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Samar Khatiwala reports on first research trip to Gujarat

 

Samar Khatiwala, winner of the 2017 Yan-Kit So Award for Food Writers on Asia, which is hosted by the Oxford Cultural Collective, recently returned from his first research trip to the Gujarati city of Surut. Here he reports on progress with his first cookbook, which will explore the rich culinary heritage of Gujarat in the west of India.

 

There is a saying in India, “Surat nu jaman ane Kashi nu maran”, which captures the belief that to “eat in Surat and die in Kashi” is the way to salvation. Surat, a town in Gujarat state in western India, is the spiritual home of Gujaratis, one of a plethora of ethno-linguistic groups that make up the country. Even in a country with as diverse and fragmented a cuisine as India, from Jain to Kerelan Christian and Sindhi to Konkani Muslim, Gujarati food is particularly renowned for its variety, extensive use of legumes, and distinct combination of sweet, sour and savory flavors. Gujaratis also have a well-deserved reputation for being foodies. The British consul to Ahmedabad recently remarked in a newspaper article that meetings with local businessmen tended to focus more on what was on the menu than the agenda!

Outside India though, Gujarati cuisine is practically unknown, which is somewhat surprising given that Gujaratis make up a third of the Indian diaspora, not to mention roughly half of the British Indian community. (The next time you’re flying through Heathrow and wondering what language the staff are speaking, odds are that it is Gujarati.) Could it be because they are predominantly vegetarian, or have historically been traders and just don’t ‘do’ restaurants? Regardless, over the years, even as I’ve lived, eaten and cooked in places ranging from New York to Seoul, I have come to believe that this obscurity was nothing short of a tragedy: a bowl of Surti khati mithi dal can have just as much umami as one of ramen! So when I heard about the Yan-Kit So award I knew this was my chance to remedy the situation: I would propose to write a cookbook with the aim of bringing home-style Gujarati cooking to a wider audience.

Of course, not in a million years did I think I stood a chance of winning. After all, apart from the fact that I grew up eating Gujarati food what did I really know about the cuisine? Nor, unlike past recipients of the award, was I a cook by training or profession. And what if the judges had never even heard of Gujarati food? Would Fuchsia Dunlop take her famed Chinese cleaver to a proposal about a primarily vegetarian cookbook?! But much to my shock and delight the judges decided to take a punt on me.

With hindsight, winning the award may well have been the easy part. Simply defining “Gujarati food” is turning out to be rather challenging and not a bit of a political minefield. Although a majority of Gujaratis are Hindu and “pure veg”, there is significant diversity. At one end of the spectrum are a sizeable number following Jainism, a religion that goes one step further and forbids even root vegetables and yogurt. (Jains are a wealthy and influential community and restaurants in India and even abroad often carry a “Jain menu” to cater to them.) At the other end are Gujarati Muslims (belonging to several different sects) and Parsis famed for their meat dishes. However, in hyper-segmented India neither of them would be considered “Gujarati”, even though they originate in Gujarat, speak the same language and, most importantly, share a culinary tradition rooted in that region. So while I still envision a cookbook that attempts to cover some of this diversity, I may have to stop calling it a “Gujarati” cookbook and instead refer to it as a book about the “food of Gujarat”. Cumbersome but somewhat less contentious!

But I also want this to be more than ‘just’ a cookbook. Perhaps it is my academic background but I’m curious about the historical origin of dishes and the use of various ingredients. For instance, why are fenugreek and mint so widely used in Gujarat but not in other Indian regional cuisines? Could it be the influence of Zohrashtrians – modern-day Parsis – fleeing Persia after the Muslim invasion in the 8th century and settling primarily in Gujarat? What impact did the Portuguese, who colonized Daman and Diu in southern Gujarat for over 4 centuries, have on the local cuisine? One of the goals of my cookbook is to place the cuisine in the context of this rich history.

Clearly, there is a lot of research and recipe development and testing in my future. So I’m pleased to report that after a slow start (my day job sadly gets in the way of working on this full time!) I’ve made decent progress. I spent the first few months simply collecting background information and reading about the history of Gujarat. (The one advantage of my job is that the Bodleian Library seems to have pretty much every book published in the English language. Well, everything except cookbooks.) It has been eye opening. I discovered for instance that thanks to ancient and extensive trading links, Gujarati was once the lingua franca around the Indian Ocean. And that it was a Gujarati pilot familiar with the seasonal to-and-fro of the monsoon winds who showed Vasco da Gama the way to India!

But it wasn’t until a few months ago that I finally got down to the nuts and bolts with my first research trip to India. Naturally, I started in Mumbai where I not only grew up but which hosts the largest number of Gujaratis outside their home state. One of the first things I did was to contact people I’d come across in my research, from food bloggers and historians to home cooks running food businesses. Astonishingly, and this is something I would experience again and again, it typically took only a few minutes’ conversation on the phone to be invited around to their house for chai! And so it was that from Zinobia Shroff I learnt about Parsi pickles, while Fatema Kutianawala, who helps run her mum’s  supper club and catering business told me about the Bohri Muslim ‘thal’, the lesser known and decidedly “non veg” version of the famous Gujarati thali. Meher Mirza, a food and travel writer kindly shared her expertise of Parsi cuisine and extensive contact list. And Chhaya Goswami, a historian, spoke with me about the Kutch region of Gujarat state and its global trading links. Most touching of all though was the enthusiasm of my family who, it seemed, had all been mobilized to help.

I would continue to experience this openness and kindness when I travelled with my family on to Surat. On the way we stopped by Navsari, one of Gujarat’s oldest town. (Its port is even mentioned by Ptolemy in his 2nd century treatise on the world as known to the ancient Romans.) Parsis have had a strong connection with Navsari for over 800 years (amongst many famous Parsis, Jamshedji Tata, the founder of the eponymous company, was born here). That connection continues to this day with Navsari still being one of the few places where Parsi pickles are still made in the traditional manner with locally-brewed vinegar (sarko) fermented from sugarcane juice. I hadn’t known this and it came as quite a surprise as there isn’t much of a tradition of using vinegar in India (Portuguese-influenced Goan cuisine being a notable exception), especially in pickling. Also rather new to me were pickles made from fish roe (garab nu aachar) and dried and fermented Bombay Duck (bumla no tarapori patiyo). Needless to say, I stocked up!

Karigiri was a term I would hear again and again. At Thakor’s Mithai, one of the oldest sweet manufacturers in Surat, the third generation owners Amit and Vishal Halvavala, waxed lyrical about the skill of their staff, many of whom come from nearby villages and have been working at their factory for decades making essentially everything by hand, something I witnessed first hand thanks to the free access I was given (see video below). Apart from the artisanship, Vishal bhai emphasized the quality of the ingredients that go into their sweets, particularly water and milk. As he put it, the same sweets made in other parts of Gujarat and India taste completely different from those made in Surat because the local water has such a distinctive taste. (I can attest to that. As a child I dreaded trips to Surat because I absolutely hated the taste of the water!) And unlike most sweet makers they use milk and ghee from water buffalo (cow’s milk is the norm elsewhere). Even though I grew up eating these sweets I don’t think I had appreciated until now the care and effort the best mithaiwalas put into making them.

What I’d also not realised, or perhaps simply forgotten having lived outside India for so long, is the extremely seasonal nature of food. The changing availability of fruit and veg over the course of the year dictates what people eat in a way that I now find rather unusual. And there’s probably nothing more seasonal than paunk (immature jowar – sorghum – seeds), which is only available briefly in December and, at a stretch, January. The jowar is grown not far from Surat and brought to a field there every morning to be processed by roasting the straw and threshing out the grains, all by hand of course. It is messy, painstaking work. The tender grains are either eaten raw with a sprinkling of spicy sev (thin, deep fried sticks of besan (chickpea batter)), green garlic (also only available at this time of year) and squeeze of lime. Or, along with cashew nuts and sultanas, stuffed into croquettes called Surti pattice. Daily deliveries are made by express rail and air to connoisseurs in Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

Jowar and bajri (pearl millet), along with nachni (finger millet), feature prominently in the Gujarati diet. This makes sense given Gujarat’s proximity to and long-standing trading links with Africa, where these grasses originate. It is believed that they arrived in western India around 2000 BC, perhaps on the dhows that plied the trade between the two continents. Jowar and bajri flour are typically used to make flatbreads called thepla, rotla and bhakri. These have a long shelf life and thepla in particular have long been standard travellers’ fare. To this day you won’t find a Gujarati traveller without their beloved methi na thepla (thepla with fenugreek leaves) and chundo (a sweet and spicy mango pickle), whether they’re going on a picnic or overseas trip!

Just a short walk from Thakor’s Mithai is the neighbourhood of Zampa Bazaar, home to many of Surat’s large Bohri Muslim community. With its dozens of roadside stalls selling offal and grilled meat, it is a world away from the “pure veg” part of Surat I’d just come from. But even from my limited knowledge I could tell that this wasn’t the place to find the home-style Bohri food I was looking for. Even in Mumbai, with its large Bohri community, few restaurants serve it. And nor are there cookbooks to refer to, as I discovered to my dismay after several fruitless hours of searching bookstores in the Kalbadevi neighbourhood of Mumbai, a treasure-trove of cookbooks written in Gujarati. Fatema Kutianawala, the supper club owner, confirmed that she wasn’t aware of any. Recipes were passed down from generation to generation and the only way for an outsider to learn about the cuisine was to know someone in the community willing to teach them. Luckily, in the last few years, talented home cooks like Ms Kutianawala’s mum have opened up their kitchens to make Bohri food more accessible, a development I’m certainly going to be taking advantage of on future research trips to India.

On the final day of my trip to Surat we had lunch at my uncle’s place where my aunt Usha kaki had prepared a typical Surti meal which included undhiyu (a winter vegetable casserole widely regarded as the pinnacle of Gujarati cooking) and lasun nu kachu (essentially mashed potatoes with fresh green garlic). Everything was excellent but the utter deliciousness of the latter despite its simplicity struck me: this was exactly the sort of dish I wanted to feature in my book. (The Gujarati obsession with green garlic when it is in season is also seen in a Bohri dish called lasun beda khema – literally green garlic, eggs and minced mutton – in which hot ghee is poured over raw egg yolks.) Usha kaki turned out to be an impressive and serious cook (she keeps a stack of handwritten notebooks filled with recipes and detailed notes) because for dessert there was homemade salampak, a mithai with a bit of a spicy kick. Salampak is only made in winter in part because the ingredients that go into it are considered by ayurvedic principles to have a warming effect. It is not a simple sweet to make (the ingredient list itself runs to an entire page). But, as Usha kaki said in a matter-of-fact way, in Surat people (women that is) still make everything from scratch, unlike in cities like Mumbai where convenience rules and fewer and fewer people cook.

Back home in Mumbai I spent my remaining few days either in the kitchen practicing dishes and learning new recipes from my mum, or meeting people on my growing contact list who were involved with food in one way or another. My cousin Parul introduced me to Jayesh Vora, a family friend who owns several restaurants bringing regional street food to a more refined setting. And he is about to launch a new one serving modern and fusion Gujarati food. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant but from a sneak peek at the planned menu it was clear that Gujarati cuisine is constantly evolving.

As I look back on my first research trip I’m already starting to think about future ones. One can’t have a Gujarati cookbook without a section on pickles, and summer, when mangoes are abundant, is the season for that. And now that I have a better idea of the ‘lay of the land’, I’m already planning a longer trip to Gujarat to visit some of the principal towns and food production areas. In the meantime, I have several months of refining recipes ahead of me. Stay tuned.

 


 

The Yan-Kit So Award is sustained through philanthropic donations from those with an interest in promoting Asian food culture. To enquire about making a donation, contact Donald Sloan (dsloan@oxfordculturalcollective.com).

 

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