Not Without My Theplas: Making a Case for India’s Most Versatile Food

From stand-up comics to flight attendants, everyone's got a thepla story to tell.  
There are few things that a box of theplas, with a generous helping of chundo, can't fix.
There are few things that a box of theplas, with a generous helping of chundo, can't fix.

A group of Indian girls have the munchies after a night of clubbing in Ibiza; a family from Mumbai is visiting the London Eye for the first time when one of the kids screams she’s hungry; a pregnant German girl in Innsbruck craves the snack she got hooked on during an exchange trip to India. What ties these situations together? Theplas, of course.

The much-maligned thepla is amongst India’s most prolific travellers, accompanying hungry, intrepid Gujaratis on their global adventures. Airports, safaris, island holidays, mountain hikes—the thepla makes it everywhere, and for this it has its hardiness to thank. Theplas are easy to make, pack, and go at least a couple of days without spoiling (longer if you refrigerate or freeze them).

And yet, the thepla is ridiculed by everyone from stand-up comics to flight attendants. As is the good-natured, perhaps a little over-enthusiastic traveller who carries them. As a Gujju, I don’t get it. We love to travel, we love our food and, for us, the two go hand in hand. They go together like gathiya and jalebi, like aamras and puri. Maybe sometimes we’re a little boisterous whilst sharing food with each other. I’ve known people give Gujjus the stink eye when they accidently get elbowed in the head while a kaka passes bhakris to his wife seated a row behind him on a flight. But we don’t mean any harm.

And even if Kaka did wake you up, why take it out on the thepla, that delicious upgrade on a chapati, flecked with fenugreek (methi) leaves and sesame seeds, and seasoned with turmeric, chilli powder, and jaggery? They can be real life-savers, especially for Indian students abroad, as I can testify from personal experience (I love them with butter, and sea salt & vinegar chips). Upon receiving a care package from home, a friend who lived in Los Angeles, subsisted on a diet of theplas smothered in avocado and chaat masala for an entire week. He couldn’t have been happier.

There are other Gujju snacks that travel well too. On almost every mode of transport I’ve ever taken, I’ve seen Gujarati uncles and aunties open up small bags stuffed with a dazzling array of nibbles—bhakri, chivda, chakli. The minute a Gujarati says “Bhuk lageche” (I’m hungry), you’ll hear bags unzipping and plastic rustling before someone asks “Su khaso?” (What will you eat?). A colleague once told me the story of a Gujarati travel companion who had a vanity case full of mini packets of different chivdas that she’d whip out the moment someone got hungry. But for me, nothing trumps theplas.

I can safely say that they’ve improved my travels immeasurably. The truth is, it isn’t always easy to find quick, inexpensive vegetarian meals when you’re travelling abroad. And when language is a problem, it’s harder to figure out what is and isn’t vegetarian. After a point, all those dumb charades with waiters get tiring. There are only so many bland cheese sandwiches and soggy fries you can eat before craving something more flavourful. A rolled-up thepla oozing the sunset-coloured shredded mango pickle called chundo has, time and again, saved the day.

The theplas my mum packs for me have often brought goodwill from other travellers. Earlier this year, I was on a diving trip in the Andamans. The day before returning home, I took the remaining theplas I had to the dive shop to share with the instructors and staff. When one of them tasted the pickle, he bowed his head to me in thanks. Turns out he’d never tasted chundo before.

But mostly, I carry theplas for the same reason people have pictures of their loved ones in their wallets. So that when everything goes pear-shaped, as it often does on the road, I have something to remind me of home, something that is at once sweet, spicy, and just the right amount of bitter.

Appeared in the July 2016 issue as “Not Without My Theplas”.


    Kamakshi Ayyar is Features Writer on National Geographic Traveller India's web team. She's partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.

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