One can almost picture the Almighty plotting the geography of the state of Gujarat with a twinkle in His eye. “We have to balance the ingenuity of the people of the state with the topography of the land, so because We have endowed them with a fertile imagination, in compensation We can fob them off with poor rainfall, rocky soil, a tiny percentage of arable land and far fewer rivers than We have bequeathed the neighbours.” The upshot is that inspite of the factors ranged against agriculture, dairy farming is more important in Gujarat than anywhere else not only in the country, but in the whole of Asia: the Amul Co-operative Society is Asia’s largest dairy co-operative.
The result is that the overwhelmingly vegetarian cuisine of the state can be characterized by its medley of tastes and textures, so that every meal is composed of sweet, sour, salty and astringent elements, with staples ranging from rice, wheat, millet and barley to lentils. These are supplemented by vegetables, milk and dairy products, particularly milk, curd and buttermilk as well as other snacky items, all irresistibly delicious and crunchy, made out of gram-flour, so that the unyielding land and the relative absence of irrigation is more than compensated for. You can sense God in His heaven nodding His head sagely.
It is not only the ingredients and the ingenuity with which they are cooked that characterizes Gujarati cuisine, but the four regions as well, each region having well-marked differences. “I was always delighted to receive an invitation to visit the home of my best friend in school, who was from Saurashtra, because unlike the rather sweet food that we ate at home (my parents are from Ahmedabad), her mother’s food had a deliciously sharp tang because of all that mustard,” reminisces Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal, food consultant and owner of APB Cook Studio. The four regions are Kutch which is a largely barren, sandy desert, the arid peninsula of Saurashtra, north Gujarat and south Gujarat, also known as Surti Gujarat, after the prominent city. And then of course there are the communities that each has their own food habits. With a large Jain population which is often cited as the reason for the state’s vegetarianism, to Rajputs, Parsis and Muslims all of whom are meat-eating, there’s never a dull moment in the culinary scene of the state.
Ask any ten people from the state what their main crops are, and they’ll lose no time in rattling off the names of cotton, tobacco, mangoes etc. Ask the same people which spices grow in the state and they’ll stare at you blankly, but the area around Unjha, equidistant from Palanpur and Mehsana, is the most important in the country for cumin, that most elemental of spices. “Travel by rail at dead of night and when you reach Unjha station, the surprisingly floral fragrance of zeera will wake you up,” claims frequent traveller Paresh Arya. “It’s nothing like the rather astringent smell of the spice itself” he insists.
Cumin – together with other seed spices like fennel and fenugreek – may not be grown around Unjha but because of the sheer convenience of the wholesale market, Unjha has become the de facto mandi for even those seed spices that do not grow in the area. Coriander, for instance, grows in parts of neighbouring Rajasthan and more famously in Madhya Pradesh, but it is in Gujarat where it has its most ingenious use. Visit any traditional Gujarati restaurant in the state, and you will be given a choice of three or four mouth fresheners on your way out. One of them will be a flat brown disc slightly salty and crunchy. This is the inner core of the coriander seed, and Gujarat is the only state where you’ll find a spice other than fennel being used as a mouth freshener.
Two factors define Gujarati food. The first is that though the state is an industrial powerhouse, agriculture lies a hair’s breadth below the surface, at least as far as public habit goes. Every family, from the wealthiest industrialist to the most humble middle-class householder, buy their grains and spices once a year and that too in the spring. Unlike elsewhere in the country, it is not a simple matter of popping into the corner store, buying a 100 gram packet each of cumin, coriander, turmeric and chilli powder and trudging home. Instead, it involves a laborious process that could take from between one full day to three days. The wholesale market in each large town is where you’ll see a burst of colour of women out for the day. They will walk purposefully down rows and rows of small wholesale shops, peering into the sacks of whole spices. Once they see the quality they like and have approved the price, kilos of it are bought, taken home and picked over. The next day, the ladies set off to the mill nearby to have the spices ground in front of their eagle eyes. After years of practice, the stash lasts precisely one year.
So prevalent is the system that even the largest departmental stores have figured out and have lost no time in catering to the demand. Whole chillies, turmeric, wheat etc are displayed in enormous packets with the branding on it. Each departmental store has a grinding machine outside in its courtyard. In the spring season, it takes on a carnival spirit with children crying for balloons and candy floss (both of which have been provided by the store). The ladies wait their turn, and by the end of it are seen triumphantly departing with armloads of grains and spices, just the way it was always done.
The other factor is just how popular rustic fare is. To a man, give a Gujarati a meal of rotla (thick chapatti), pure ghee and a hunk of jaggery made without preservatives, and he will not ask for more. In fact, restaurants like Vishalla in Ahmedabad are successful precisely because they replicate the atmosphere of a village. And when Gujarat erupts during young millet season (called paunk and available only in Surat) the Almighty probably allows Himself a sly smile of satisfaction.