Flavor's Realm

In the Indian state of Gujarat, everyday food is high art.

James Oseland

On a recent trip to Gujarat, India's westernmost state, I ate the most magnificent thali I've ever had. It was in Ahmadabad, Gujarat's largest metropolitan area, within the walled warren of narrow lanes that is the city's ancient heart. On that hot, dry summer evening I made my way through the winding streets to a beautifully restored haveli, or mansion, the roof of which was given over to a restaurant called Agashiye.

Nearly every region of India has its own version of thali, a selection of small dishes served on a circular metal platter (also called a thali), but nowhere does this iconic meal exhibit the richness, the diversity of ingredients, and the sheer abundance that it does in Gujarat. At Agashiye, I sat at a table strewn with rose petals; my meal arrived on a bronze thali ringed with bowls containing foods in a striking variety of colors and textures. There were stewed, spiced black-eyed peas; a crimson-colored sweet-sour tomato curry thick with fried chickpea noodles; a sumptuously sweet dal, or lentil stew, flavored with jaggery (Indian brown sugar) and curry leaves; batter-fried banana and bell pepper slices sprinkled with black salt; and a sweet yogurt pudding tinted a luminous yellow thanks to an immodest quantity of saffron.

There wasn't a morsel of meat in sight, and I didn't miss it. I scooped the food from the different bowls with the fingers of my right hand or with various flatbreads. In between, I nibbled on slivers of sweet raw onion; fried green chiles; and patra, a snack of steamed spirals of taro leaf stuffed with spiced chickpea flour. With each bite, one flavor or sensation was offset by another—sweet with sour or salty, hot with cool, crisp with creamy. I sipped cucumber water and watched the chef move to and fro in his enormous open kitchen, deftly putting the finishing touches on thali after thali. He made it look simple. Looking down at the exquisite array of foods before me, I knew it wasn't.

I've been nurturing an obsession with the cooking of Gujarat for years. To me, it's the most beautiful food in the world, and the most mysterious. Certain historical and cultural forces at play in the Gujarati style of eating are easy enough to ascertain. Jutting into the Arabian Sea, this part of India was for centuries a center of trade between the rest of India and points west; it has also historically been a place where the traditions of North India and South India converge. Gujarati traders returning from far-flung lands have brought a certain cosmopolitanism to this part of India that has translated, through the years, as an openness to different foods and flavors.

For all those reasons, a constant flow of new ingredients—such as spices native to Southeast Asia like cinnamon and mace—has moved through Gujarat, and the local merchant class has had the means and the inclination to make use of them. Outside the port cities and other urban centers, much of Gujarat is farmland, so locally grown produce is plentiful there, too. The state is home to Hindus, Muslims, and members of numerous other religions and sects, notably the Jains, who follow a nonviolent way of life of which strict vegetarianism is a vital part. In fact, two out of every three Gujaratis don't eat meat—the highest proportion of vegetarians of any state in India. Beyond that restriction, though, Gujaratis are, on the whole, happy to indulge their appetites to glorious excess, and cooks there are famously unabashed in their use of ghee (clarified butter) and jaggery.

How do Gujarati cooks manage to obtain such a range and depth of flavor from the vegetables they cook? That, I figured, must come down in no small part to technique. On this trip to Gujarat, I was determined to seek out cooks who could teach me to re-create for myself the opulent, complex dishes I'd come to crave.

The afternoon after my feast at Agashiye, I traveled 15 miles southeast of Ahmadabad, to the farm of Jayantilal Patel. I'd been provided an introduction by a Gujarati friend and was happy when Patel invited me to his home for a meal. As I drove, I saw rice paddies fanning out in the distance, their surfaces rippling in the breeze. Water buffalo trudged along, their horns swaying right and left.

Patel's small farm, a loose constellation of sun-baked fields and cinder-block buildings, provides a living for six families through the production of rice, wheat, mustard seeds, and milk. When I arrived, Patel's wife, Meena, and a handful of other women were busy in the courtyard outside the main house. Meena was boiling tea on an earthenware stove fired with tree branches while the others ladled milk from a metal vat into plastic bags in preparation for the next day's deliveries—400 in all—which would be carried out by bicycle. Patel, a weathered 45-year-old man, emerged from the house and welcomed me heartily. "Our Ahmadabad is expanding exponentially," he said with a smile, his arms outstretched. "I'm glad you've decided to visit a place that feeds it!"

As soon as Meena finished pouring tea for me and the workers, she began to prepare our supper over the wood-fired stove in the courtyard. She started by frying cumin seeds, chopped garlic, and curry leaves in a wok-like pan called a kadai. Almost every Gujarati dish begins like this: with the quick-frying of spices and aromatics, which release their essence into the cooking fat so that the flavors can infuse the ingredients that are added later—in this case, okra, fresh turmeric, chile powder, chickpea flour, and yogurt, for a spicy stew called bhinda ni kadhi. In this way, flavor and spice become the foundation of the dish, not an afterthought that gets sprinkled on at the end.

When the dish was nearly ready, Meena began arranging our thalis on the porch of the house while Patel remained in the yard to roast pappadum (lentil wafers) over the fire's embers. As we began to eat, dozens of squawking green parrots bolted from the branches of a nearby tree. The thali set before me was far more spare than the one I'd had the previous evening, but the few elements it contained—silky okra stew, black millet flatbread spread with butter, garnishes of sweet mango pickle, fiery fried chiles, and chunks of jaggery (to be nibbled on for an extra dimension of sweetness)—nevertheless added up to something absorbingly complex.

The following day, I paid a visit to Sangam Mehta, a 45-year-old housewife who'd spent part of her life in New York City, where I'd met her. Mehta lives in a large, comfortable house in the Palvi area of Ahmadabad. She and her 72-year-old mother, Charu, were almost finished preparing the midday meal when I arrived. I'd accepted an invitation to eat with the Mehtas in part because they are observant Jains, and I was curious to see how the asceticism of that Hindu sect might be reflected in a typical meal. The Mehtas' kitchen contained no tables or chairs; just a few freestanding wooden cupboards and a portable stovetop attached by a rubber hose to a propane tank.

When lunch was ready, Mehta prepared a thali for me. She explained, "The chapati should go closest to you, with the vegetables on the right and the chutneys and salads opposite them." I looked down at the green plastic platter, on which half a dozen foods were arranged just so. Along with a cucumber stir-fry, a curry made from pappadum, and whole-wheat chapati, there was a velvety sheera, or sweet porridge—eaten as part of the meal, not afterward as a dessert would be in the West.

According to Jain practice, the meal contained no garlic or onions and no root vegetables like carrots, because harvesting them means killing the entire plant, as opposed to removing just a part of it. Yet the overall effect was hardly austere. I was struck, in particular, by the way that the sweet taste of the sheera made the savory elements of the thali stand out. It reminded me of a comment I'd once heard from a native of Punjab, in India's far north: "Gujarati food is nothing more than Punjabi food with a lot of sugar added." How far that was from the truth. The point, I now recognized, wasn't sweetness but balance. Or, as Mehta put it, "Sweet, sour, bitter, salty, spicy—in the Gujarati thali, all the flavors are there." Even the simplest of dishes, she went on to tell me, can be made to sing in that carefully pitched harmony.

Varshaben Chauhan, the wife of a taxi driver who lives in the old city of Ahmadabad, could be called the perfect practitioner of that notion. I'd met the 42-year-old housewife through her husband, who works for the family of a friend of mine, and a few days after my lunch with the Mehtas, I visited her in the 200-year-old building where she and her husband live. It was around 11 in the morning, and I found her squatting on the kitchen floor cutting small red onions with a knife fashioned from a recycled band saw. There was no chopping board; whatever she had to cut—potatoes, tomatoes, chiles—she held in her hand, letting slices fall onto a battered stainless-steel plate. I looked on as she deftly dispensed with two fist-size cabbages, shredding them onto the plate and then massaging the shredded cabbage with salt to soften it. Next she heated peanut oil in a kadai and added black mustard seeds, curry leaves, and the pungent spice asafetida.

"You have to listen to the mustard seeds," she explained. "They'll tell you when to add the next ingredient." Sure enough, the seeds began popping furiously, and when the noise subsided, she added the cabbage along with slices of tomato and peppers. The finished dish, flavored with jaggery, lime juice, and chopped cilantro, looked something like an Indian coleslaw. The cabbage was remarkably supple, and the dish delivered the full range of tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, salty, spicy—in every bite.

By this point in the trip, I was aching to get behind the stove and apply what I'd learned. So, I was especially pleased when I arrived later that day for a meal at the home of Manisha Shah, a 60-year-old woman with whom mutual friends had put me in touch, and learned that she was going to make khandvi. That snack—a bite-size, rolled-up chickpea-flour pancake strewn with mustard seeds, cilantro, and shreds of fresh coconut—is my favorite of all Gujarati foods, and I'd always wanted to learn how to make it. Shah lives in an apartment complex in the northwestern part of Ahmadabad; she'd invited a number of her friends and relatives—all women, all eager to show me authentic Gujarati home cooking.

To make the khandvi, Shah used an immersion blender to puree chickpea flour and yogurt with turmeric powder, salt, and a paste of ginger and green chiles. "In the old days we had a hand churner, but this is much faster," she told me. Next, she thickened the mixture on the stove until it had acquired a polenta-type consistency. Time was clearly of the essence as she snatched the pot from the stove, turned on her heel, and headed back out to the dining room, her turquoise sari flowing around her. The dining table had been covered with a plastic sheet; Shah immediately spread a swath of the thickened, bright yellow batter on its surface. She pressed the batter gently with her fingers and invited me to do the same; drying quickly, it was already springy to the touch.

Using a small knife, she began cutting the batter into strips the width of suspenders. Smiling, she held the knife out to me. I cut a few strips of my own before Shah gently nudged me aside and completed the job. Then she demonstrated the technique for rolling: begin at the end of a strip, roll until it has the diameter of a quarter, slice, and begin rolling again. She moved aside and let me try. I completed a sizable pile of quite respectable little roll-ups and, surprised at my success, blurted out "Wow!" which drew giggles from the women in the room.

Having participated in the simple but ingenious steps that went into the making of this food, I knew that, when we finally sat down to eat, I'd approach the khandvi with a new sense of reverence. The careful preparation, the considered seasoning, the variety of ingredients—every aspect of the dish added up to a balanced and beautiful whole.