India celebrates its 70th Independence Day today. So, I decided to dedicate this post to this day and write about the town where my ancestry is from and bring to forth the amazing secrets India has to offer from its smaller towns and unknown villages.
My post will be divided into 2 parts because it would simply be impossible to pen down my complete experience of this place in just a single post.
My grandfather belonged to a small village called “Surendranagar” and my grandmother was from a neighbouring village there called “Limbdi”. Both these villages are still existent and are now rather busy towns. While my grandparents passed away quite a while back, they always made sure we were connected to the family and friends back in these towns. So, when they were alive, we would have guests visiting in from these towns (sometimes even on very short notices) and they would always be welcome at our place – no questions or any reservations. To some, it may seem strange but it us, it was family and that’s what families are for.
It’s been about a decade since my grandfather passed away and the responsibility came onto my parents to continue the social relations (and me too to a certain extent). Family and acquaintances spread their arms wide and welcomed us. We were never made to feel awkward or left out or strangers. It is kind an overwhelming feeling when this happens.
So, a while back in January, I decided to make a trip back to Surendranagar (3 hour drive from Ahmedabad in Gujarat) with the sole intention of documenting the local food there and pick up age old recipes and cooking techniques that were used in the earlier times when my grandparents were maybe children.
In today’s age, we have come to use food processers, grinders, ovens and technology in cooking but in those times, cooking was all natural. You had cooking over coals or cooking in clay pots, grinding using stone slabs and the likes. These olden techniques are a lost trend today but you will realise that they gave the best flavour as compared to all the modern stuff we have today. They all had a scientific basis.
Winters are the best time to visit this region as the temperatures are blissful and you can get some of the best local produce to eat. Vegetables are extremely fresh in the market and somehow, the winter chill makes eating all the spicy food there more fun.
We have a few favourites in this town and make it a point never to miss them. The family and friends we have there know about our love for food and decided to help me out with my venture there.
Our first stop – “Novelty” paratha house for dinner. This place is a classic. It is an extremely small and very local eating-place in the town. In fact, it is so small that some part of the cooking is actually done on the street outside the restaurant. People wait outside in large numbers every evening especially because the place stops serving customers once it runs out of its cooked food stock. They make a limited quantity every evening and once that’s catered to, they turn away customers – which is usually around 7.30 – 8.00 every evening. So, if you want to taste some of their stuff – you need to be here well in time. A word of caution, don’t expect this place to be a five star rating. It is an extremely local joint. It is a no frills place but amazingly high on food.
Now you would probably wonder, what is so special about the food here. Believe it or not, they serve only 2 vegetable dishes, one type of paratha, simple steamed rice, yoghurt, fried papaddums and Churned buttermilk. That’s it. The same menu is served everyday.
The vegetable dishes – one is a Potato vegetable in watery tomato gravy (called “Bateta nu shaak” in Gujarati) but it is for this one vegetable dish that people throng here. It is cooked in oodles of chilli and one usually ends up in tears when eating it and getting a heartburn the next day, unless it is accompanied with a bowl of plain yoghurt or buttermilk sprinkled with some freshly ground cumin powder. This soothes the palate making it possible to eat more of the delicious stuff. The parathas aren’t roasted on a griddle, as is usually the technique. They are deep fried in oil – which the gentleman does outside the restaurant. Forget calorie counting when in this place.
Another vegetable served is a version that is made without onions, potatoes or garlic. It is what is classified as a “Jain” vegetable. Jain is a community in India that abstains from all leafy or root vegetables in their food (usually). So, this vegetable is made using steamed chickpea dough cakes in tomato gravy. It is called “Dhokli nu shaak” in Gujarati. This is my favourite too (although I can never get through my food without any onions or garlic but I make an exception for this).
You get seated and served immediately what you order because as I mentioned, the food stock is prepared and ready. The parathas get served as they get fried. You can ask for helpings of the gravy and they will serve it as they are serving a welcome houseguest. No questions at any point. Chopped onions complete the meal and you are good to embark on a spice trail. The entire meal can be finished in as little as 2 dollars to 10 – depending on how big your eating party is. We were a group of 6 and finished in about 10 dollars – and we did eat well, might I add.
Right next to the place, I spotted a lady making “Rotlas”. These are traditionally made using Lentil flours such as Barley, Millet or Jowar. These flours are Gluten free and much healthier. These are eaten with Ghee and Palm sugar or Jaggery in Gujarat. If eaten with a vegetable, then “Ringna no Olo” (Roasted Aubergines in spices) is the vegetable of choice. These are traditionally found in Gujarat in the winters are both the foods – the flour and the vegetable in combination are warming foods for the body system. The lady obliged me with a picture and also showed how they made it there for their customers. The rotlas (plural) were flattened using hands and no rolling pins to a perfect round shape. They were then cooked on clay pans that were heated using coals. This is what local cooking is all about for me and this is what gives the best flavour.
My travel continued next morning. This time, it took me in search of another local speciality called “Kachariyu” in Gujarati. This is a preparation made only during the winter months and combines ingredients such as dates, black sesame seeds, coconut and a few spices. All of the ingredients are warming to the body system and traditionally; everyone eats about a spoonful of this stuff in the mornings. My grandmother used to get this stuff for our home when she was alive and I used to run away from it (the black colour of the dish used to put me off). To be honest, I still haven’t tasted it but I wanted to document the traditional process of how it is made and hence, set out in search of it. In earlier ages, bulls were attached to large grinding assemblies to grind the sesame seeds and release the oils. I was hoping to look this up and document it but unfortunately, people have now shifted onto grinding machines that do the job. A kind gentleman let us into his set-up to explain to us how this Kachariyu was made and showed us his processing set-up too. It was interesting but a tad sad to see the heritage lost in today’s times.
Moving further, we spent the remainder of the morning in the local vegetable market. We wanted to pick up some fresh produce to take back home to Bombay. While there was nothing extraordinary to see here, the warmth of the people really got to us. We were with our local family there and almost every vendor welcomed us warmly. They happily obliged us with pictures because I don’t believe they would have had the opportunity to pose for pictures for tourists earlier. We even sent those pictures to them back and we were told they were over the moon. It’s these small gestures that make people happy and believe in being hospitable to strangers. The produce as I mentioned, fresh from the farm – says it all I think.
A short walk from the market is the local “Panjrapol” – a place that is dedicated to housing all animals – majorly cows that have lived their purpose and are of no benefit to their owners. It could be said as a retirement home for animals. Every large town will have theirs there but it is a very sad concept to see. The organisation running it does not earn anything. They only make do with donations or economic support from well-wishers. But we were told that surprisingly, things always worked out for them. There would be times when they would have no money to feed these animals for the following day but somehow, money would just come in and crisis would be averted. There were hundreds of such cows there and while it would normally have broken my heart, they seemed rather happy being there and this kind of lifted my spirits. It would be nice to come up with a plan to help such associations and do something for these animals at some point.
I guess this makes for a long post but I have even more good stuff for the next one on this town. Till then…