aakha dongdi (whole onions in gravy), undhiyu (mixed vegetable), sev tamatar to spicy chicken/fish masala. Inner richness and external non-visibility, it shares this trait with most other traditional cuisines, “Gujarati food is seen as common man’s food, not what you call upmarket fare,” says chef Manish Mehrotra of Delhi’s experimental Indian Accent restaurant. “It has not travelled the way Punjabi, Awadhi and some bits of South Indian cuisine have across India.” Mehrotra is one of the few to have tinkered with the cuisine to fit fine dining tastes, and brought to the table dishes like Silken Tofu Gathia with a Kokum Kadhi, Shrikhand with Fresh Berries or Khandvi Ravioli (see recipe).
Celebrity chefs like the late Tarla Dalal and Sanjeev Kapoor too have paid homage to a variety of Gujju favourites in their studios and cookbooks over the decades. It hasn’t been enough, however, to elevate the food to the realm of culinary exotica, something foodies across the world would lust after. Food entrepreneurs may well have sensed this lack of enthusiasm for the cuisine among non-Gujaratis, for the few Gujarati restaurants there are in the country usually play it safe with their menus, hardly firing the imagination of patrons enough to make them try something new. Does it have to do with a kind of inferiority complex the Gujaratis themselves suffer from that even the state’s highways have Punjabi, Rajasthani, Awadhi-style dhabas as stopovers but none from the local kitchens?
Outside of Gujarat, there could be other reasons why Gujarati khana hasn’t matched the conquering zeal of butter chicken or masala dosa. “Gujarati cuisine is not always very easy to adapt outside Gujarat,” says Mehrotra. “Unusual ingredients like purple yam or kand, a favourite among Gujaratis, as also different types of beans and arbi ke patte, are not readily available everywhere.” People also often think of Gujju fare as “too simple (read boring)”, but actually, believes Khanna, “Gujaratis don’t know simple flavours at all. What they cook is multi-dimensional, having perfected the art of the five-flavour balance. Even their vrat ka khana is usually bursting with flavour. Due to historically having been short on fresh produce, they have learnt to make more with less, and mastering the art of chutneys and preserves.”
Bhanu Hajratwala, author of Gujarati Kitchen, and hailed as the ‘Martha Stewart of Gujarati cooking’ in California, where she is based, finds Gujarati food is better understood abroad than in India. “When my cookbook was released in India, several food critics told me they did not realise that there are non-vegetarian Gujaratis till they saw the non-vegetarian recipes in the book. Apart from the US and India, my book seems to have become quite popular in Fiji, Australia, New Zealand.” More cookbooks, food shows, better restaurants could turn around Gujarati food’s culinary fortune yet, she feels. If the cuisine hasn’t got its due in India yet, there is perhaps no better time than now, with politics offering the chance for a cultural encounter—with a noisy, busy kitchen all set to serve its best dish yet.
The Italian Job
A recipe by Manish Mehrotra Indian Accent
Khandvi Ravioli, For 4 Portions
For khandvi sheets
For mixed-cheese mash
For Beurre Blanc
For making khandvi sheets
For mixed-cheese mash
For khandvi ravioli
For Beurre Blanc