Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Gujarati Thali and Yet More Rain

The Chor Bazaar, being damp.

I had earlier that day made a desperate and completely unsuccessful attempt at visiting the Chor or "Thieves" Bazaar in Mumbai. It is supposed to be a fascinating, colorful, and slightly maddening place, full of little shops of pilfered antiques and people who might pick your pocket, the sort of thing one wants to experience while at a bazaar in a weird old Indian city. It was pissing down rain of course, the warmish pee-scented rain that Mumbai excels at, but I decided I was going to ignore the rain, I was going to join Mumbai's intrepid and hungry millions and go out and have a look. Surely Mumbaikers, accustomed to the wet, would be out in force at the Chor Bazaar regardless of the weather. I hailed a taxi. "The Chor Bazaar," I told him confidently.

He regarded me over his luxurious Marastha mustache. "As you wish, madame," he said. Idiot, he was doubtless thinking, as he fiddled with his malfunctioning and sorely needed windshield wiper.

I got there and of course, it was totally empty. A few people in colorful outfits crouched under their stalls with ponchos over their heads and resigned expressions on their faces. An occasional auto-rickshaw splashed by, tossing mud up into the air. "Why the fuck are you here?" everyone seemed to be saying to me. This was a good question, but I popped open my umbrella and walked down the street anyway. Maybe I could walk myself into something interesting. Getting lost? Not a problem - there was always a taxi, eventually.

This was a swell plan until my shoe broke. I was left standing beside the road in a considerably sized puddle, standing on one foot and trying not to think about the detritus in the water that swirled around my feet. But this was Mumbai - a cab was inevitable. Or so I thought. The rain had driven seemingly the entire city into the tender embrace of its cabbies, and all the cabs that came by were full. I waited, damp and hungry and in a remarkably pissed off mood, for about twenty minutes until an empty cab finally sailed by.

I got the cab to drop me off at the Sea Palace and hobbled inside to sulk for a bit, at least until lunch time. On the wrought-iron fence around the hotel, I spotted an immense object that resembled a sea-shell: it was in fact a freakishly enormous snail.

I gleefully unstuck the beast, palmed it, and took it inside. I am fairly certain the hotel staff noticed that I was taking a freakishly large snail up to my room, but were probably too shocked to make any sort of comment. I don't recall a No Snail clause in the sign on the wall, so it was probably perfectly all right in legal terms.

Then we had a gigantic cephalopod photoshoot.

Work it, baby. I am getting a brand new camera - Canon Eos 550 - in a few days and am drooling with anticipation over how much better macro shots of things like snails will look with that puppy in hand. That's your nerd public announcement of the day.

For lunch, I decided to hunt down one of Mumbai's signature food stuffs. I was going to find myself a Gujarati thali.

India, like the USA, is deeply susceptible to the allure of the All You Can Eat. However, India and Indians aren't overburdened with buffets - something that may come as a shock to Americans who have never encountered Indian food outside of a steam-table. In India, all-you-can-eat manifests itself in the thali, a steel plate filled with small portions of various curries. There's a profusion of places to get Gujarati thali in Mumbai. I decided on Samrat - it was both highly reccomended and reasonably close to Colaba. I didn't want to have to swim there.

Thali plate prior to filling.

I decided to try the Gujarati thali at the famous Samrat restaurant, in Churchgate. Samrat is an old, respected, and enormous place, with seating for over 200 and a cake and gelato shop attached to it. The interior is aggressively air conditioned, kitted out in the hip colors of 1975 (like many Mumbai landmakrs) and is very clean. The oldish and profusely moustached wait-staff possess that endlessly amusing, slightly snobby old-school Mumbai appeal. Pretty much everyone here gets the Gujarati thali, a mixed plate offering an assortment of traditional foodstuffs from the Gujarat region.

There's three universals with Gujarati thali. The first is that it is almost always vegetarian, in keeping with Gujurat's Hindu heritage. The second is that it is always remarkably sweet, usually flavored with plenty of jaggery. The water in dry and hot Gujarat is rather salty, and the locals believe the sugar counteracts the saline content. The sweetness of the Gujarati thali attracts the disdain of some hardcore foodies. Me - I think it's quite pleasant in moderation. Third: there's going to be plenty of it. A typical Gujarati thali joint keeps three or four servers with pots of food circulating around the eating area, ready to top off your array of little steel bowls (whether you need it or not). Come hungry.

Samrat has got the thali thing down to a science and the plate, once filled up, is truly a delightful sight. Gujaratis love whole wheat breads, and there's papad, roti, and the Gujarati's trademark wheat bhakri bread. There's a large portion of a dry vegetable curry (shaak) made with bitter melon, eggplant, carrot, and onion. The white stuff is kadhi, made with curds, gram flour, chili ginger paste, coriander, and the ever-present jaggery. It's remarkably refreshing in the heat. The spongy looking item on the right is a sweet dhokla, made of fermented chickpeas and served in a sweet curd sauce. It tastes considerably nicer then it sounds. The round ball is a kachori, a baked item filled with a stuffing of what tasted like sweet potato and peanut. The result was India's delectable answer to a peanut butter cookie. These things are dangerous.

There's a large portion of a dry vegetable curry (shaak) made with bitter melon, eggplant, carrot, and onion. The tomato dish is a sweet-and-sour curry, followed by a curry with stewed peas, and the usual chole, or chickpeas.

Gujarati thali demands a variety of condiments. There's mint chutney, sweet tamarind imli, the classic sweet peach chutney, mango pickle, and chili sauce. Some thali places will also bring you ketchup if you're into that kind of thing. (Indians really love ketchup).

Thali consumed to the extent possible - the waiters act a bit downtrodden if you refuse their endless refills - I headed outside again. Still raining. Still would be.

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