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A new Ahmedabad for a new generation

For most non-Gujaratis, all Gujarati food is the same.

For Gujaratis, however, there are many variations. I am a Mumbai Gujarati, a distinction that may not make sense to those who don’t know that till 1960, the state of Gujarat did not exist. Much of what we now call Gujarat and Maharashtra were part of a state called Bombay.


My father was from Rajkot, which is now a part of Gujarat, but which was, when I was born, part of Saurashtra, a state on its own. My mother was from Ahmedabad, which is now the capital of Gujarat.


   Gujaratis from all of these cities had different food traditions. Mumbai Gujaratis invented bhelpuri and Pav Bhaji, two dishes that are popular all over India. The food of Saurashtra was (and is) intense and flavourful, with grains such as bajra featuring.


   Even in today’s Gujarat, cities like Surat have their own cuisine: Surti street food is second only to Mumbai in terms of variety and innovation.


   Till recently, Gujaratis treated Ahmedabad rather as Punjabis treat Chandigarh: as a city where the food is bland and uninteresting. Just as Punjabis look to Amritsar, Ludhiana and other cities for culinary excellence, Gujaratis regarded the food of Ahmedabad as being inferior to the food of say, Surat or even Mumbai.


   I spent a lot of time in Ahmedabad when I was young because my grandparents lived in a grand house in Shahibag, with maharajs and servants. And though it was all very lavish (they were rich), I found the food unexciting. This was as true of the food in the rest of the city. To eat well in Ahmedabad, you had to eat ice cream (which was always very good) three times a day. And it was largely a vegetarian city: it was hard to get any meat outside of the Muslim localities.


   Even after my grandparents died, I kept going back to Ahmedabad. The city went through a bad patch when the textile industry collapsed and the wealth was sucked out of Ahmedabad. Though there were interesting restaurants (Agashi, Vishala, etc.) the food, in general, remained miles behind the food of say, Surat.


   So, it was a huge surprise to me when I went back to Ahmedabad last week to discover that nearly everything had improved, including the food. I stayed at the newly-opened ITC Narmada, a hotel so elegant and spectacular that my first (totally uncharitable) thought was that it was too luxurious and grand for Ahmedabad. I assumed that ITC’s decision to spend ?600 crore to build a world class hotel was a gesture of faith in Gujarat rather than a pure business decision.


   I was wrong. After I had stayed in the city for a few days, I discovered that the hotel’s air of joyful luxury was actually in tune with the current mood of Ahmedabad. For a start, Gujaratis in general are on a massive high. The two most powerful men in India are Gujaratis and are proud of it. The two richest men in India—Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani— are also Gujaratis. And though Mukesh Ambani is a Mumbai Gujarati, Gautam Adani and his empire are based in Ahmedabad.


"Processed cheese has also become the signature food of Gujarat. Amdavadis now put processed cheese in nearly everything."

   The city itself has seen prosperity surge. The now deceased textile industry has been replaced by other booming sectors, including, most notably, pharma which has produced more Gujarati millionaires than textiles ever did. All of the restaurants at the ITC Narmada were jam-packed and elsewhere in the city, nearly everyone seemed to be eating out.


   So, what do Amdavadis (as they prefer to be called) like to eat when they eat out? Just like Punjabis, their favourite food now seems to be paneer. At Peshawari at the ITC Narmada, table after table ordered the paneer tikka.


   On one of the evenings when I was there, one of Ahmedabad’s richest men tried the paneer tikka at Peshawari. He liked it so much that he asked the staff how they managed to get paneer of this quality. He had to get his cooks to make their own paneer at home, he said, because the quality available in the Ahmedabad market was not good enough.


   As paneer has never been an integral part of Gujarat cuisine, his passion has surprised me. But it is not just paneer. Processed cheese has also become the signature food of Gujarat (though at least here, Ahmedabad has a territorial claim. The Amul operation in Anand is just an hour away). Amdavadis now put processed cheese in nearly everything.


   Another craze I had not encountered before is for puff pastry (what we sometimes call patties) with fillings. And all too often the pastry was filled with cheese combinations: with Kothmir, with tomato, with chilli etc.


   At the ITC Narmada, the chefs noticed how much Amdavadis liked cheese, green chutney and starch and invented a Gujarati Club Sandwich which they called an Amdavadi double decker. It was made with cheese, potatoes, Kothmir chutney, tomato, capsicum, chillis and onion. It is a bestseller at the hotel because it includes the city’s favourite flavours but I was sceptical till I tried it. My wife liked it so much that we ordered another one right away. It beats the hell out of the more established Bombay Sandwich.


   I asked Karan Tanna, one of a new generation of Gujarati food entrepreneurs, if I was right in thinking that Gujaratis could live solely on processed cheese. He laughed and said that only in Ahmedabad do you find Cheese Butter Masala. This is made with the familiar butter chicken gravy. But instead of paneer (which is what vegetarians in the rest of India put in it) Amdavadis put cubes of Amul cheese. “As the cheese melts into the gravy” said Karan, “it is quite delicious.”


   Non-vegetarians are no longer as starved of options as they used to be. As the ITC Narmada, Yi Jing, which has a chef from Sichuan, served authentic Chinese food to crowds of Gujaratis-turned-modern (like me, I guess) and much to my surprise I had one of the best Chinese meals I have had recently there.


   Moreover, according to Karan, food places in the city’s Muslim areas are finally attracting a multi-religion crowd. (i.e.: Hindu and Jain Gujaratis are going there.) In fact, he said, it was now a big deal to get parties catered by Muslim establishments from the old city. This is a welcome development in a city that has had an unhappy communal history. And the traditional Muslim restaurants have created vegetarian versions of their most famous dishes to reach across the religious divide.


   Karan also pointed to the popularity of traditional snacks among young Gujaratis—a phenomenon I had first noticed in Surat.  While millennials in most Indian cities want hamburgers, in Gujarat they want khaman dhokla. Admittedly, it is not my grandmother’s kind of khaman they want—they like them dipped in chatpata sauces or drenched in (you guessed it;) cheese. But khaman is still a traditional food in origin.


   And then, of course, there is ‘pijja’, a food that was once Italian, then American and is now firmly Gujarati. The combination of maida, tomato, chilli and (yes!) cheese is something no Gujarati can resist, so Gujarat has the largest range of vegetarian pizzas in the world. But as always happens when a dish achieves mass popularity, there are people who then want to graduate to the real thing. At the ITC Namada, I watched gobsmacked as the chef made an authentic Naples style pizza and then grated fresh truffles on it. This is not my dadaji’s Ahmedabad, I thought to myself.


   So yes, Ahmedabad has changed. But the changes are positive. There is more prosperity. The ITC Narmada is just one example of the kind of money that is being spent to build a new Ahmedabad for a new generation of citizens. Even the food has finally reached the standards of the rest of Gujarat.


    The people are happier than I have seen them in years. And yes, they miss no opportunity to say ‘cheese’!




  • Prakash Kanani 04 Sep 2022

    Nice Artical

Posted On: 02 Sep 2022 12:30 PM
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