Mainstream Indian pop culture, primarily Bollywood, has given our country’s populace a relatively skewed representation of Gujarati cuisine. Through the medium of these kitschy tropes and oh-so-cliché gags, it would seem that the food of Gujarat is limited to dhokla, khakhra, khichdi, and thepla. Unfortunately, an accusation of misrepresentation could be levelled towards all of Indian culture when viewed through the glamour-tinted glasses of Bollywood. While there’s no denying that all four food items are an integral part of Gujarati food culture, there’s definitely more to the cuisine than that. I’m here to try and set the record straight, and take you on a delectable culinary journey of the food of Gujarat – the jewel of western India.
Before I go into the nitty-gritties of the Gujarati palate with some of the most popular dishes we serve up, I think it is imperative to first take a look at the bigger picture. A state’s cuisine is heavily influenced by the geography, history, and culture of the region. These factors play a crucial role in deciding the state’s choice of food and, as such, are the perfect starting point from which to deep-dive in to Gujarat’s singular food offerings.
Located on the west coast of India and opening up to the Arabian Sea, Gujarat is a deeply historic region whose roots can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Over the many centuries of its history, Gujarat has had a multitude of different rulers including the Marathas, Rajputs, Mughals, other invading Islamic dynasties and the Mauryans. Being a significant port state, there have also been myriad interactions with various global cultures that have influenced the Gujarati way of life. In recent times though, the rise of Jain culture has rendered a vegetarian bent of mind within the majority of Gujarat’s people. You also need to factor in the weather conditions permeating through a majority of Gujarat, because Gujarat is a ‘dry’ state in more ways than one! The temperature ranges from a maximum of late 40 degrees Celsius in the summer to early 30s at nights. It gets very humid during the monsoon, and mildly pleasant in the winter. Hot and dry are the prominent attributes that don’t just shape our climate, but our cuisine too!
A state that spans close to a whopping 200,000sq km, you can’t really pigeonhole Gujarat’s cuisine into one complete entity. Instead, there are the distinct flavours of Kathiyawad, Kutch, Surat and Amdavad (colloquial for Ahmedabad) with the latter comprising of north and central Gujarat cooking styles and dishes.
As I mentioned earlier, vegetarianism is rampant in Gujarat, with only the state’s Gujarati Muslim and Catholic population, along with a small pocket of Parsis and the coastal Kharwa, Koli and Macchiayara communities indulging in non-vegetarian cuisine. With these communities all having a limited presence in the grand scheme of things, there isn’t much in terms of non-vegetarian food that the state of Gujarat can claim as indigenous, as recipes are typically borrowed from other states where non-vegetarian food is common, and include everything from biryani to steaks. In the aforementioned coastal communities, a variety of delicious seafood offerings are prominent, but again, they are not typically included in what is popularly known as Gujarati cuisine.
The Four Pillars of Gujarati Food Culture
Forming part of the region known as Saurashtra, major cities such as Porbandar, Bhavnagar, Jamnagar, Rajkot and Junagad all comprise the Kathiyawad region. Since it shares a border with the neighbouring state of Rajasthan, it is fair to say that Kathiyawadi cuisine is heavily influenced by Rajasthani cooking. In general, the food is quite spicy as opposed to the majority of Gujarat, where sweet flavours are an overriding influence. Highlights of Kathiyawadi cooking include the sev tameta nu shaak, which is a curry primarily made from tomatoes and chilli powder topped off with generous additions of sev, a noodle-like savoury snack made of gram flour (besan). Another prominent Kathiyawadi dish is ringna no oroh or roasted eggplant. Similar to the baingan ka bhartha seen in other parts of India, ringna no oroh is made with roasted eggplants that are then peeled, mashed and tempered in spices. An amalgamation of flavours from a few cities and influences from across the border, Kathiyawadi cuisine is deliciously diverse.
The city of Surat, which is located in the southern region of Gujarat, is recognised for its love of food, be it fine-dining or cheap street food. The most popular dish to emerge out of Surat is undoubtedly the undhiyu. What’s basically a mixed vegetable dish, describing the undhiyu in those simple terms would belie the delight that it brings to the Gujarati people. It is named undhiyu (which loosely translates to upside down) because, traditionally, the salient ingredients such as papdi or Indian flat beans, tuver dana (pigeon peas), potatoes, eggplant, kand (purple yam), bananas and more are tossed together in an earthen pot with essential spices. This pot is then covered and buried in the hot muddy ground upside down and surrounded by coal, allowing it to slow cook, giving the dish an earthy, smoky and delectable flavour. Undhiyu is a seasonal dish, made only in winter due to the availability of Indian flat beans and purple yam at that time of the year.
Then there’s Surti locho, a popular street food where a steamed gram flour-based cake of sorts is mixed with chilli, ginger and garlic, and served with a smattering of chutneys.
Ghaari is a famous sweet dish from Surat made on the day of Chandi Padvo (the last full moon day of the Hindu calendar). The dish is made of all-purpose flour stuffed with dry fruits, mawa or thickened milk, and sugar. It is bound using gram flour and deep-fried in pure ghee. The dish is then allowed to cool and again submerged fully in ghee so that a thick layer of the butter forms around it.
All in all, Surti cuisine is elaborate, clever and gives you massive hits of flavour every time you take a bite of the dishes in its repertoire!
The biggest city in Gujarat and former capital, Ahmedabad is definitely one of the state’s foodie hotspots. Street food culture is rampant here, and you can find some delightful snacks and quick bites along with a plethora of mouth-watering sweets in every nook and cranny of this city. The menu includes golas or snow cones dipped in a colourful and lip-smacking variety of syrups, especially popular in the summer.
Another crowd favourite is the jalebi – all-purpose flour deep-fried in a spiralling, almost pretzel-like style and dipped in sugar syrup.
In terms of savoury dishes, there is the dhokla, a light airy snack made of either rice or gram flour, which is steamed, then sprinkled with coriander leaves, coconut shavings and served with a mint-based chutney. There is a similar dish called khandvi, also made of gram flour batter, which is cooked to a thick paste and then spread out and rolled. It is also served with chutney.
There is also a rice-based dish called Amdavadi pulao, which is made by mixing cooked vegetables with rice, but unlike everywhere else in India, this dish has a sweet aftertaste.
The cliché of all Gujarati food being sweet can most certainly be blamed on Amdavadi cuisine, and the people of the city wouldn’t have it any other way!
The dry, arid region of Kutch plays host to some individual dishes as well. A lack of leafy green vege-tables dictates the food choices in the region. You can’t talk about famous Kutchi dishes without mentioning the dabeli. The dabeli is essentially street food where pao or bread roll is stuffed with a filling made with potato, a paste made with tamarind, jaggery and date, and masala. This bread is pan-roasted and then topped with sev, onion, spicy peanuts, and pomegranate seeds. Traditionally dabeli bread is also swathed with a garlic-based chutney before roasting.
Other popular Kutchi dishes include bajra na rotla or Indian flat bread made of pearl millet, traditionally served with either the aforementioned ringna no oroh, or curd and garlic chutney. Khaja, a dessert reminiscent of baklava is also made here. It is prepared using refined flour, mawa, and oil, deep-fried and then dipped in sugar syrup.
When you are working with limited ingredients, it takes a particular brand of culinary genius to extract interesting and absorbing flavours out of them. The cooking of Kutch pays testimony to this trait with the adaptability and innovation showcased in its portfolio of dishes.
Vaghar – Tempering the Cuisine’s Flavour
One word you will most likely hear bandied about every Gujarati kitchen is vaghar. Known as tempering in English and tadka in Hindi, using this cooking technique under-scores the flavour of the dish that is being cooked and brings out its distinct taste. Gujarati vaghar is unique and quite dissimilar to the north Indian tadka, thanks to its minimalist approach in terms of ingredients and the pronounced use of mustard seeds. To prepare vaghar, heat oil, add mustard, fenugreek and cumin seeds, and asafetida and allow it to simmer. When the seeds splutter, pour the vaghar on top of the dish you are cooking, and mix it in to add a zing of flavour, and instantly transform it from bland and generic to mouth-watering and quintessentially Gujarati. Vaghar is used during the preparation of staples such as dal and vegetable-based dishes, which are cooked on a day-to-day basis. It is even used as garnish for snacks such as dhokla and khandvi, amongst others.
Other Popular Dishes
Apart from the flavourful regional delicacies, there is also a long list of dishes that are made and consumed up and down the state. A running theme amongst these dishes though is the additional function they provide of controlling core body temperatures. Chaas, shrikhand and other sweet or milk-based preparations are popular because they help cool you down during the dreadful summer months that this region experiences. Aam panna, a yummy unripe mango-based drink, is also immensely popular as a means of keeping the body hydrated.
Another common theme running through Gujarati cuisine is the habit of snacking. Called farshan, Gujarati snacks are popular in every household. In fact, snacking is such an integral part of the Gujarati life-style that we even have a specific term for it – halta-chalta khavanu – which literally translates to ‘snacking while walking around your home’! In no other culture in India is such a practice so fervently executed. So what are some of these snacks that are so popular in Gujarat, and other dishes that are consumed en masse in the state? Here is a comprehensive list –
Thepla – A popular flat bread made of wheat flour with masala and can include other ingredients such as methi (fenugreek leaves) or doodhi (bottle gourd), roasted on a pan.
Shrikhand – Made of hung curd and sugar, this dairy-based dessert is soft and light, and served cold. It may also contain dry fruits, saffron or cardamom powder for added flavour.
Dal dhokli – First, tempered pigeon pea dal is prepared. Then a wheat flour-based flat bread is rolled, cut into diamond-shaped pieces and immersed within the dal itself. This delectable, yet simple, dish is served with pure ghee to make it even more indulgent.
- Kadhi – Gujarati for curry, it is typically made with buttermilk, gram flour and sugar, which is tempered and flavoured with ginger and chilli. A slightly sweet curry, Gujaratis are known to add radish and even bananas to make this dish more flavourful.
- Khichdi – A traditional rice-based dish. Khichdi is rice mixed with a dal either made from pigeon peas or moong bean. A relatively bland dish seasoned only with salt, this is a common one and consumed with great regularity and typically served with kadhi.
- Muthiya – This dish is a combination of wheat flour and pearl millet or gram flour, which is mixed with cooked rice, rolled and then steamed. It can be made with methi leaves and doodhi as well.
- Gathiya – A type of savoury snack made of gram flour and masalas, gathiya is also a type of sev and comes in various shapes and sizes. Gathiya is either eaten on its own or taken with tea.
- Fafda – A type of gathiya that is long, flat and has a salty taste topped with asafoetida. It makes for a great combination with the sweet jalebi.
- Khakhra – Wheat flour flat breads are dry roasted until crispy and then topped with ghee and a spicy masala.
- Basundi – Thick boiled milk mixed with sugar and saffron. Served cold.
- Chakri – Made with rice flour, which is mixed with ginger, chilli and sesame seeds. The chakri is shaped in a spiral and deep-fried. Another dish that is commonly consumed as a snack.
- Patra – Arbi patta (colocasia leaves) are lathered with a paste made of gram flour, jaggery, garam masala, sesame seeds, and tamarind. These leaves are then rolled and steamed. Patra is typically served as an appetiser.
- Chaas – This drink is extremely popular, especially during the summer months. It’s basically buttermilk, which is served chilled and topped with roasted cumin (jeera) powder.
As with any Indian cuisine, pickles are an integral part of Gujarati food culture as well. The most popular pickle in Gujarat is undoubtedly goonda-keri (cordia and unripe mango). It is a piquant pickle made with a mix of spices known as methiya masala.
Another favoured athanu is the chundo, which is a yummy sweet and sour pickle. It is also prepared with unripe grated mangoes. Sugar is an important element in chundo as well.
Lastly, there is god-keri, which involves the use of unripe mangoes with jaggery to form a sweet and sour pickle.
The Gujarati Platter
It would be remiss for me to end this article without a mention of the traditional Gujarati thali. Literally translated, thali means plate and serves all the elements of a meal including the appetizers, main course, breads and even dessert on one steel platter. The disparate elements of a thali include kachumbar, papad, rotli (roti), khichdi or bhaat, dal or kadhi, shaak (assorted vegetables), athanu, chaas, and a sweet element like basundi or shrikhand.
With a cuisine so diverse yet appealing to every gourmand’s palate, it is no wonder that Gujarati fare cuts across geo-graphical borders and enjoys a prominent place in the culinary map of India. Gujarati cuisine is the perfect representation of her people – a potent mixture that is a little spicy, a little salty, and more than anything else, carries strong undertones of sweetness.
Read more in the Outlook Traveller Getaways India's Culinary Heritage