Gujaratis are the most enterprising people in India. The state bears testament to years of enterprise mixed with steely discipline. Industries and modern buildings dot the landscape as one travels from one city to another. Culture and advancement go hand in hand, making this one of the country’s richest and safest states. Historically and economically, it played a major role in the our country’s overall development. This great state is also home to a cuisine whose variety and complexity isn’t very well known and sadly, oftentimes, misunderstood. To sample real Gujarati food, one must visit Gujarat itself.
For a restaurant entrepreneur, purely from a business point of view, Gujarati food seems like a bad idea. Here’s why:
1. It is vegetarian.
2. Considering the climate, there are very few native vegetables available.
3. Many people don’t eating root vegetables such as potato, onion, garlic, etc. This limits options even further.
4. Authentic recipes are difficult to find. Professionals who know these recipes are even harder to find.
This is why Gujarati food doesn’t find place within the popular cuisine radar, barring a few varieties of snacks. Places serving authentic Gujarati meals are few and far between (but they’re very very good). Some may even dislike the food because of its sweetness. Gujarati food, cooked by those who don’t understand it, could yield disastrous results. However, when cooked by those who do understand, it’s nothing short of sheer culinary finesse and elegance.
5. The most exciting part about this cuisine is farsan. These are like vegetarian tapas, only not had alongside wine because alcohol is banned in Gujarat. They are eaten with meals, adding another element to an otherwise rather one-dimensional meal. Farsan can be salty, sweet, spicy, in many shapes and sizes, and of any texture. These are usually steamed, fried or baked using precise cooking techniques and styles. Being strictly vegetarian, they are based on lentil pastes which are steamed or deep fried into fritters. They can also be eaten as individual snacks at any time of the day. What we know as dhokla, handvo, khaman, bhajiya, patra, muthiya and khandvi are actually different kinds of farsan. It has endless possibilities.
6. Because of its geographic location, Gujarat is a very hot and dry state. It’s close proximity to the sea increases the salinity in the air. A combination of the two, in some cases, leads to dehydration. Food here is sweet not because they like eating sweet food, unlike the people of Bengal. In fact, they don’t use crystallized sugar at all. Jaggery is used to sweeten the food because jaggery is known to help prevent dehydration. For sweetness, jaggery is combined with red chillies (heat) and lime (for acidity) to create various dishes, not unlike the Thai way of cooking. This needs to be done carefully in correct proportions to ensure harmony of flavours. If done incorrectly, it would taste like the unpopular Gujarati food you find in most places around India.
Working for the best restaurant in the country sure has its perks. We also operated as caterers for weddings, private parties, dinners and functions. Our list of clientele ranged from Delhi farmhouse Holi bashes and embassy dinners, all the way to swanky Industrialist weddings in Istanbul. Sometimes, however, we catered for some very important events.
One such event took place in Jodhpur in 2013. It happened to be a certain very important someone’s 50th birthday party. That someone was Mrs. Nita Ambani, wife of Mr. Mukesh Ambani. They don’t need introductions. We were hired and were mostly in charge of live counters because the selection of chaat (street food) served at our restaurant precedes itself. Diva (a prominent catering company by Ritu Dalmia) handled European food. Everything was vegetarian and cooked for the most famous and influential people in India. Considering the scale of these events, the organizers left no stone unturned. From silver plates to customized handmade Indian sweets, this event had it all. But one thing didn’t seem to fit. The main course spread, considered the highlight of every Indian social gathering, wasn’t made by us, nor by Diva Catering.
In fact, it wasn’t being made by anyone I’d ever heard of before. Two days prior to the event, at our common temporary outdoor kitchen, as the guys from Diva were busy with prep work with us, in walked a group of people who would change the way I looked at Indian food. They didn’t wear chef whites. Nor did they use equipment we use. More surprisingly, they sat and worked, something which is considered a cardinal sin for our kind. This brigade included children, married woman, and even some elderly folks. They were part of the huge contingent sent by the Ambanis’ favourite caterer, Sarojben and Tapanbhai Catering.
They were in charge of main course, specifically Gujarati entrée and sweets. They worked slowly and leisurely over those two days. My curiosity got the best of me. I spent my time with them during the few breaks I got. They hardly spoke Hindi, so exchange of ideas wasn’t quite possible. I observed them closely and offhandedly attempted some of their techniques. I saw ingredients being processed and used to create dishes I have never seen before. Once prep was over and the event started, it was easy to see why the hosts had selected them for the main spread.
This was Gujarati food at its finest, prepared by the best and worthy enough to be served to the best.
Whatever I blissfully ate that night combined simplicity and science, making a wholesome, complex, unostentatious product. A family proudly showed the world that, to them, their own food was truly Number 1. The spread was so magnificent that it was intimidating. I was encouraged to try it out by chef Manish himself. He was right, a vegetarian dish is much harder to execute perfectly than one that contained animal protein. Indian cuisine is the most unique in the world because of stellar vegetarian food like this, of exemplary gastronomic perfection despite limited choices. Though I can barely comprehend, let alone replicate or explain most of these dishes, one thing is for certain;
Gujarati cuisine is truly futuristic Indian vegetarian fare, nothing short of a culinary treasure chest, waiting to be understood and evolved.
Just like what this gentleman, the best Indian chef in the world, has done.