The days of good food karma

Work demanded a recent visit to Ahmedabad. I was back with money in my pocket and that was a change. I did my design education there and was pretty much a pauper right through the stint.

Design education was not a standard academic option that South Indian middle-class youngsters would choose those days. It is not like my father dreamt that I would grow up and be a graphic designer. The truth is, till date, he does not know what I do for a living. Our design school campus was in Ahmedabad, a dusty quasi-capital of Gujarat where short-frocked milkmen flirted with camels. The campus however was self-sufficient fortified dream capital with clean air, love and bad food available in plenty. Other than structured courses that demanded us to go out and document through conversation and drawings, we students were immune to the grime and grit of the city. The proverbial ivory tower of the self proclaimed cerebral knights.

I had a hand written boarding pass and clambered over seven software engineers, two media women with black lipstick, a vegetable dyed NGO lady, a gaggle of clipped cackling British guys and an unattended Samsonite to identify my lonely blue bag on the windy tarmac – the systems were down. It is needless to say that I had no friends in that flight to Mumbai. I gate crashed at Vivek and Monisha’s house, ate up all their food and subjected them to Woody Allen banter further bored-down with my own. It is a miracle that Monisha was still willing to join us in Ahmedabad the next morning. But her pursuit was more epicurean and less camaraderie.

That night I slept with Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and dreamt of samurai sword carved lamb in a strange seaside restaurant.

Vivek and I took a ruthlessly early flight to Ahmedabad with foul coffee and no breakfast. I have this nasty habit of growing hair all over my face, incessantly drooling and tearing through my shirt when I do not have breakfast. But I held on. The early morning Ahmedabad air hit me with deep nostalgia and a mild hay fever. We were driven to a guesthouse, an apartment with late Victorian Gujarati baroque décor where chartered accountants and mills men were dished out custom breakfast of upma, cereal and tea. The cook was good and he baled us out. But we did miss the coffee. We had factory visits the entire day and I was dreading the lunch. But that was not bad either with an unnecessarily spiced spinach soup, cottage cheese in get-as-fat-as-you-can gravy, high calorie rotis and a thimble full of rice. More of factories and I reached my threshold – breaking point. I almost skipped a fantastic dinner at this highway restaurant done up like a supposedly rustic charming village for visitors from faraway land called Vishala.

Monisha had flown in later with the sole purpose of eating at Vishala and Lisa accompanied to join us for the factory visit. Winter darkness arrived before you can say ‘jamvamaté jaun chu!’ – ‘I am going to eat’ in Gujarati. We landed at this oil lamp lit walkway of Vishala village bumping into each other in darkness. A turbaned young man, who in broad daylight could be an ex-collector’s son from Srirangam working in Ahmedabad for a living, ushered us in. (Later I should tell you this story about Palaniappan who wears Pathan suits and serves in an Afghani restaurant called Kabul in Amsterdam.)

We started with jaljeera. I hated this drink in my earlier days in Ahmedabad. I could not understand how a drink that tastes like dilute cough syrup and smells like acute flatulence in livestock could be refreshing. I learnt to like it over years and I had a few glasses now. I also learnt that the cattle flatulence ingredient was rock salt or ‘kala namak’ as it is popularly known. We were walked further into the village and were seated on mud washed floor against a low table in a thatched roof cupola. Then it all started. It was as if their leader did a strong propaganda speech around the corner in militant Gujarati and the gist of it was ‘FEED THEM! SHOW NO MERCY!’ The turbaned youth brigade got into action. They brought leaves and pre-formed cups made of dried lotus leaves. First there was a sea of salads with sprouted chickpeas, peanuts, sweetened cucumber pickled, tomatoes in limejuice and more. Then they brought the vegetables – bataka nu shak (semi-dry potatoes with turmeric, cumin seeds and a little tomatoes to make it moist), mind-blowing undhyo (an amazing, tasty oily dark gravy with unrecognizable vegetables in it), and lots of deep fried fritters, thin rotis, butter and gooey jaggery to go with it. All this served with so much love and persistence that I ate too much, my legs went off to sleep and I needed help to get off the ground. It was wish fulfillment, manna from Amdavadi quarters of heaven, a nostalgic awakening, culinary excellence that surpasses a Gujarati invoked Bull Run – I was satiated and had a dreamless sleep that night. It was not over yet.

The next morning and I was still craving for coffee. The ignorant cook at the guesthouse showed me a bottle of Nescafé. He did not know that instant coffee is not kosher among people in Bangalore. Alternatively he offered milky white ginger tea that can launch lactose intolerance in R2D2. I realized that coffee is not necessarily a core competence in this part of the world. I had a fleeting glimpse of a café as we drove in the previous night. This is one of those places where very nubile young things and very young thugs courting nubile young things are draped on chairs looking vacant (read cool). I walked across middle-aged Gujarati men riding scooters sidesaddle and located the café. I asked the man at the counter for two double espressos, little milk no foam, to go. He looked at me as if I just ordered the 1952 version of Clark’s Logarithmic Table in Hebrew. I slowly deconstructed my order and drove it home. He was a slow barista and that is an understatement. The wait at the café felt longer than it was. There was an impervious early morning Roman orgy well underway in one sunlit corner involving a lot of thugs and things. If this coffee was not happening I was planning to go intravenous, sent right where it matters. Finally I was violently sucking at a paper cup filled with my coffee and took a couple back to the guesthouse. Then there was a boring breakfast and more factories to visit before our noon flight.

We boarded. Vivek had an epiphany somewhere over Surat. We were going to Highway Gomantak for lunch. Highway Gomantak is a small restaurant on the service road in Bandra that promises a good seafood meal. They somehow manage to gently coax every living creature in the sea to convert to a delectable curry dish or a rava fry on my plate. I let Monisha and Lisa decide between a hoard of dishes with names that sound like the entire process of cooking – ‘slowly twist the head and pull the inerds out as you sing an upbeat excerpt from a Konkani song’ could pretty much be a name of a dish. The place was teeming with inspiring eaters who with a sleight of hand could devour a crab with a lot of rice and sunset yellow gravy in coconut sauce. I probably had a significant part of an underwater food chain that afternoon – clams, mussels, silver fish, shrimps, pomfret in their many styles. I loved the food and hated the fact that I was going to work and Monisha to sleep at home.

I was back in Bangalore that night. This trip was an epicurean deliverance. Thanks to Vivek, Monisha and Lisa who brought in the good food karma.


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