A city called Surat and three Parsees who loved it and its food from the bottom of their hearts


Freshly fried sev by the banks of the river Tapti by the ponkh stalls set up in winter

The title of this post is inspired by the book 'A man called Ove,' which I read recently and loved. 

Destination Gujarat finally with Surat as the first port of call


It was rather apt that my first trip to Gujarat turned out to be one to Surat. This is after all the city where my mother in law was born. And where her brother and her sister were born too. The three Parsi siblings grew up here before they moved to Mumbai at the start of their working careers in the early 1970s. My mother in law then met my father in law in Mumbai, he courted her, they got married and thus began the better half of my own story.

My wife, my mom in law, mama and masi (maternal uncle and aunt) in law and I went for a quick trip to Surat during the Republic Day weekend in January this year (yes, yes I am rather late with this post).

It was also apt that Surat is where I started my food explorations of Gujarat for, as the saying goes,  life is about“Surat nu jaman, Kashi nu maran.” 

'Go to Surat to eat and to Kashi to die before you leave for the next world,' they say as Freddy mama translated to me. At the end of a food packed 48 hours in Surat, I realised where the first part of the idiom came from. It was very apparent that the people in Surat do love their food!



The great Indian train journey


This was a rare family holiday for the missus and me. We have done the odd one over the years with mother and brother but this was the first one that we did with K’s side of the family...17 years into our marriage. In case you are wondering, it did go off rather smoothly so I am afraid that I do not have much drama or gossip for you in this post. 

There was a fair bit of adventure before we started off on the trip though. Firstly, because we decided to take the train instead of driving down or flying out (very few options for the latter). As we soon found out, it is difficult to get reservations in trains to Surat from Mumbai and our Shatabdi Train tickets were wait-listed till the very end. We had to resort to Tatkal tickets and promises made by booking agents and did not know till the end if we would get all the tickets. 

Secondly, K and I had to make a last minute DDLJ sort of sprint at the Mumbai Central station to enter the train while the guard waited.  This was not because we woke up late that morning. We were ready well in time but our Uber driver was not sure of the roads and was rather grouchy too and not  very helpful. It had been a while since either of us had been to the Mumbai Central Station and it took us a bit of time to locate it, get off from the car and then run to the train and jump in as it was about to leave. Freddy mama was waiting for us and pulled us up. He is in his mid 70s and seemed the most agile of the three of us!

We walked with our suitcases down the length of  the train before we reached our seats and sat down, with mummy and masi welcoming us with cheerful smiles. The rest of the journey was uneventful and I slept soundly and we reached Surat on time, in around 3 hours. As we had recently been to Japan, I was tempted to compare the trains there and here. The compartments were not as clean as Japan but not too bad either. The toilets were a tad dirtier but better than what one remembered of trains in India earlier. The passengers were more noisy though. I had to request someone who was listening to a boisterous Hindi comedy channel early in the morning on his tablet without earphones to reduce the volume. 

We returned by the Mumbai Central Double Decker and the experience was similar though the toilets were a tad dirtier. There were more vendors walking down with food for sale here. Railway caterers. 

There was the usual confusion that one often experiences in stations in India when we got off at Surat. We were surrounded by auto drivers and cabbies. We finally took two autos (Rs 200 for 2) and headed to The Gateway Hotel from Taj where we had booked ourselves. The ‘usual’ smell of pee welcomed us as we left the station but Surat awed me through the rest of the trip to the hotel with its long flyovers, wide and clean roads. The winter nip (late January)  made me pull the hood of my hoodie up to keep me warm while mama grinned cheerfully despite just being in a tee shirt and trousers.  It was his home town and he was a happy man.  

Country roads 





The highlight of day one was clearly when we went to one of the two houses where Freddy mama and later, my mom in law and Farida masi, lived in while at Surat. 

The septuagenarians (masi is in her late 60s though) darted down the lane where the house was located the moment we reached there. They pointed to one house after another, and shops and masjids too, as they scampered down like seven years olds. Each place came with a story of its own it seemed, which the three excitedly told us about. 

Then came the house that we were looking for. Many selfies and pictures were taken there after we spotted it. Then a young Muslim gentleman came up to us, smiled and said, “do you want to see your house?” 

It turned out that he and his family had bought over the place sometime back. He lived there now with his brother, their families and their mother. They warmly welcomed us in and the Kerawalla siblings were happy to see how well the interiors of the house had been remodelled by its new owners and how well the exteriors were maintained. They realised that memories were in safe hands.

“Always think of this as your own house,” said the mother of the two brothers who had bought the house, while her little grandson came in running with the bottle of Sprite that she had called for us. 

We raised a toast together, Parsis and Muslims from Surat and Mumbai, and a Bengali from Kolkata. I could not think of a better way of celebrating India's Republic Day, which it was that day, than this


Proud Surtis, old and new.

Surat nu jaman


Let me now give you an account of some of their living food memories of Surat that the Kerawallas introduced me to during the trip. We managed to pack in quite a few meals in 48 hours, thanks largely to the cheerful enthusiasm of my family who indulged me while I ate, waiting patiently when required, and a nice driver called Bhavesh whom we found in Surat and whose 6 seater Suzuki we hired to take us around the city. 




Crossing the Tapti river. There is a big bridge that you drive down now but the old bridge
 (which you see in the picture) has been preserved too it seems

Ponkh parties begin in Surat once winter comes


'Have the ponkh if you go to Surat in winter,' is what I had heard for years and I finally got a chance to do so this time. 

Ponkh (hurda in Marathi) refers to the kernel of sorghum (jowar) millets which is a winter favourite in Gujarat and in Maharashtra. I had tasted ponkh before at the Soam Restaurant in Mumbai and at the Mahalaxmi Saras festival here too. Now was the time to experience what was special about ponkh in Surat. 

My mom in law, masi and mama, told me about how they looked forward to having ponkh when they were kids. This time we drove down to the Juna Ponkh Nagar at the outskirts of Surat from our hotel and for which we had to cross the Tapti river. There is a big bridge to do so now, though the tiny iron bridge of yore has been retained too beside it as the Kerawallas pointed out excitedly when we were on the bridge.

Once you cross the bridge, you come across many small enclosures where ponkh stalls have been set up by farmers and we went to one of them. The first one that we came across to be honest and one that we located with the help of directions from locals on the road. Which is why I am not sure if this is 'THE' place to go to for Ponkh but that's all right I think.

Fresh supplies of jowar reeds

The custodians of ponkh

The enclosure was divided into two halves. On one side there were gypsy-like folks selling ponkh. Mama explained the procedure followed to extract ponkh to me. It was fascinating to see the farmers heat the ponkh on sand pits and then beat the roasted reeds to shake out the ponkh kernels. A lady sitting by the corner then separated the ponkh from the chaff using a sieve and this was then put on the counter for sale. You could buy fresh ponkh (which has a shelf life of 48 hours though blogger Nikhil Merchant tells me that he freezes this) as well as dehydrated ponkh which lasts for a year. We bought both.





 The sultans of sev

Next to ponkh sellers was a large shamiana (tent) where there were people frying sev (a gramflour based, sevaiya shaped, deep fried snack) and selling it. The thing to do here, Freddy mama told me is to buy ponkh and sev first and then mix the two in the proportion of two is to one, and eat it. This is called ponkh bhel.

There were various flavours of sev on offer…limbu miri (lime and black pepper and the conventional pairing choice), plain, red chilli. The combination of the sweetness of the fresh ponkh kernels and the crunchy, savoury and spice sev was brilliant indeed. Being an incorrigible namkeen lover myself, seeing sev being fried fresh was quite an enthralling experience for me. I doubt if I had ever seen this before!

Ponkh bhel


Wait, there was more. The sultans of sev were also frying and selling ponkh bhajiya (a savoury gram flour pakora) and ponkh pattice (a slightly sweetish small croquette which had ground coconut at its core). Both bejewelled with ponkh inside. Freddy mama said that he remembered  more ponkh being stuffed inside these fritters when they were kids compared to what we had this time. Both the bhajiya and pattice were delectable stuff still. 



Ponkh bhajias and pattice
We noticed that they had kept the bhajiyas and pattice half fried at the counter at the shop and finished cooking it in a kadai full of hot oil once an order was placed. We liked both versions so much that Freddy mama bought some half fried ones for us to back to Mumbai. I sautéed them in a grill pan the next day. They still tasted brilliant. 

This is one food experience that surely lived up to its hype!

Kerwalla approved the ponkh beauties.
And Karmakar too

A Parsi wedding feast at last


My most memorable experience at Surat was thanks to a Parsi gentleman named Darayesh or Dara Gandhi. This was at the Parsi Dharamshala at Surat. 

Parsi dharamshalas are complexes set up by Parsis in the past to offer budget accommodation to Parsi travellers across the country. They offer meals here too. My mom in law, mama and masi in law had stayed at the one at Surat a couple of years back and had praised the food a lot. 


I am told that you can try your luck at meal times, even if you are non Parsi, and pay and have a meal if there is extra food there. Abhijit Dixit, a reader of my blog and a fellow non-Parsi, wrote to me saying that he had eaten one of the best Parsi meals of his life at this dharamshala. Apart from in Navsari, a town neighbouring Surat, where he said one gets the best Parsi food in his opinion.

Prawn and chicken curry, rotli and rice from Dara Gandhi


The dining room at the Dharamshala in Surat was shut to outsiders that day as the premises had been hired by a Parsi family for a wedding. This consists of four days of festivity and we had landed during lunch time on the first day it seemed. On hearing about us, the caterer of the wedding came to meet us and insisted on feeding us at the dharamshala along with the guests at the wedding at his expense. We were too embarrassed to take up on his kind offer so he insisted on packing food for us. 

We went back to the hotel bearing a precious load of brilliant chicken curry with a base of crushed nuts. There was prawns in a coconut based curry too where in each mouthful one got at less four to five juicy prawns, such was the largess of the caterer and the host’s hearts. There was rice and rotli too. It was indeed one of the most power and flavour packed Parsi meals that I had ever had and K and I could not get enough of it either. There was so much, that we took the food back to Mumbai and had it over three more meals. Feeling blessed with each mouthful that we took.


With Mr Gandhi in the middle who would put on a serious face for the camera
and smile otherwise

The name of the caterer is Dara Gandhi. A smiling avuncular gentleman who coincidentally is based in Navsari, the town whose Parsi food Abhijit had praised. Mr Gandhi absolutely refused to accept our offers to pay. Even when we went back to return the tiffin carrier. 'You are like my dikri (daughter)', he told K. I felt that that his generosity was Surat’s way of lavishing of ‘jamai khatir’ (welcoming the son in law)  on me. My bairi's (Parsi for wife) mother was born here after all. 

K and I had had a very modest 'civil' wedding in Mumbai years back and that too one without a lagan nu bhonu (Parsi wedding feast). It was as if Mr Dara Gandhi of Navsari had filled that gap with the wedding feast that he treated us to at Surat.

With K at the Parsi Dharamshala. The illustrations are called chalk and are put
on auspicious occasions by Parsis. I had done so at my mother in law's behest
before I had set off to the wedding court the day I became a part of their family

Mamma's puri and batata shaak treat

Freddy mama remembers his childhood days at Hari Shankar's where his mother
would send him to buy and bring food for the family sixty years back


I must tell you about freshly fried, hot and crunchy puri with alu batata shaak that I had on our first afternoon at Surat.

The puris had a slight nutty note thanks to the flavours of the whole-wheat (aata) dough used. The potato mash bhaaji (called batata shaak) was spiked with chillies and garlic and bathed in oil and contained so much flavour. The place where I had this humble work of art, was a small sweet and snacks shop called Hari Shankar Dhunjibhai Bhajiawala. It is located at Chauta Bazar near the Mota Mandir.

Gujaratis love their bhajias and farsan and Freddy mama had initially taken us to this shop to have the alu and methi bhaaji, which were served with an interesting (what seemed like a) besan mash chutney, and jalebis. All prepared fresh. 

He and his sisters then  got excited when they saw some ladies mix the dough in the corner of the shop and then give it to the cooks inside to fry puris.

Puri and batata shaak


The story went it seemed that whenever mamma, K’s late maternal grandmom, felt under the weather and not up to cooking, she would send little Freddy mama with a few coins to get this puri and batata shaak for dinner, for his two little sisters and him. Their father was often posted on work elsewhere and she would run the house then.  The three siblings smiled widely at the memory of the treat that afternoon as the clock turned some sixty years back with each bite that they took. 

I felt privileged to continue the family legacy forward with K when I chomped on the heavenly puri with batata shaak at this close to a century old (according to the owner) shop.

Chomping on puri and batata shaak with mama


Cold cocoa that the Famous Five would have loved too




‘Have the cold cocoa,’ said almost everyone on social media when I reached Surat and posted about being there. Funnily enough, that’s the first taste of Surat that one had, if one discounts the breakfast one had at the hotel buffet after we checked in.

Fredd mama is a child again


I had this at a shop called Badri Falooda at Lal Gate. We had reached there at the start of our quest to find the childhood home of the Kerawallas the morning we landed. We had taken two Ubers from the hotel and Freddy mama and I reached earlier than the ladies. I spotted the old school cold drink shop and walked in with him as it looked interesting. There was an elderly Bohri gentleman at the counter who said that he had been working here for decades at this Bohri run establishment. Mama got very excited when we walked in and said that he remembered seeing him at the shop from his childhood days. He told me that a cold cocoa at Badri was a much coveted and very rare treat for him back then.

We ordered a glass of cold cocoa and shared it. What struck me with the first cool gulp of deliciousness that I tasted was the delectable hit of chocolate. The chocolate milk shake or cold cocoa was old school, served in a shop which was around seventy years old, and yet premium put on quality in it was truly admirable. The cold cocoa at Badri was the stuff Enid Blyton books had taught us to dream of when we were kids in Kolkata.

Khatai time


Cyrus Dotivala, sitting unfazed at the till


Another must visit at Surat that everyone will tell you about is Dotivala Bakery. The name does not come from the piece of apparel (dhoti) as I first thought it did. It came from the name of the village from which the Parsi family that ran the place hailed. 

We went to the shop at noon on the second day of our visit and I saw that there was a near stampede at the counter with customers thronging it the way fans of Salman and Sharukh Khan do in front of their houses in Bandra when the matinee idols step out. Or that of Amitabh Bachchan for that matter.

What were the fanboys of Dotivala queuing up for? Nankhatais, Surti batasa and khari. The stuff that Irani bakeries are known for. They have a wholewheat version of the nankhatai too here. The staff and the Kerawallas referred to the nankhatais as just 'khatai'. The cookies tasted delicious and we bought bags full of khatai to take home for our friends. Refined flour ones though as the whole-wheat ones were over. There were old school cakes and pastries on display too.

The bakery was established in 1861. Their website says that it was initially a bakery given to 5 Parsee gentlemen to make bread from. When the Dutch left, they gave it to one of them, a certain Faramji Dotivala. The bakery is now run by the sixth generation of his descendants. We met one of them, a gentleman named Cyrus Dotivala, who was at counter, calmly handling customers, unflustered by the madding crowd. He was obviously used to it. He had done such a good job of taking the family legacy forward after all.

Turned out that his mother, Yasmeen, was a childhood friend of my masi in law. Farida masi told me that Dotivala was THE place to go back then as well.


Sweet dreams of Surat





Freddy mama is a mithai fan and there is more to his sweet memories of Surat than khatais as we found out. On our first night at Surat, he went to a shop called Babubhai Sweets and got me tasting samples of sweets such as gajar halva, doodhi halva and the ghee soaked, creamy, local favourite called ghadi. Interestingly, the sugar levels were very well balanced in each. They made the perfect night time treat along with the chamomile tea that K and I sipped on in our hotel room before going to bed that night.

Sold on Surat

Tripping on ponkh


I thought that I will bring this post to an end with the treats at Babubhai. I began writing this post in early February I admit but I could not finish or publish it in February as I was caught up with more travel (Goa with my side of the family and then Bengaluru for the Times Lit fest), my articles for Times Kitchen Tales and a nagging back problem which kept surfacing while I took it head on through physio. I posted on Instagram and Facebook during this period of course, shared a few videos on YouTube and recorded and shared a few podcast episodes too on Radio Finely Chopped. However,  this February was probably the first time since I started blogging that I had not posted a single blog post. I hope this is just a blip because my blog is dear to me.

There are more Surat food stories of course. Stories of food discoveries I made thanks to my readers. The taste of a Surat which was new to the Kerawallas too. I will post about then one day soon I promise.

Till then I hope this whets your appetite enough to plan a trip to Surat to eat!

Khaman and pohe at Surat Station


PS This Surat post will not be complete if I do not make a mention of the khaman that we had at Surat station on our way back. It was ice cold thanks to the chilled morning temperature outside and yet my mom in law said that is one of the best she has had. Made with ground chickpeas which was then steamed to make this pointed out the Kerawallas. 'No shortcuts like in Mumbai where they use besan. This is how we do it in Surat,' they told me proudly. I loved the pohe too that we had from the stall before we left for Mumbai. We bought dhoklas from her from the vendors on the train too. Those sucked it seemed!





PPS: The Gateway Hotel that we stayed at Surat belongs to the Taj group and the service there was lovely and the rooms were pleasant too. Our check in was very smooth and courteous and they got us both our rooms by the time we had breakfast. There are not too many 'branded hotels' at Surat and the Gateway was not really cheap (we got rates of around Rs 12,000 per room without breakfast online) but the quality of the room and bathroom and the warmth of the staff made us feel really happy with our choice and I would recommend it.


Appendix:  


Surat station stories in my Times Kitchen Tales article
Online link: http://timeskitchentales.com/feature-stories/2019/02/17/from-the-pantry-car-with-love/



A video that we shot in Surat at the Ponkh Nagar:


More pictures:

The hunt for the house:






The markets of their childhood




At the Parsi Dharamshala in Surat





Ponkh Nagar:





Comments

Keka said…
Very well written! Appreciate the detailed description of the places and the food you ate. I wish I could take off on a train to Surat right now!
Kurush F Dalal said…
Lovely read Kalyan, brought alive Surat to me after many many years of having been there.

As a Dalal and therefore of Bharuchi extract I must say that the Bharuch na Ponkh are superior to the Surti version ... Narmada water and all that and that this war is as old as Ponkh :) :)
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Kurush thank you. Let's go back together and compare the bara handis of Surat and the ones you introduced me to in Mumbai

@Keka thank you so much. My job is done yet