Every day, hundreds of angadias arrive in Mumbai carrying valuable diamonds from the gem-cutting city of Surat. Many members of this traditional courier service also bear with them a quota of culinary delights from the Gujarati city, which they deliver to a store called Chheda opposite Matunga Central Railway station. The delicacies sell out quicker than the tickets to a Falguni Pathak dandiya event.
One recent morning, I was part of a heaving mob mostly made up of housewives hankering for undhiyu, a rich dish made from winter vegetables, and ponk, a snack of winter millet. Just as the last grains of my ponk were being trickled on to the electronic weighing scale, I heard a commotion outside. A tow-truck was about to make off with my car. I pushed through the crowded store to fob off the crew and then darted back inside. But it was too late. In those 30 seconds, all the ponk had been sold out.
Mangeshkaka, the doorman, had observed the drama and volunteered some advice. “You should drive to Surat to sample the food firsthand rather than jostle for a few measly grams here,” he said. “The road is a six-lane delight, the weather will stay wintry right till mid-March and the city’s culinary variety will gratify the glutton in you.”
I drove into Surat at 8.30 the next morning. My friend Dhruv Modi was waiting for me outside the railway station. He’d warned me not to snack along the way because Surat’s best breakfast awaited me. This was at the Gopal Khaman House in Macharpura Kharadi Sheri, very near the station.
Dhokla is to Gujarat what butter chicken is to Punjab and hilsa is to Bengal. This little eatery creates a delicious variation of dhokla (steamed batter of rice and chickpeas) called khaman, which is prepared by soaking channa dal for several hours, grinding it into a paste and then letting it ferment. After mixing in spices and soda bicarbonate, the batter is steamed. The texture and taste depends on the duration and intensity of the steaming—a closely guarded secret.
Khaman is lighter coloured and fluffier than dhokla and comes with all sorts of garnishes. Gopal Khaman House, like a host of similar eateries in Surat, offers khaman dhokla topped with cheese or butter or (my favourite) fried green garlic. Locho, which is also Gujarati slang for “botched up”, is paste-like and denser than khaman. The proprietor, Gopalbhai says that it was created by accident when the steaming process went wrong. Since it is denser than the standard khaman, a bit like a collapsed cake, the flavour is more concentrated. It’s now a standard on Surat menus.
Sufficiently nourished until lunch, we headed toward the ponk market at Adajan. This winter delight is made from roasting green winter millet (jowar). It’s a crop that grows especially well on the fertile promontory called Hazira to the west of Surat, bounded by the Tapti delta and the Arabian Sea.
Bushels of fresh millet are transported to a processing area on the banks of the Tapti under the Sardar Bridge in Adajan. The sheaves are first lightly roasted in mud bhattis (ovens), then wrapped in coarse cloth and beaten with wooden sticks to coax the grain off the stalks. Next, the grain is separated from the chaff by groups of women sitting in front of the stalls where the ponk is sold. There were so many stalls and so much ponk and I didn’t have to battle domestic divas and harried housewives for a few milligrams of the grain. Opposite the ponk sellers were sev stalls where variously flavoured thin noodles of gram flour (garlic, pepper, chilly) were being deep-fried in cottonseed oil. Stall owners on both sides plied us with free samples of ponk and sev, which are mixed together and eaten as a tasty snack.
The Tapti is Surat’s ancient lifeline and the Dutch, French, Portuguese, English, and even the Swedes set up trading houses along its banks. The shores of the Tapti near Surat’s Nanpura area was inhabited by the Dutch in the 1700s and their establishments stood on the spot that is today called Dutch Road. They employed five Parsi men to bake bread for them. When the Dutch packed up their East India operations, they handed over the ovens to Faramji Pestonji Dotivala, who continued to bake bread for expats. The leftover bread that turned crisp was sold to local people and gained immense popularity as biscuits. Later, shortening and ghee was added to the dough to create the famous Surti batasa. Dotivala Bakers and Confectioners has stood at the same spot since 1775 and is now run by the sixth generation of the family. Their cakes, pure ghee nankhatais, and butter batasas are culinary icons of Surat.
Due to the prohibition in Gujarat, nightlife in Surat means hopping from food stall to food stall, especially in the heart of the old city. Begumpura here is a peek into Surat’s past, with majestic mosques, ornate temples and ancient Dutch and English cemeteries. Dhruv explained that most Surtis are “egg-itarians”, so the street vendors have invented all sorts of dishes to cater to their predilection. The most popular item is ghotalo, a combination of boiled egg, scrambled egg and an omelette but the secret is in the masala. Every time I asked Kejuramkaka, the chef at Ganesh Egg Stall what the spice-blend was made of, he went blank and pretended that my Mumbai Gujarati dialect was foreign to his Surti ears.
Dhruv’s wife, Amrita, explained that most of the egg dishes concocted in Surat (with exotic names like Australian Fry and Afghani Fry) are generally prepared with green garlic (abundant only during winter), pungent green chillies, and lots of butter.
Before Surat’s star faded away with the rise of Mumbai as the primary port on the western seaboard, the Gujarati city was the location from which pilgrims from all over India departed for Haj. This influx probably fuelled the meat food hawkers at Zampa Bazaar at Begumpura. Barbecue stalls crowd the narrow street, each lit by naked frosted bulbs and decorated with strings of chickens smeared with fiery orange marinade. Barrel-ovens exuded the aroma of roasting meat, baked rotis and hot coals. A speciality here is the mince-stuffed, deep-fried Rangooni paratha. The Rangoon connection comes from Rander, an area on the north bank of the Tapti. In the old days, many traders sailed from the port of Rander to distant shores, sometimes as far away as Burma. They returned with lots of teak to sell (Burma teak antiques sometimes still surface in Rander) and a fondness for the Rangooni paratha and khow suey, a noodle dish from Burma’s Shan state. During Ramzan, Rander is the place to visit for these delicacies.
We called it a night after a shot of speciality cocoa at the A-One Cold Drinks Centre at Chowk Bazaar, adjacent to Begumpura. The cocoa was thick, rich and silky. When asked how it was made, Abdulkaka, briskly mixing the cocoa said that it was a closely guarded secret.
Early next morning, we headed to Dumas, a port 21 kilometres from old Surat. It is revered for its Lashkari tomato bhajiya and feared for the supernatural forces that hover over the town. While the unique chutney-smeared, besan-coated and deep-fried tomato treats make it a popular breakfast haunt, few venture into Dumas after dark. Flicking the bhajiyas into the boiling oil, Manjarikaki told us that stray dogs howl their heads off at night, cowering with their tail between their legs. A camel herder swore he regularly hears voices in the night wind.
That afternoon, after having sampled street delicacies, I treated myself to the full-blown Surti whopper. The Gateway Hotel has a thali on offer for lunch from Monday to Saturday; it is prepared by Surti housewives who are invited to cook regional dishes. On the day I visited, the housewife-chef in charge was Sarojben, whose specialities included a lip-smacking undhiyu. This traditional winter delicacy is a mix of papdi (broad beans), potatoes, sweet potatoes, kand (purple yam), ariya kakdi (seedless cucumbers), brinjal, and unpeeled Rajagiri bananas. The spices include green garlic, chillies, coconut, and coriander. Sarojben told me that the dish has evolved from a preparation called ubadiyu, which was cooked in earthen pots and buried undhu (upside down) under a fire. “To sample ubadiyu, stop at Dungari about 70 kilometres from Surat on the road to Bombay,” she advised.
The last 36 hours had caused a considerable strain on my waist but I had an important errand to run before I left Surat. The Gujarati side of my family were anxiously awaiting my return bearing ghari, created in the early 1900s by Shah Jamnadas Chauta Ghariwala using a base of mawa (reduced milk solids). His shop has stood in Chauta Bazaar since it was founded in 1899. The signature kesar-badam-pista ghari, is sweet, smothered with ghee, and bursting with flavour. The curse of coronary disease has thinned the layer of ghee and now ghee-less ghari is available. But Jamnadas’s owner firmly stands by the establishment’s 5mm layer of ghee. “Eat just one ghari, but eat it well,” he believes. The shop’s other specialities are the kesar suttarfeni (a shredded dough sweet also called buddhi na bal) and doodhi halwa made from a variety of gourd grown near Surat.
That evening as I headed back, about an hour out of Surat, I saw a sign for Dungari and turned into the village. It was lined with little bamboo shelters, with tables and chairs, and fire pits alongside, with ubadiyu cooking. A delicious aroma of vegetables and wood smoke permeated the air. I stopped at Babukaka’s stall. While undhiyu is cooked in oil, ubadiyu is mostly steamed with spices. With his spicy chutney, it was simply divine.
As I returned to Mumbai a little past midnight, my taste buds were still tripping on the treats I had sampled over 48 hours. The next morning I felt compelled to go to Matunga and shake Mangeshkaka by the hand. He had proffered very good advice indeed.
Surat is in southwestern Gujarat, about 260 km south of Ahmedabad.
Surat is located 285 km/5 hours north of Mumbai. The six-lane road to Ahmedabad until Kadodra, where the left turn to Surat is, makes for smooth driving. There are more than 20 trains daily between Mumbai and Surat. Travel time varies from 4 to 6 hours.
Many of the foods mentioned, like ponk and undhiyu, are winter specialities. The weather between November and March is very pleasant and ideal to go on this foodie road trip.
Gopal Khaman and Locho House
The prices vary from ₹20 to 30 for a plate (100 grams) of the speciality khaman and locho. Try the version garnished with green garlic. The place is packed every morning from 7 to 8.30 a.m. and super packed on weekend mornings (98791 71928; Kharadi Sheri Naka, Hira Bazaar Main Road, Near Surat Railway Station).
Kanchan Lal is just one of many ponk sellers. The price of ponk ranges from ₹300-400 per kg depending on the harvest and crop. Sev costs ₹200 per kg (98251 46241; Kanchan Lal Daruwala, Opposite Swami Narayan Mandir, Adajan).
Dotivala Bakers and Confectioners
Batasas cost ₹160 per kg and the pure ghee nankhatais are ₹400 per kg (Ardeshir Kotwal Road, Makkai Bridge, Nanpura; 0261-2475027; www.dotivala.com).
Ganesh Omelette Centre
They have a huge menu so take your time and ask your waiter to explain the items you find interesting. The ghotalo (₹95) and Australian Fry (₹125) are best-sellers (98251 24515; Hathiwala Building, Near Moti Talkies, Begumpura).
A-One Cold Juice and Cold Drinks Centre
The signature drink is the cold cocoa for ₹40 (Opposite Silk House, Chowk Bazaar; 9377237937).
Lashkari Bhajiya Centre
The shop is right at Dumas Circle with the huge commemorative anchor. They have plenty of bhajiyas—purple yam, onion, green chilly—but the tomato ones are the most popular and cost ₹150 per kg (Dumas Bundar, 14 km from Athwa Lines).
Spice at The Gateway Hotel
The home-cooked thali is served from 12.30-3 p.m., Monday to Saturday, for ₹75 per person (inclusive of taxes). (Athwa Lines; 0261-6697000; www.thegatewayhotels.com.)
Zampa Bazaar Meat Stalls
There are numerous stalls and dishes to choose from here. Some bara handi (12 vessels) stalls offer paya, nalli nihari, bheja, zabaan and kaleji that cost about ₹50-100 per plate containing 4-5 pieces (Turn off Station road at the Clock Tower near Mahidharpura police station and follow your nose to Zampa Bazaar).
Shah Jamnadas C Ghariwala
Their kesar-badam-pista ghari retails at ₹500 per kg, doodhi halwa for ₹360 per kg and the suttarpheni and ghevar at ₹400 per kg (0261-2424773; 11/47, Chauta Bazaar; www.jamnadasghariwala.com).
Babubhai nu Ubadiyu
Ask for the ubadiyu, which costs ₹120 per kg (98259 02015; Dungari, Off NH8 just after Valsad on the way to Surat).
Appeared in the January 2013 issue as “Winter Warmers In Surat”. Prices as per date of magazine issue.
Rishad Saam Mehta
is a travel writer and photographer. He is the author of two books, the latest being "Fast Cars and Fidgety Feet" (Tranquebar, 2016).
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