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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  The caste guide to street food

The caste guide to street food

While Ahmedabad's cuisine is limited by the Baniya aversion to meat, in Surat, the Khatris and Ghanchis ensure non-vegetarian fare makes it to the menu

Surat is unlike Ahmedabad and Vadodara in its street fare. Photo: Jaydip Bhat/MintPremium
Surat is unlike Ahmedabad and Vadodara in its street fare. Photo: Jaydip Bhat/Mint

What determines the street food culture of a city is, of course, caste. In the south, where I live, the middle-class composition is upper caste. This is reflected in the dominance of vegetarian snack food. There is actually a place called “Brahmin’s Coffee Bar" (a most popular place) in Bengaluru. Meanwhile, the peasant food of the numerically superior Vokkaliga or Gowda communities is considered more downmarket. Because it is meat. In Tamil Nadu, the food of those not born into the upper castes is represented by the “military hotels". I understand this to mean the food of those who enlisted for the East India Company’s militia (the Madras Sappers down the road from my house goes back to the 1780s).

The street food of Mumbai, particularly south Mumbai, is influenced by the Gujarati merchant, whether Jain or Hindu Baniya (the former particularly dominant in the diamond market of Opera House), and other castes that have become vegetarian under Jain influence, such as the Lohanas.

That is why of all the great dishes invented there—pav bhaji and the rest—there is not one thing that is meat.

Smart city Surat (I will only ever refer to it in this fashion henceforth) is different from Ahmedabad and Vadodara in many ways. One of the most striking differences is in the street food. Ahmedabad is oppressively vegetarian and has the most boring food imaginable. The Baniya palate is limited because of its horror of meat, garlic and ginger. It is not subtle (thought it claims it is). Luxury is to be found in ghee and sugar and “extra butter" (which is Amdavad’s official motto, I understand). This is not, to use a cliché that is appropriate, a recipe for success.

Surat is different because of that point I began with: caste power determining how much space meat gets on the street. There are empowered meat eaters in Surat, and these are the Khatri and Ghanchi Hindus, and the mercantile Muslim communities, the Memon, Bohra and Khoja. The neighbourhoods of Surat, like all old cities, are divided by caste, so the meat-eating communities’ food used to be concentrated in pockets. But the expansion of the city from the 1980s changed this, and now it is to be found everywhere.

They are powerful and populous groups (I have school friends from all these communities), and that is why the Baniya-Brahmin-Jain stranglehold does not squeeze Surat as it does Amdavad and cities in the south.

Not that they do not try. My sister Akruti and I were, many years ago, dining at the Golden Dragon, then the only Chinese restaurant in Surat, on a rather large crab. Some acquaintances of ours, the Choksi (Baniya) family, arrived and were seated at the next table. The sight of the beast on our plates was so off-putting that they asked to be seated in a distant corner.

But upper-caste insistence does not make Gujarat a vegetarian culture. It is merely that the meat eaters have no voice. I would like to correct that in small measure.

I have taken to cooking Gujarati food regularly of late and am reproducing some of the recipes I have been working with (thank you to my mother, Swati).

First, the mutton made by Khatris for major functions. It is called tapelu, named for the large flat-bottomed vessel it is cooked in. This is rich food, as the ingredients will tell you: 1kg mutton, half kg onions, 200g garlic and 100g green chillies. Marinate the meat in red chilli powder, curd (about 250g to coat the meat), turmeric powder, salt and 2 and half tablespoons of garam masala powder and set aside.

Make a paste of the garlic and chillies in the blender. Slice the onions.

Heat a mix of ghee and oil and fry the onions till golden, then add and fry the chilli-garlic paste on low heat for half an hour (or till the aroma of the raw garlic is gone).

Add the meat and fry for half an hour, still on low heat. Add enough water to submerge the meat. Cover and let the meat bubble away for about half an hour.

Eat with rice or chapattis (Khatris eat it with a small, sour puri).

The garam masala I use is actually made specifically for the dish and is called Tapelano Garam Masalo, from Gandhi Cheebawala, a firm in Surat.

And now the pomfret made by Ghanchis, as their celebratory dish for the Gujarati new year. Like turkey for Thanksgiving.

Make a paste of garlic, peppercorns, coriander powder, cumin powder, green chillies and coriander leaves.

Marinate the whole fish in red chilli, coriander, cumin and turmeric powders and lime juice.

Fry the paste and then shallow-fry the fish. If you want the skin to be crisp (and I do), sprinkle some jowar (finger millet) flour on top before you fry it.

To be eaten dry with a drink.

Ghanchi is the Prime Minister’s community, though he is of course vegetarian.

My sister Ashlesha overheard this conversation between Gulla, an old Ghanchi who sells masala eggs (fried in green garlic shoots) in Surat’s Khaudhra (greedy) Gali, and a customer.

Customer: Give me boiled eggs for 40.

Gulla, aged 71, of the Manish Amlate Centre at Khaudhra Gali, which he has run for 40 years, instructing his worker: “ae 5" (pack 5).

Customer: Make it 6 for 40.

Gulla: “No, it will have to be 5."

Customer (muttering): “Ghanchi toh ghanchij hoy (Ghanchis don’t change).

Gulla: “Ghanchi chey toh Gujarat chey" (Gujarat survives because of a Ghanchi).

Quite so.

Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @aakar_amnesty.

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Published: 05 Feb 2016, 11:51 AM IST
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