When the Surti Parsis invaded Mumbai's Gujarati restaurant Soam for adhokla to dhansak lunch

With my aunt in law and mom in law at my side. Mr Cusrow of Soam in the centre,
uncle J, K and my mama in law
Note: Long post with lots of pictures taken by my new Sony point and shoot wifi camera so scroll down patiently please

I don’t know whether it's politically correct to say this as a food blogger based in Mumbai but I am not a big fan of Gujarati thali restaurants.

I have had some lovely Gujarati meals in people’s houses. My first home cooked Gujarati feast was in high school at my classmate, Deven Shah’s house in Kolkata. His mom had cooked for us that day. Then there were some lovely Gujarati meals cooked by my friends Kinnari and Dhrupal’s mom during my early days in Mumbai. That’s when I realized that all Gujarati dals are not sweet unlike what thali joints in Mumbai made you believe. That you can have non-dessert like Gujarati dals too. A few years back I had a pretty good Gujarati meal in Andheri cooked by Anaggh Desai’s wife and his daughter.

However Gujarati thali joints, and I’ve eaten at most in Mumbai, overwhelm me with their extensive array of small bowls (happily refilled) of curries and dals and lots of food overall. When there is so much variety I just am not able to enjoy individual tastes. The experience is a blur to me. This is the reason why I avoid restaurant organised tastings as they want you to try everything on the menu on those occasions. I can't eat like that. Having said that, Gujarati thalis are a big part of Mumbai’s eating out canvas and you should try one and decide for yourself if you like them. One more thing, the thalis are all vegetarian. I often get pulled up on twitter for getting details on Gujarati food wrong but this is one thing I am sure of!

The sense of ennui that Gujarati thali places have left me with is one of the reasons I had not visited Soam, the 11 year old Gujarati restaurant opposite the 250 year old Babulnath Temple in South Mumbai, till last year.

Babulnath Temple opposite Soam

Gujaratis like Rushina Munshaw Ghildayal and Vir Sanghvi, big Soam loyalists, had told me I should go there. As did non-Gujaratis like food writer Vikram Doctor (a Parsi)  and  Sankarsan Banerjee (a Bengali and one time food blogger) who said I should go to Soam despite its being vegetarian.

I finally tasted Soam’s food during Rushina’s book launch on her mom’s terrace in a buffet a couple of years back and liked what I had. I then finally went to Soam for a shoot last year and again liked what I ate there. Not that it is easy to sit and enjoy a meal when there is a camera pointed at you and you need to gulp down quickly so that you can eat.

I found out that the food is served a la carte at Soam and you can choose a few dishes and focus on them unlike in thali places. Same as in Swati Snacks which I didn't like too much but loyalists say I should go back there once. 

Soam is a neat and clean place (as is Swati). Service is warm (as it is in thali joints). It’s air-conditioned. Evidently very popular as people queue up to go in just as they outside Cream Centre and Crystal (lot cheaper and plainer).

While I liked what I ate at the Soam shoot, I was still loathe to go there when ‘off duty’. If I was going all the way to South Mumbai I would rather go to Ling’s Pavilion.

Then I suddenly made plans to go to Soam a few Sundays back with K and her mom, masi (aunt) and mama (uncle). The three Parsi siblings were born in Surat in Gujarat before they moved into Mumbai. K is a Bombay girl though.

You get some Surti food in Soam. Plus, though Parsi, my mama in law is a strict vegetarian (though he buys mutton, prawns and fish for us), my mom in law has turned vegetarian though she eats eggs too and masi avoids non veg. Going to Soam for a family get together made sense.

The Parsis get ready to invade Soam

We reached Soam on a February Sunday afternoon. The place was packed. There were chairs kept outside thoughtfully for people to sit. We got a table soon and walked in. Just as we sat down, uncle J joined us. “Don’t write me off” said this cancer battling Parsi octogenarian rockstar family friend who earlier had said he couldn’t come with us. When he sat down he said he wouldn’t eat but as the afternoon progressed the food at Soam won over his heart and it felt great to see him eat.

We met the manager of Soam, Mr Cusrow, whom I had spoken to during a shoot earlier. Turns out that he too is a Parsi who has come to Mumbai from Surat. K’s masi, mama and he had an animated chat over folks they knew in common in Surat before we were finally ready to place our orders. Always a chaotic act when you are in a large group. Trying to avoid this is the main reason you should go to a thali place or a buffet when in a group. 

Catching up on Surti memories while K, the Bombay girl,
gets to the point

K's mama also got very excited to see sal leave plates. "First time I am seeing these since Surat" he exclaimed with a broad grin on his face. They were table mats though and we actually got brass plates to eat in. The food was simply plated. Looked appealing. Made you want to reach out for it. Sometimes I look at elaborately plated food in modern places and wonder how on earth should one eat that. Anyway that's a rant for another day.

Mama gets excited to see surat styled sal leaves

We ate quite a bit at Soam so let me tell you what I liked the most.

My favourite in this Gujarati restaurant, was a Rajasthani dish, gatte ke sabzi. Small gram flour dumplings in a silken and sensuous curd/ yogurt based sauce which I couldn’t get enough of. This is served with satpadi paratha. Thin 7 (!) layered paratha which had a pickle masala stuffing. To me this combination was like a Harry met Sally sort of love affair as I kept coming back to the dish after each course that afternoon. It had me in its spell. If I was to come to Soam alone and order one dish, this would be it. 
Gatte ke sabzi with satpadi paratha

A close number two would be the handvo, which as Anaggh on twitter corrected me, is not a version of dhokla and nor is it steamed. It’s baked actually. Not in an oven traditionally. In a pan in earlier days says Pinky Chandan Dixit who owns Soam. She uses Tarla Dalal's recipe as a base for the Handvo at Soam and kindly shared the same with me. 

Handvo in Soam
The Tarla Dalal handvo recipe

The handvo looks like the yellow block us non-Gujaratis know as dhoklas. Anaggh points out that the yellow one is actually khaman. Traditional dhokla is the white one he told me.

My first introduction to ‘dhokla’ was when my mother took me to Haldiram’s at Kolkata’s Rabindra Sadan in the 90s. That was the yellow one. Which made me wonder why the yellow version is more prevalent outside of Gujarat and served as ‘dhokla.

The original white dhokla is more sticky and has a shorter shelf life which is why the yellow one is more easily available and is a more mangeable SKU (retail jargon) is Anaggh’s hypothesis. I also think the cheerful yellow colour of the khaman made it more appealing to non-Gujaratis who don’t know the finer differences between dhokla and khaman.

The Gujarati thali places in Mumbai and Soam serve the white one as dhoklas, which Gujarati purists like Anaggh and Viraj will tell you is the original dhokla.

Farsan platter at Soam. I asked the waiters what the white block was.
Dhokla was the answer. This was before the twitter discussion!

Coming back to the handvo, let me tell you what I felt about it as a non-Gujarati and someone who is no expert on the cuisine (putting a metaphoric abdominal guard on since I often get ticked by Gujaratis for getting details wrong according to them).

The handvo at Soam is drier than the yellow khaman/ dhoklas I have tried in the past. The handvo at Soam had a delightful choppy texture. Was served warm. Not sour unlike what yellow dhoklas in shops often tend to be. Had a faint pleasant after-taste of an imli (tamarind) chutney spice. Tasted delightful.

Chef Asish Bhasin of Trident BKC explained to me that "Khaman dhokla is more spongy. After soaking with sugar and acid it gets an awesome sweet and sour taste, which is well accepted by the general public and hence for most non-Gujaratis, Khaman is the only dhokla and the existence of khatta dhokla is under threat"

As the recipe shared by Pinky shows, the handvo is made with rice and lentils and not gram flour unlike khaman dhokla. 

During our twitter chat Anaggh did say that the original white dhokla is making a resurgence. Here are a few screen grabs from our chat.

K’s mama had earlier insisted that we shouldn’t order a handvo as he was sure we wouldn’t like it based on his past experiences with the dish. An earlier blog post shows that I didn't like the handvo at Swati Snacks though I had liked their gatte ke sabzi too. Mr Cusrow kept insisting that we do try the handvo. I gave in to his earnestness and ordered a plate and the rest was history. My recommendation is that if you are at Soam and don't know what to order then look to Mr Cusrow to help you out.

Mama came home last Sunday and couldn’t stop praising the handvo at Soam while we reminisced about our lunch.

The other big hit at the table (recommended to me by many on twitter) was the cheese and palak samosa. A cheese lover’s delight. Crunchy, flavour packed, heavier on cheese than spinach. You can buy these and take them home and they even sell the uncooked version if you want to skip the oil and use the air fryer.

Cheese and palak samosa

Uncle J lapped up the samosas

Talking of oil, we tried the Gujarati winter favourite of undhiyu. Undhiyu as a dish traditionally depends heavily on oil. At Soam they have cut down on the oil used and even have a steamed version (which the wait staff told us doesn’t taste good). I quite liked the dish at Soam and to me it’s like a nice stirred vegetable dish. The undhiyu at Soam is not sweet. It has a slight hit of garlic which mama tells me is normal. The undhiyu at Bandra’s Regal Plus store doesn’t have that, is oilier and is slightly hotter (spicier). I wonder how Gujaratis find the low oil undhiyu at Soam.

Undhiyu puri at Soam

Update: Rupa Balachandar, a reader, wrote in saying "Just wanted to let you know that traditionally Surti Undhiyu is lighter on the oil as they had lots of fresh veges year round compared to other parts of Gujarat. Also fresh garlic greens flower around the same time so it's a bit more predominant flavour.""

We also ordered the vegetarian dhansak, a classic Parsi dish which is traditionally cooked with mutton or goat meat. The vegetarian version used to be cooked by K’s late grandmother (here’s her recipe) and then by K’s mama after Mamma passed away. All the Parsis at the table (largely vegetarians!) just loved the homelike feel of the dhansak and mama was praising this too when we met again. He is not a man given to overt praise when it comes to food and  he in fact told me the undhiyu was ‘nothing special’.  Which, I must add, is not a bad thing in his books! The dhansak and handvo he loved though. The colour of the dhansak is more like the colour of dhansaks that I've seen at home. The restaurant ones often look darker. It was not sweet like the one at Social and was thicker too. This was the first time I saw birista (fried onion) served on the caramelized rice. It added to the taste except for my mom in law who apparently hates barista.

Vegetarian dhansak

We also tried the delicately flavoured steamed rice dish called panki which is steamed in banana leaves and served. I am told Swati Snacks makes a good one too. I can't say that the dish overtly excited me though I liked its subtlety and ephemeral texture and taste. A bit too delicate perhaps and airy on the palate though for me to really enjoy them.

Panki (the bright yellow layer in the picture)

There was a delicious and very home food like light and dry cubed jeera potato dish which was served in our plate of shreekhand and roti. None of the food at Soam is very spicy and one didn’t feel heavy despite the amount of food we ate. Which possibly explains why there were so many foreigners around. Another good thing is the menu has detailed descriptions in English of each dish which is so important in a regional food restaurant where all the diners might not be familiar with the cuisine.
The puris (fried flat breads) were quite popular at our table. Gujaratis have this with main meals and not just as a breakfast dish I was told. The chapatis, rotis, were even more liked because of their lightness.

shrikhand with potato bhaji and roti.
You can have it poori too

The shreekhand was not as thick as the shreekhands I have eaten at Maharashtrian places. I didn’t mind it but my co-diners were not that impressed by it. They make their shreekhand in house at Soam.

Shreekhand at Soam

The one dish that disappointed was the fada khichdi. I ordered it for my mom in law who loves rice. This is made with broken wheat though and not rice (mentioned in the menu to be fair) and reduced my rice loving mom in law to tears as her dreams of having a rice dish were shattered. The Bilimoria girls can be quite a handful! I thought the khichdi was lacking on flavour. I’ve found rice khichris in Gujarati thali places to be underwhelming compared to our Bengali khichudi in the past too. I didn't like the fada khichdi at Swati Snacks either. The Gujarati khichdi, so far, hasn't been a dish that works for me.

The fara khichdi

Can’t say that about the tiny, crisp freshly fried jalebis for dessert which were such a pleasure to eat as was the high on natural goodness of fruit, hand churned seasonal, fresh strawberry ice cream.  I had read somewhere that Gujaratis love ice cream and that people often go out for late night ice creams at Ahmedabad.

Amazing strawberry ice cream at soam

Jalebi at Soam

Jalebis are the only Indian sweets K eats

And let’s not forget the sugarcane juice which we started our meal with which you can have without worry if hygiene issues scare you from roadside stalls. Costs Rs 140 a glass though. The cost of being free of jaundice worries.

Refreshing sugarcane juice

For years I had resisted coming to Soam even though lots of people had told me to do so. The extent to which I enjoyed my recent meal at Soam made me realize that being stubborn comes with its limitations.

One should try out new things with an open mind.

Sometimes they work. And sometimes they will and how.

                                         Catch me having fun with the family at Soam

Discaimer: The meal was hosted by Soam though it wasn't mean to be. Don't read this as a ‘review’ and treat this as an essay on a family outing instead. Just to give you an idea, most main dishes cost Rs 250 each, appetisers are cheaper. They don’t charge service charge and have a well maintained toilet along with air-conditioning and the kitchen is open. I am attaching the menu pictures here to give you an idea of prices (February 2016).

Here’s to many happy returns to Soam.