Eating spaghetti in Baroda

I ENJOY ITALIAN FOOD. Very occasionally, I discover Italian restaurants abroad that serve authentic Italian dishes, food that makes no compromises to non-Italian tastes.

Back in the 1980s, Giovanni’s in Chatham (Kent, UK) was an oasis of superb food in the then desert of mediocrity, the Medway Towns. Apart from other beautifully prepared dishes, his spaghetti with pesto was perfect. Unfortunately, Giovanni’s, a justifiably expensive place pf good taste, went out of business several years before I ceased practising as a dentist in the Medway Towns in about 1993.

Grahamstown in South Africa was another surprising place where, in 2003, we discovered a remarkably good Italian eatery rin by an Italian family. I do not remember its name but it was near where we were staying on Somerset (?) Street. I doubt tje restaurant still exists.

Manhattan is rich in Italian eateries. One which we visited by chance on a street in East 50s, was superb. I forget what we ate, but after we had eaten we read the reviews hanging on the window. We might have missed this restaurant’s gastronomic treats had we read the review which related that the establishment’s prices were “vertiginous”. The reviewer was not kidding.

When Unity Mitford was in Munich in the 1930s, she developed a crush on Adolf Hitler. His favourite restaurant in Munich was the Osteria Bavaria, an Italian restaurant, which still exists but has been renamed Osteria Italia. Unity used to sit in the Bavaria at a table near to that occupied by Adolf, and was often invited to join him and his dining companions. In the early 2000s, I had a meal at Adolf’s renamed restaurant, which has retained much of its original decor. The Italian food served there was magnificent. I was amused by the establishment’s apt motto: “In touch with history”.

One of the best Italian meals I have eaten in London was at Asaggi near Westbourn Grove. Another memorably good Italian place I have tried is Zafferano near Knightsbridge. I forget what I ate, but that evening Sean Connery also ate there as well as the shorter of the Two Ronnies (British comedians). Sean Connery ate in a private room, guarded by a waiter, who told us: “We ‘ave to be careful this evening. We don’t want no trouble with James Bond.”

In India, there are plenty of restaurants offering Italian inspired food, but most of them produce disappointing dishes. Chianti in Koramangala (Bangalore) is one notable exception. I have eaten there at least twice, always most satisfactorily. Their food is very close to authentic Italian cuisine. However, the branch of Chianti in MG Road is disappointing.

It was two visits to Baroda (Vadodara) in Gujarat that prompted me to write this piece. The Fiorella in a hotel in the Alkapuri district serves truly excellent Italian food. It was set up by an Indian chef, who had trained in Italy and worked in restaurants there for more than fourteen years. Ravichandra, who became a master chef in Italy, qualified to supervise the running of kitchens in Italian restaurants, was employed by the hotel in Baroda. His brief was to set up a restaurant serving Italian food that made no compromises to pander to local tastes.

Fiorella is the successful result. We first ate there in early 2019, when Ravichandra was in the kitchen. Then, we returned in January 2020, by which time he had left. We were sad to miss him, but overjoyed to discover that, even without him, the food is still a great gastronomic delight. It is a case of ‘when in Baroda, eat as the Romans do’.

Going vegetarian in Gujarat

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There are many vegetarians in India, particularly in Gujarat.

I am primarily an omnivore, who enjoys meat and fish.

In many of the places we visited on a seven week visit to Kutch and Saurashtra, it was difficult or even impossible to find restaurants serving non-vegetarian food. I spotted street stalls where omelettes were made to order – and they are very delicious – and barrows where un-refrigerated kebabs were on display in the hot weather, awaiting grilling.

In Kutch, I enjoyed the delicately prepared, tasty vegetarian thalis. In Saurashtra, thalis were less attractive to my taste because of their oily-ness and over use of sugar or other sweeeners. However, Gujarat is a paradise for snackers. All over Gujarat, you will find places selling a variety of delicious farsan (savoury snacks). My favourites include: dhokla, patra, ganthia, sev, bhel puri, chewda, dahi puri, khandvi, and pani puri.

Therefore when I wanted something more substantial, I resorted to eating readily available South Indian specialities such as dosas and curd vada. Or, I ordered pizzas. The pizzas, which would look strange to a Sicilian or a Neapolitan, were delicious despite the fact that the cheese used was not remotely similar to mozzarella. I suspect it was often the industrially prepared Indian Amul product. By the way, Amul was a dairy company established just after Indian Independence in Gujarat, inspired by ideas suggested by Sardar Vallabhai Patel, an important statesman and politician born in Gujarat. Getting back to the pizzas, what made them delicious was the tomato sauces used on them. These were not run-of-the-mill out-of-the-can industrial products. They were usually sauces made in the restaurant using fresh tomatoes and herbs and appropriate spices. Indian Chinese food, even if vegetarian, is also an option.

Well, although I am not a fan of veg food, many people fall in love with the various meat-free and egg-free cuisines of Gujarat.

 

Feeding the poor

A few years ago, I was on Calcutta during the August monsoon. As I waded through the filthy rain water flooding the streets of a bazaar area, I noticed that at quite a few clothing material shops run by Moslems there were huge pots of rice and dal or curry. These were manned by shop staff. They were doling out this food to various poorly clothed passers by.

I asked what was going on. One shop keeper told me that during Ramadan it was considered virtuous to feed the poor while the faithful Moslems upheld their required daily fasting. This charitable activity impressed me.

During a recent visit to Ahmedabad in February, I passed an eatery, whose signboard read Muslim Kifayat Hotel, hotel being Indian English for restaurant.

Kifayat is the Urdu word for ‘sufficiency’. It may have other meanings in Hindi.

The restaurant under discussion is on one side of the enormous market place that extends from the Bhadra Fort through the three arches of the 15th century Teen Darwaza and beyond.

Rows of benches are lined up on the pavement in front of the open fronted restaurant. Often, these are occupied by people, who appear to be extremely impoverished. Food (all vegetarian) is prepared at the front if the restaurant in huge pots and a tandoor oven.

One of the men running the Kifayat Hotel explained that the meals they served – dal, rice, freshly cooked rotis, and vegetables – are normally priced at 40 rupees, but poor people pay no more than half of that amount.

Later while exploring Ahmedabad we spotted other eateries like the Kifayat Hotel, and like that place they had rows of benches in front of them. Often, these seats were quite crowded with men, women, and children.

I have yet to discover whether the charitable eating places we saw on Ahmedabad are self-financing or to some extent assisted by charitable institutions.

P.S. just before publishing this, I visited a Hindu temple in Koramangala, Bangalore. Every Thursday, lunch is provided free of charge to anyone who turns up, regardless of their religious belief.

Going vegetarian in Gujarat

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Travellers visiting Gujarat should be aware that the majority of food served in the state is vegetarian. In bigger places like Ahmedabad and Baroda, finding non-vegetarian food is less of a problem than in smaller places. If you visit Bhavnagar, the Nilambagh Palace Hotel serves very good food – both veg and non-veg. Many people hanker after Gujarati thalis, but I am not one of these people. Those who are not on the Gujarati meals can easily find well-prepared south Indian vegetarian food like dosas, idli, and vada. Pizzas are also widely available, often with excellent tomato sauce made with fresh tomatos. 

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Gujarati thali

Another thing to consider when planning your trip to Gujarat is that it is a dry state: alcohol is not served in any public places. It is possible to get a permit (I have no idea how) to be allowed alcohol ‘for medical purposes’ (!)  Gujaratis and others desperate for booze can cross the border into either Daman or Diu, both of which were Portuguese colonies until 1961. Now they are administered not by the State of Gujarat, but by the Central Government of India – they are Union Territories. Alcohol is freely available at almost duty-free places in these tiny places, both of which are well-worth visiting.

 

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A mug of chhas

If you are thirsty, there are plenty of soft drinks available including the refreshing watered down yoghurt drink chhas (also known as ‘buttermilk’). Tea is the prevalent hot drink. We found it hard to get decent coffee, let alone any coffee. Most Gujaratis in Kutch and Saurashtra seem to be keen tea drinkers.

 

Discover more about journeying through Gujarat in Adam Yamey’s new book:

GUJ LULU PIC
Paperback available from lulu.com, Amazon, bookepository.com, Kindle, or order it from your bookshop [ISBN: 978-0244407988]