Decoding the spirit of Surat's founder Gopi Malik through its food. Finely Chopped Surat food trail 2

Oil locho from Jani Locho, Surat

This is the second of my two part series on my recent trip to Surat in Gujarat, and on the food that I ate there. This is a personal narrative and not a historical treatise.

As you probably know, I had gone to Surat this January

This was my first trip to the city and to state of Gujarat too. It was a family trip with my wife, my mother in law, her brother and her sister, joining me. My wife's mother, uncle and aunt, were all born in Surat, and they grew up there before they migrated to Mumbai in the 1970s. 

In my earlier blog post on Surat, I had written about the eateries that we had visited in Surat,  guided by their childhood memories. This post is about what turned out to be new food discoveries for the family. It is about our visit to places that have come up in the city after their time, and to which I went to thanks to suggestions that I received on social media.

A man named Malik Gopi and the lake that holds his legacy

The entry to Gopi Talav

Before I tell you about these eateries, I wanted to share something which struck me about  what seems to define the city of Surat and its food culture too. 

This happened when we went to a place called Gopi Talav on the first evening that we were there. We drove down big and new roads in the city from our hotel at Athwa Lane, till we reached smaller, more congested and older looking lanes. Lanes that were dotted with hand-carts, food stalls, folks selling sundry stuff on the streets. A place that looked rather different from the manicured version of the city that we had seen till then. We reached our destination and our cabbie went in search of parking after he dropped us. We entered a simple looking gateway, walked down a paved path till we reached a ticket booth. It all looked very simple till then. We bought our tickets (Rs 20 on weekdays and 100 on weekends), walked  into what looked like a magnificent area, so different from what we had just encountered in the approach to the place. It looked brilliant despite our reaching at 7 pm by which time it was rather dark. 

I am talking of the Gopi Talav. A huge water body with a gigantic fountain in between. It was surrounded by pretty gardens, smart walkways which were well lit, and even food shops (which looked rather empty). Funnily enough, the place reminded me of Darling Harbour in Sydney though the two are physically different and the latter is actually on the sea. We walked around the lake for a bit before we headed back. 

Gopi Talav by night

I saw an explanation on the history of the place in English on our way out. It caught my attention and I took a picture of it. I later read more about it on Wikepedia (link shared at the end) and I found the story fascinating.

I learnt that the lake/ pond was built by a Brahmin merchant named Malik Gopi in 1510. The talav is situated at a place called Gopipura, so named in his honour. It is what can be called 'old Surat.' Malik Gopi was a businessmen, who is said to have developed the town which we now know as Surat. He was the governor of Surat at the time of the Mughals. The king of Surat is said to have given him the title 'Malik.' The Wikipedia entry (yes, yes I know that this is not research) refers to British, Italian, Dutch, French and Portuguese visitors (traders, travellers, historians and Jesuits, the original travel bloggers!) who had referred to the talav in their writings in the early years after it opened. The talav was meant to take care of the water needs of the city. Turns out that by the early 1700s, the talav had fallen into disrepair, and then became non-functional. 
Freddy mama (my wife's uncle) remembered Gopi Talav as being a swamp which no one went to when he was growing up here in the 1950s and 1960s. 

A massive project was initiated from what I gathered, through a public and private initiative, in 2012 to restore the lake. It was opened to the public in 2015 and it is now the spanking fresh amphitheatre which made my jaws drop, and which the late Malik Gopi would be proud of I am sure. My mom in law, mama and masi were happy to see this transformation too.

So why am I telling you about the story of Gopi Talav? 

Well, to me the restoration of the talav reflects the indefatigable spirit of the the people of Surat. People who love their city, and who refuse to settle for the suboptimal as they strive to move ahead in lifeFrom being a city notorious for its poor civic hygiene, which even led to a plague in the mid 1990s, Surat today is a city which puts a premium on hygiene and infrastructure. The spanking new roads, flyovers, buildings and even the garbage bins at every point, make the city worthy of being the textile hub that it has become. A city that has truly turned poison into medicine, to use a phrase used by the Buddhist philosopher Nicherin Daishonin. 

Gopi Malik's Surat became the first port of call to India for many foreign traders and they have in turn left their imprints on the city in terms of its food and culture. 

To me Surat, came across as a city that is buzzing with a sense of vitality, laissez faire and harmony. A city which reflects the spirit of its founder Malik Gopi, and which its food scene reflects too. 

Surat has its share of new restaurants of course. Many of which offer food from across the seas and the north of India. However, there is enough place for the traditional favourites here. 

In this post I am going to talk of some of the 'new' developments in the city's food scene that I came across and which are now considered to be an essential part of the city's fabric

Egg, Glorious eggs.. Bhai Bhai Omelette Centre

The crowds gather outside Bhai Bhai Omelette Centre at night

The number of carts selling anda pav and anda bhurjee that dot the streets of Surat make it evident that they love their eggs here. The place to go to see this devotion to eggs at its most frenzied is Bhai Bhai Omelette Centre at Nanpura. An eatery that many on social media, including Surat food fan and Gujarati food evangelist, Anaggh Desai, had recommended to me. The eatery is open at night, and late into the night at that. It is the sort of place that would be the perfect post pub-hopping night dinner option in any other city. There is prohibition in Gujarat and hence Surat of course and hence that is not the case here.

We went there at 9 pm on a weekday. We had to wait for quite a bit to get a table.  K gave me company, though I offered to head back to hotel with her. Mom in law and masi headed back to the hotel to eat at the buffet which they loved, while Freddy mama went to Babubhai to buy us sweets.

It was hard to wait patiently when surrounded by the tantalising aromas of egg, butter, cheese and garlic coming from the cooking stations at the front of the shop. That is where the magic happens on flat pav bhaaji tava like tavas. I took loads of pictures and shot some videos too. A young man took down our names and assured me that he would call us when a table ready. He did so close to twenty minutes later and yelled 'Kalyani' just as Sylvia at Candies does. He took us into the shop and seated us.

Lahori kachu (red), Bhai Bhai

Choosing from the 100 odd items on the menu can be a daunting task for a first timer. There was even an 'Australian' on the menu (no relation to Nicole Kidman or Shane Warne I gathered). We were advised by a young waiter who came to our table to order the dry eggs korma (soft sliced boiled eggs tossed with fresh green garlic in winter, cooked in butter and cheese) and the Lahori kachu (sliced boiled eggs and half set yolks, smothered in a ‘Moghlai’ curry). 

Dry eggs korma, Bhai Bhai

The dishes when paired with ghee soaked rotlis (chapatis which K could not stop praising) and pav, made for the perfect high octane winter night treat. The pav was different from  ladi pav of Mumbai and was more like the naan bread served in Mohd Ali Road during Ramzan . Since it was winter, the dishes were layered with the pungency of green garlic which were in season, and which was balanced beautifully by the liberal doses of butter added to the dishes. And their majestic egginess of course. 

K and I both loved the food here, even though this was not her sort of place.

They also have chicken and offal based dishes on the menu here. No, Gujarat is not just about vegetarian food. Not Surat at least!

Khow Suey in Rander, Surat's Little Burma

Khow Suey magic at Rander

Let me tell you about an experience which made me make the case for Khow Suey being called a Gujarati dish too from now on. 

Khow suey, as you might know, is a coconut milk and peanut based curry, topped with spring onions, burnt garlic and red chilli oil, that one knows of as a Burmese dish! Many versions served in India have turmeric in it.

I was surprised to find out that there are humble, nameless, street food carts selling Khow Suey at Rander. Rander is a suburb which lies in what was once the outskirts of Surat but is now connected by majestic flyovers with the heart of the city. This is an area where my in laws had never been to when they lived in Surat.

Basit, Ahmad and me. Khow Suey buddies for ever

Surat based food blogger, Abdulbasit Saleh AKA Basit, helped me crack the mystery behind the prolific presence of Khow Suey stalls in Rander. 

He and his cousin, Ahmad, who is studying to be a chef in Mumbai and who had come home to Rander on vacation, came to meet me when I went to Rander. Rander is their home. They and their fellow Randeris are descendants of people from Surat who had gone to Burma to work a century or so back and who had returned to Surat when military rule was imposed in Burma. Their ancestors belonged primarily to the Muslim community and had carried back many food memories of their time in Burma which make their presence felt in their kitchens even today. The Khow Suey is one of these dishes. 

Khow Suey at Rander

The Khow Suey that I had at Rander was at a cart with no name, but with many customers surrounding it, located beside an eatery called Mama’s Paratha. It was manned by a young man whose mother makes the curry at their house outside which the cart is located. The cost for the chicken version is Rs 60. It is one of the best renditions of Khow Suey that I have had. I loved its creamy heartiness. The hit of chilli. The tender chicken pieces in it and the crackle of cripsy wanton in it. Perfect on a slightly chilly evening. Most nourishing indeed. It made me whimper with joy like a happy puppy.

I must add, that the closest that I have come to having a khow suey in Burma is the one that I had at Chiang Mail in northern Thailand. So I am not an expert on the 'authenticity' of khow sueys. A former colleague from my market research agency days, Viraj Juthani, had worked in an agency in Burma for a while. He told me that Khow Suey in Burma is a very basic dish there, plays a role akin to what dal chawal plays in India. That it does not always come with the culinary bells and whistles that we are used to having with it in India. In fact, in Chiang Mai, the fresh sprouts that they added to the khow suey is what won me over. Not all Khow Sueys have to have turmeric in it, from what I have gathered. The recipe for this noodle soup is quite fluid. I recently had a lovely, dreamy and creamy rendition of a veg khow suey at Bandra's The Village Shop which is run by Jenny and Javed Malik. The recipe for it was given to them by our friend and my fellow Bengali, food enthusiast and historian, Pritha Sen.

Surat's Rangooni Paratha AKA Maratabak/ Moghlai Paratha/ Baida Roti 

Rangooni Paratha, Mama Paratha

The most famous dish of modern Rander is the ‘Rangooni Paratha.' The place place to have it, as everyone will tell you, is Mama Paratha. 

The Rangooni paratha is a massive maida paratha which is stuffed with a minced meat (chicken/ mutton) of your choice, coated in egg, and deep fried. A cousin of the Moghlai Paratha of Kolkata one could say, the baida roti of Mumbai, the Martabak of Malaysia and the palata of Burma. The version at Mama’s is much bigger than any of the others that I have had across the world. I found the Rangooni Paratha that I had a bit overwhelming and dry, and missed the alu curry and ketchup doused sliced onion, carrot and cucumber salad, that they give on the side in Kolkata. Food is all about pairings as they say.

The original Mama Paratha said Basit. This is not the one I visited I am afraid

Mama’s Paratha was started by Yusuf Bham 40 years back says Basit. It is a rather Spartan looking eatery. It has a seating area where you wait for your food after you place your order and then eat. The entire set up reminded me of a food street that I had gone to in Georgetown in Penang with chef Ranveer Brar last year.

We had not gone to the original outlet though as I realised soon. We had gone instead to a more brightly lit and larger outlet called Mama’s Paratha and where they claimed to be the original outlet too. This is located opposite the one Basit mentioned. It was packed with people. Single men as well as local family folks. The women were in burkhas as this is a Muslim dominated area. We bumped into Basit and Ahmad after we came out of this shop and then learnt that this was not the original place.

The 'Who's your Mama now' confusion reminded me of Ambala in Punjab which has many road-side dhabas claiming to be the place for the original ‘Puran Singh Mutton!’

The entrance to the Rander food street

Of the two dishes that I had at Rander, I enjoyed the khow suey to the paratha. Basit and Ahmad told me that they too prefer the khow suey more. As we said goodbye, Ahmad most kindly invited me to come back and have Burmese food cooked by his mother one day. Basit told me to come back during Ramzan as that is when the food streets of Rander come alive according to him.

To me, Rander is where another chapter in the magnificent story of Malik Gopi's Surat is getting written.

Of Going loco over locho

Locho mania in Surat

Come Sunday and you will see Surtis get very excited about a dish called locho. Locho has made its appearance in the in the city in the last couple of decades according to old timers.  My family said that they had not heard of it in the 1950s and 60s when they lived here. 
The dish is clearly the breakfast favourite of the city and everyone told me that I should try it. 

Mummy and masi get to know about locho from the Surtis
of today outside Sriji Sweets. The gentleman in black called it a
by-product of khaman. The young girl said that cheese
 mayonnaise is the way to go

Locho is a  'by-product of khaman,’ the gram flour based steamed favourite snack of Gujarat, said a locho fan waiting in queue outside a shop called Sriji Sweets where he had come for his fill of locho. It consists of a thick and yellow slab, made with the same ingredients as khaman (powdered chickpeas), cut straight from the steamer, and served along with green chutney and finely chopped onions. 

Cheese mayonnaise locho at Sreeji Sweets

You can then choose the condiments to be added on it. Oil and butter were the original options we were told, but now toppings such cheese, mayonnaise and Schezwan chutney is what has apparently caught the fancy of young Surtis. 

On top, cheese mayonnaise locho from Sreeji Sweets
Below: oil locho from Jaani Farsan House

The price varies according to the topping used. Two of the most popular stops for locho, Jaani Farsan House and Sreeji Sweets are located beside each other at a place called Parle Point. Jaani is where I was first recommended to go. Then I saw the queues outside Sreeji and decided to try out their's too.

The queues outside Jaani Farsan House, this is where we were recommended to
go at first. Then I saw the queues outside Sreeji and went there too

I had the oil locho from Jaani which Freddy mama queued up and picked for us while I queued up at Sreeji with mummy and masi. There was a young girl in the queue at Sreeji who made a strong case for cheese mayonnaise and I followed her cue. 

I too liked the cheese mayonnaise locho better than the oil one. 

I cannot say that I was enamoured by the locho. However, like it is with the city of Surat, it is the confluence of diverse elements that brought the locho alive. The fresh and sharp green coriander and chilli chutney, the zing of the red onions, the crunch of the sev, the earthiness of the chilli laced oil and the chirpiness of the cheese and mayonnaise. They all worked together to make the locho great.

My recommendation would be to queue up, take a locho from each of the two shops, pair each with different toppings, and to then relish them both standing at a quiet corner on the streets. 

When my in laws got to learn something about their city of birth thanks to me

What, no Gujarati thali in Gujarat?

Excellent service at the Residency Hotel where we stayed

I did want to try a Gujarati thali in Surat. These vegetarian meals are so popular in Mumbai after all. A few names of places to do so were recommended to me. Sasural was one of them and we passed it our way. However, Basit told me that these thali joints offer a mix of Rajasthani , Punjabi (read paneer) and Gujarati dishes, and are not truly 'Surti.' That sounded like the Gujarati thali joints of Mumbai, of which I am no fan, to me. To top it, none of the places that I called up on phone, had no undhiyu on offer either though it was winter. Undhiyu is a dish that Surat is famous for and which I was keen to try as it was the season for undhiyu then.

I ditched my thali joint plans and K, her mama and I went to Spice, the restaurant at our hotel, The (Taj) Gateway Hotel at Athwa Lines, for dinner. They offer a Gujarati thali at lunch according to an article that I read online. Since it was dinner time, we went in for an a la  carte option.

Undhiyu at Spice

I got my Undhiyu there. "Nothing extraordinary," said mama in his characteristic style. I agree. I have had better. The rest of the food at Spice was lovely though.

Rotli with ghee and gur is how the locals pair it
said the young lady from Bengal at The Spice, Surat
It was a heady combination indeed!

We had rotlis (aata and bajra). The enthusiastic young lady from Bengal, attending our table  at Spice, suggested that I add ghee to the rotlis. 'That's what locals do," she said with a cheerful smile. I did so and did a double take. The addition of the sweet and savoury flavours of jaggery and ghee, and the goodness of fat of the ghee too, to the piping hot rotis made eating them a most memorable experience and very addictive at that!

K wanted a sukha batata shaak (a Gujarati potato sabzi). It was not on the menu but the chefs made it for us. K said that it tasted the same as what she had eaten at the home of her Gujarati friends. Freddy mama added that it tasted the same as what he remembered having in the Surat of his childhood that he had left behind years back.

Sukha batata shaak at Spice

I guess there could not have been a better ending to my first trip to Surat and to Gujarat than our dinner at The Spice. 

A trip where I was showered with love. A trip which filled me with hope and happiness and which sent me home inspired and rejuvenated. 

A trip where I was fed with food that spoke directly to my soul.  And cuddled and hugged me too. 

Food that sang paeans to the pioneering, welcoming, enterprising and benevolent spirit of  the city's founder, Malik Gopi.

All smiles at the The Spice, Surat