Old Town & Gujarati Cuisine: Ahmedabad, India

Gujarat, India?! Uh…what about it? That was my first reaction when my cousin suggested I meet her in her temporary hometown of Ahmedabad (Gujarat’s ex-capital) on my once in three year visit to India. I could be trekking in Ladakh or hanging out  in some random village in the south. What the heck would we do in Gujarat?!

The land of the famous vegetable dish Dhokla, and nine nights of dancing that followed during the festival of Navratri was all I really knew about this state. I do love dancing. But I wasn’t exactly going during the festival time! My cousin, an architect specializing in urban design and planning, had been working on developing the river front on the Sabarmati river that runs through Ahmedabad. In her past two years living in the city, she was convinced northern Gujarat would be adventurous and that it would be perfect for us to explore!

Why not camp for a few nights in the salt desert, visit tiny villages nearby, and meet and eat with the local desert people, she asked me. Okay. An explorer at heart, I decided it sounded off-the-beaten path enough for me! Let the adventure begin….

I landed in Ahmedabad on a sunny afternoon. What once used to be the capital of the state of Gujarat, Ahmedabad, is a bustling city! Gujaratis are known to be frugal with money. I counter they should be known for their generosity and hospitality, regardless of wealth or caste. Why? Keep reading.

I had also forgotten that the great Mahatma Gandhi was born in Gujarat. Ahmedabad still houses remnants of Gandhi, from Chandra Vilas, the small but homely restaurant where he and Sardar Patel used to hang out, to the Gandhi Ashram on the banks of the peaceful Sabarmati river. The Sabarmati river itself has turned into a lovely place to hang out in the evenings. The promenade, my cousin’s project, is in the process of being developed and promises to be a popular attraction with the locals in the coming years. I can see why. Check out the pic below.

I was in Ahmedabad for only two short days, but in those days, my senses were assaulted with the tastiest of vegetarian foods, sensations that exploded all over my mouth and brought nothing but mindless pleasure to my brain and tongue. From the tiny, hot crispy samosas served with dhal and chutney, to the choicest of tea with adrak (ginger), to delicious pav bhaji, to the ever popular Lucky Tea stall’s maska buns and chutney sandwhiches, I could barely focus on M.F. Hussein’s art work, hanging on the wall at what is now called Lucky Restaurant!

Samosas with dhal/chutney
Maska bun
Tea stall
Pav Bhaji

My cousin promised old town Ahmedabad was charming and not to be missed. We decided to take a walk through it – her version of the Heritage Walk that takes place weekly for tourists. Old town is indeed charming, a labyrinth of streets that give you a glimpse into everyday life. These narrow streets are known as the ‘pols’ of Ahmedabad, containing people either of the same caste or trade. Each ‘pol’ has its own guarded entrance, while some even have secret doors that link them to the rest of the city. Intriguing?

Make no mistake, you can come across anything from cow dung on the streets, to puppies endearingly sunning themselves, to women gathered around a door step enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon. The people are friendly and the best part is that life goes on as it probably has for the past couple of centuries.  We walked through various ‘pols’, havelis, book markets, kite stores, and various Hindu and Jain temples. The beautiful Swaminarayan temple is part of the fabric of old town while the Jama Masjid mosque is a display in Islamic architecture dating back to the 1400s, during the reign of Ahmed Shah. We strolled through the book market which opens out to the bustling square known as Manek Chowk. Here are some pics I took on the way. 🙂

Thread used to fly kites – in preparation for the kite flying festival
Jamma Masjid Mosque

Manek Chowk is a bustling open square that functions as a vegetable market in the morning, a jewelry shopper’s paradise by afternoon and a scrumptious food market by night. We wandered its narrow alleys for fabric, out of which you can make Indian suits and western wear, indulged in some gentle bargaining and walked away smugly with our afternoon’s purchases. I eyed the mukhwas (mouth fresheners) and vegetable vendors fondly – a visual treat for photographers even if you don’t end up buying anything.

Mukwas – mouth fresheners

By now, we had digested our maska buns and were ready for the every popular fafda and jalebi snack combination I had been hearing about since I had stepped into Ahmedabad. We made a beeline for Chandra Vilas, where we waited in immense anticipation for the much talked about snack. The owner having spotted me taking pictures for my blog, laid a plate of toor dhal kachoris, undhio and pooris on our table.

When we tried to pay him for this, he refused saying he wanted me to taste these items as they represent the Gujrati cuisine. Touched by his kindness, what else could we do but polish off the food in due course and thank him profusely. I died and went to heaven and back upon tasting the toor dhal kachori, the likes of which I had never had before. The fafda and jalebi combination was wicked and created all kinds of contrasting sensations in my tongue that I cannot describe.

Toor dhal kachori
Making Jalebi

We decided to walk off our stuffed tummies by continuing through to the textile market.  Crowded, filled with traffic, a cow here and there, pedestrians, and shop keepers trying to lure you to into their tiny stores crammed with varieties of fabric, this market is a shopper’s delight. Keep a tight grip on your purse, and enjoy the visual treat! I managed to snag some fabric for family members in India who often use colorful material to make Indian suits for every day wear, at a minimal cost.

We finally ended up at the calm and serene House of MG, popular with foreigners. It’s rooms are adorned with swings, while its cafe makes for a refreshing haven for snacks and drinks. Gujarat is a dry state meaning alcohol is illegal, unless you possess a license from the government. What the state lacks in alcohol, it makes up for in its refreshing and healthy fruit juices like the popular Amla and Sherbet drinks at the House of MG.

After having filled our stomach with some Pathra and Panki, made by cooking batter between banana leaves, we headed to our next stop for shrikhand and kakras! How can one step into Gujarat and not have a kakra?! Kakra is a delicious flatbread, often eaten with sweet mango chutney. I bought some methi and masala kakra for family and some spicy large chillies and lasun chutney in a small bag as an accompaniment for the kakra. My tongue was already watering again at the thought of attacking this combination.

You would think we could not eat any more food at this point. We realized we could. We wandered around the city and ended up at Moti Mahal in old town – the oldest establishment for Biryanis. I had to try it before I left this city. So my cousin and I decide to split a vegetarian Biryani. Served with a side of egg and some masala, the biryani was layered and utterly delicious. Once we polished it off we needed something sweet so of course we had to head to the night market at Manek Chowk.

We stood in front of the chocolate sandwich stall and waited for some plastic stools. We secured two and sat down to munch on chocolate cheese sandwiches unique to this city.  It was definitely interesting. You have to give this a try if you are in Ahmedabad!  It was slightly salty but I had never had anything like this before and enjoyed it.

Leaving the city to explore the villages was a tough decision as I knew I was going to dearly miss the food so far. But when adventure calls, one most respond, so we transferred some clothes into our backpack for easier mobility and set off that night by train for the villages.

Come walk the salt flats with me in my next blog!

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