Khaman and Locho at Gopal Khaman and Locho house. Photo: Shirin Mehrotra
Surat nu jaman ane Kashi nu maran.
I might not completely agree with this adage, which means ‘eat in Surat and die in Kashi’, because picking one city for its food out of so many would be major injustice to the food this country has to offer. However, the Surti love for food is apparent – on the streets, at tiny restaurants and in conversations. “People in Surat work all week and then take Sundays off to eat out,” my auto rickshaw guy tells me. Abiding by this love for food, I head straight to Gopal Khaman and Locho House as soon as I get off the train from Mumbai.
Khaman, a version of dhokla made with fermented chana dal paste, is Surat’s go-to breakfast and I’ve heard that this small eatery in Manchharpura does it best. The khaman is soft and fluffy and is served with all sorts of garnish – butter, cheese, green garlic and sev. I lean more towards locho, a Surati speciality, which is a denser, botched-up version of khaman. Was the dish invented when khaman went wrong while steaming? The story that the owners tell about the invention of the dish goes something like that. The lasuni locho topped with green garlic, cheese and butter is enough for me to come back the next day.
A local Ponkh market. Photo: Shirin Mehrotra
Sufficiently satiated till lunch, I make a trip to the famous Ponkh market near Swami Narayan Temple. Ponkh or tender jowar/sorghum is Surat’s winter crop grown majorly in Hazira, a port town located on the banks of the Tapti River. Bushels of fresh ponkh are brought to the processing unit at the market where they’re first roasted under ash and coal. The roasted stalks are then wrapped in a coarse cloth and pounded so that the millet comes off easily. A bunch of tribals, who come from Maharashtra for this job every season, beat the millet on the rhythm of Gujarati songs blasting through the speakers; it’s one of the most wonderful live experiences. The women then clean the grain, which is sold fresh at the stalls. The shop owners generously offer you a handful for tasting. Then there are a shops selling ponkh wada – ponkh mixed with chana dal and spices and deep fried, and ponkh pattice – ponkh stuffed inside mashed potato and deep fried. I make a lunch out of my snack and wash it down with a glass of cold chaas.
The well-known Dotivala Bakers. Photo: Shirin Mehrotra
During the British rule, and even before that, Surat was one of the most important trading centres. This is where the Dutch, French, Portuguese and English set up their trading centres. Nanpura, where the famous Dotivala Bakers is located, was once inhabited by the Dutch who employed five Parsi gentlemen to make breads.
When the Dutch left India they handed over the bakery to Faramji Pestonji Dotivala, who continued making breads for the rest of the colonials. Over the time the business took a hit and bread remained unsold. These breads stayed good for a long period and dried up, which was sold to the locals as biscuits and became popular. Shortening and ghee was added eventually to make what’s now famous as Surti batasa. Pure ghee nankhatai, khari and Irani biscuits sell like hot cakes even today. I stuff my bag with the goodies and head towards Jamnadas Ghariwala to complete the shopping list.
Established in 1899, the shop stands in the middle of Chauta Bazaar and bears the legacy of creating ghari – a sweet made with mawa (milk solids), ghee and sugar. Doodhi halwa – loaded with mawa – is another speciality here. I also pack the seasonal chikoo halwa, which has a hint of spice – a perfect winter warmer.
Green garlic fry at Ganesh Omelette Centre. Photo: Shirin Mehrotra
The evening is reserved for Ganesh Omelette Centre followed by a walk at Zampa Bazaar meat stalls. At the former, I am baffled by the sheer variety of egg preparations on the menu. From a simple fry with seasonal garnish of green garlic to something as exotic as Australian fry, there’s every possible egg dish here. At Zampa market, there’s a small huddle of street shops selling meats. The deep orange colour and a mixed aroma of roasting and frying will attract you. There’s chaamp sandwich – champ keema stuffed between buns, seekh kebab,nihari, bara handi and mince stuffed deep-fried Rangooni paratha.
Mawa ghari at Jamnadas Ghariwala. Photo: Shirin Mehrotra
I call it a night with a glass of cold coco at A-One Cold Drinks at Chowk. The coco is thick and silky and while it feels a bit too sweet towards the end, I still wipe off the last drop before heading to my hotel for blissful sleep.
What and where to eat:
Green garlic locho and khaman at Gopal Locho House (green garlic garnish is available only in winters)
Fafda-jalebi at Gandakaka Farsan, Laal Darwaza
Roasted ponkh, ponkh vada and ponkh pattice at Ponk Market, near Swami Narayan Temple (only in winters)
Surati batasa and pure ghee nankhatai at Dotivala Bakers and Confectioners, Nanpura
Mawa ghari, lauki halwa and chikoo halwa at Jamnadas Ghariwala, Chauta Bazaar
Rangooni paratha and Ayub Bhai’s baara handi at Zampa Bazaar meat stalls