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Why does Gujarati food not get the respect it deserves?

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that Gujaratis are among the most influential people in today’s India.

The country’s most powerful man is a proud Gujarati. So is his number two. Likewise for rich people.

Forget about the Birlas, Tatas or even the Murthys. India’s two richest men are Gujaratis: Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani. And if you really want to look at the richest tech billionaires, then Azim Premji is a Gujarati.


   I mention all this not to brag. I claim no kinship other than a shared ethnicity with these big shots. And I am not entirely convinced by the claim, often advanced on social media, that Gujaratis have now come to dominate everything from designing government buildings to managing the media.


   My only point is this: if Gujaratis are really calling the shots in New India, then why does our food not get the respect it deserves?


   The Prime Minister’s two big food initiatives have been Pan-Indian (as perhaps all Prime Ministerial initiatives should be): khichdi and millets. Gujaratis make a great khichdi but it is a dish you find everywhere in India so Gujaratis can take no pride in the government’s attempt, some years ago, to cook the world’s biggest khichdi. And the spread of millets is a global initiative with no special significance for Gujaratis.


   And the Indian food scene continues to be resolutely non-Gujarati. Take chefs. A much higher proportion of them, than is justified by their presence in our population, are Punjabis. Show me a chef who has judged MasterChef India and is not a Punjabi and I will show you a unicorn.


   It has got so bad that when I was last in Ahmedabad, I wandered through the kitchen of the excellent, brand new hotel, the ITC Narmada, looking for Gujarati chefs. Not much luck. And of course, in other cities it is even harder to find Gujarati chefs.


   Over Christmas, at the new Mementos by ITC in Udaipur, I was surprised and delighted to find that not only was the Chef Nikhil Merchant a Gujarati, he had such a  terrific hand that no matter what he made, from fresh farsan to the creamiest scrambled eggs, it was always delicious.


   Outside of India, the best known chefs are certainly not Gujaratis. What do Gaggan Anand, Vineet Bhatia, Vikas Khanna, Atul Kochchar, Karam Sethi, Garima Arora and Sat Bains have in common?  You didn’t have to think too hard to answer that one, did you? Yes, of course, they are all Punjabis.


   Now, when I meet a Gjuarati chef – and it does not happen very often, I must concede — I am thrilled. It pleases me that Chintan Pandya is one of the hottest chefs, across cuisines, in New York because he is an Indian. But I would be lying if I did not admit to feeling a special pride because he is a Mumbai Gujarati like me. I feel the same way about the brilliant Karan Gokani (also a Mumbai Gujarati) who looks after Hoppers, one of my favourite London restaurants. (Though, as Karan will be the first to admit, the Malayali Renjith Sarath Chandran and Karam Sethi his Punjabi brother-in-law also conceived the restaurant.)


"Take the delicate Gujarati samosa with its crisp patti (or skin). It bears as much resemblance to a North Indian samosa as a peacock does to a hippopotamus." 

   In India, there had not been a lot for Gujaratis to celebrate till the emergence of Hussain Shahzad, one of the best chefs of his generation. Hussain grew up in Chennai but he is a Gujarati-speaking Muslim who is proud of his roots.


   And that, I regret to say, is about it. You will find a few other Gujarati chefs here and there but the truth is that, forget about the Punjabi dominance, there are probably more successful Parsis in the chef world than there are Gujaratis, which, given how many Gujaratis  there are in India compared to the minuscule number of Parsi is shameful.


   Because Gujaratis have stayed out of the professional kitchen, myths about Gujarati food have abounded. There is the view of most Punjabis and other North Indians that all Gujarati food is sweet.


   This is, essentially, based on a misunderstanding of the flavour of a single dish: Tuvar dal, just one of the many dals that Gujaratis make. The point of a Tuvar dal is the interplay between sweet (say gud) flavours and sour tastes (say, Kokum, which sadly, is unknown to most Punjabis). It's a complex balance and when the dal is cooked by non-Gujaratis or those who do not understand how the sour sweet trade-off works, it can end up being a little sweet. But even then it is rarely as sweet as say, the cholar dal that Bengalis make. And nobody ever says that Bengali food is too sweet.


   The problem, I think, is that most Indians (outside of Gujarat and perhaps Mumbai) have no idea what Gujarati food is really like. When you say it has delicate flavours that are as far from black dal or Butter Chicken as Gujarat is from North India, most people look blank. When you point out that Gujarati cuisine is more focussed on texture than most other Indian cuisines, they stare uncomprehendingly.


   Take bhelpuri, invented by Gujaratis in Mumbai, which took the chaat that guys from UP had brought to Mumbai to the next level. The dish is about a mixture of textures in a way that say, most Delhi chaat is not.


   Or take the delicate Gujarati samosa with its crisp patti (or skin). It bears as much resemblance to a North Indian samosa as a peacock does to a hippopotamus. There is no stodge about it, the samosa itself is smaller and the texture hints at what is to follow when you bite into it.


   Even when recently-invented Gujarati dishes can be heavy and butter-filled, the final taste is tangy spice. Compare pav-bhaji (invented to feed Gujarati cotton-traders outside the old Cotton Exchange) with Butter Chicken. Both are of roughly the same vintage but the flavours of the pavbhaji spicing are sharp and distinct and cut through the butter.


   One problem is that many people don’t even realise that these are Gujarati dishes. (We don’t all live on dhoklas!) The other is that authentic versions are hard to get outside Western India. (I feel like throwing up after trying most Delhi pav bhaji including the versions sold at five star hotels.)


   Another problem is that people sometimes think of Vanya food (that’s my community) as all there is to Gujarati food. Often it is confused with onion-garlic-free Jain food (my community again).


   In actual fact, there is much more to the food of Gujarat than the cuisine of its most successful trading Hindu/Jain communities. The state’s Muslim communities (Khojas, Bohras, Memons, etc.) create some of the most delicious non-vegetarian food in India. For years and years, I would bring back matkas of Bohra Biryani to Delhi from Mumbai. And until she passed away, a Bangalore-based Memon lady called Anissa always packed the best samosas for me. (Memon samosas are bigger and flakier than normal Gujarati samosas which are most closely associated with the Bohra community.)


   Each time I work myself up into a lather about the injustices done to Gujarati food, I try and think of how little we know of the food of say, Orissa. Or even of Assam. And there is much more to Rajasthan food than Lal Maas.


   So maybe it’s not a Gujarat-only problem. Even as Indians are now beginning to explore the food of the world, we ignore the delicious cuisines that we find at home.




  • Shweta 21 Jan 2024

    As a fellow gujarati, i agree with all you say. Plus, the sub regional cuisine of gujarat is more diverse than most. Kaathiyavadi, Surti, kutchi food are still slightly known. But what about the seafood of Halaar, the non veg food of South Gujarat, the tribal food of rajpipla. Not to say the community specific food of bohri, Memon, rajput, kanbi population.

    Regarding the high precedent of vegetarian cuisine I think the three influences are Vaishnav, Jain and swaminarayan sampraday on the State.

  • Gautam Natrajan 21 Jan 2024

    You make a good point, but I feel the real unknown entity of Indian food is North-Eastern cuisine. It covers seven states but is barely known elsewhere. Chintan Pandya has honoured it by promoting Doh Kleh(Naga goat head stew) in his restaurants. I hope you write a article about it some day.

Posted On: 19 Jan 2024 11:45 AM
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