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Vikram

Swati Snacks

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Moving the Swati Snacks thread here since we were really straining the tea thread. Here's the article I wrote on the place after interviewing Asha Jhaveri, its very reticent owner. It was one of those rather frustrating interviews where you'd ask a long question and she would just reply 'yes' or 'no' - not from unfriendliness, that's just the way she is.

One thing I didn't mention in the article is why she's able to run the restaurant the way she does - she's apparently from a fairly well off Palanpuri Jain (meaning diamond trading) family, so its not like this is the main source of income. Shortly after I wrote the article though, she finally did give in to the pressure and has just opened a restaurant in Ahmedabad. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the quality doesn't fall now.

Vikram

Swati Snacks

Vikram Doctor, Mumbai

You’ve all had an grandmother or aunt, famous for her cooking, to whom everyone says, “you really should open your own restaurant!” They tell her it will be absolutely no problem: just a small space, manageable and your cooking will pull the people in. They tell her about the profit margins in the restaurant industry, and how food is a product that never goes out of fashion. And they tell her how bad the food in most restaurants is, and how people are desperate for simple and simply delicious home style cooking like she dishes up. It can’t fail, they assure her.

Some of us know women who have actually done this. They’ve opened their own place to warm reviews, a few weeks packed with family and friends and every indication of success. But then what happens? The reality of running a restaurant open seven days a week, of always having to be there, of never taking breaks slowly starts setting in. They face up to the hassle of government officials who want bribes, of contractors who don't finish on time or vanish when repairs are needed, of staff who absent themselves without warning and suppliers who cut corners at every opportunity.

And then there are the customers, the real ones, after the family and friends stop coming. These customers are less complimentary and more complaining. Slowly the sheen rubs off on the restaurant dream. Now staying at home and cooking from your own kitchen starts to seem more attractive. Do you really want the hassle of a restaurant? Slowly you cut corners, go less often, perhaps put in a manager. Or if the initial reaction was favourable enough, you might take the high road. Go all out to push the place, increase scale, open more branches, maybe even franchise it. Either way the result is the same: the restaurant’s quality slowly slides until ultimately it goes out of business or is so transformed into the standard, identikit eatery that essentially it might as well have.

Two Mumbai restaurants could be said to have resisted this slide. One of them, Samovar, in the downtown Jehangir Art Gallery has managed mainly because of its location and the hip, bohemian crowd it attracts. Its food, while very tasty and enjoyable, has never been the single reason for going there. The other restaurant, Swati Snacks in Tardeo near Grant Road Station (opposite Bhatia Hospital) has had it harder. Asha Jhaveri, its owner, recalls it started off in the standard way, when visitors to her family house who loved the pani puri and other snacks served up by her mother, encouraged her into starting a small space to sell them.

That was 43 years back and its prospects didn’t seem bright then. Its was not in a fashionable location, and while it is now, thanks to a total makeover a few years back, all stylish looking stainless steel and polished wood, for years it was just a very basic, non-air-conditioned and Formica table topped place. Tardeo is very middle class Maharashtrian-Gujarati area and the food Swati serves is based on the home food of these communities - in other words, exactly the sort of food that people in the neighbourhood aren’t likely to go out to eat, when they can get it at home.

Nor is Swati particularly cheap. While not off-puttingly expensive, but its not the dead-cheap place that might have been imagined, given the simplicity of its food and cheapness of its strictly vegetarian ingredients. So why is Swati packed, every day of the week, with long lines waiting patiently outside at lunch and dinner (the restaurant is open continuously from 11 am to 11 p.m.), or even just for takeway? And why are these people mostly exactly the middle class Maharashtrians-Gujaratis who one would expect would want something more exotic when they go out to eat? And how has it managed to do this for 43 years?

It has to be just quality, and the effort that goes into maintaining it. Jhaveri has been running the restaurant for the last 24 years and she’s down there every morning. “Every day I taste all the dishes, to make sure the quality doesn’t go down,” she says. She’s there everyday quietly supervising the staff from the background - the self-effacing Jhaveri is emphatically not the kind of proprietor who goes from table to table forcibly fraternising with the customers - and making sure that things go smoothly despite the long queues. (Given the length of waiting time at peak hours, there’s remarkably little bad temper on display - perhaps most people are just happily anticipating the food). And Jhaveri has steadfastly refused any temptation to expand or franchise. “Every week we get proposals to expand or open new restaurants, even abroad,” she says. “But how will I be able to maintain the quality then? This is the most that I can do from a kitchen this size. It can’t be larger than this.”

Swati’s food is also interesting, since it falls into no easy classification. Its eclectic, borrowing from several cuisines, but it steers clear of the excesses of ‘modern’ vegetarian food. True, she has a Falafal and ‘Cheese Mex’, best described as a Gujju pizza, buts its still far from the broccoli and babycorn brigade which picks veggie ingredients from around the world (add refried beans and its Mexican, add pineapple its Hawaiian), uses exotic vegetables and covers everything in chilli and cheese. Jhaveri does fusion food of an entirely different kind. Her base is the traditional cooking of the Western states - Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Kutchi. She takes elements from these cuisine, revives lesser known dishes, uses ingredients falling out of use and combines them in creative ways.

For example, take the Thalipith with Pitla, both standard Maharashtrian dishes, but not usually served together. Pitla is loosely a thick curry of besan (chickpea flour) with vegetables added, but her version, she explains is really a thicker, richer form of jhunka, the thin besan gruel that the Maharashtrian rural staple. Jhunka is usually eaten with thick jowar bakris, as everyone learned when the Shiv Sena came to power and made a famous promise to offer jhunka-bakri at Rs1/- only. That promise and its ignominious collapse, made jhunka-bakris a joke in Mumbai, but what escaped most people was that whatever the cost, it could be quite tasty. Jhaveri had realised this earlier and gone one step further - she dropped the rather boring bakris and paired it with thalipith, a thick and tasty flatbread made from a mix of grains like jowar, bajra, wheat and rice. The hearty, spicy thalipith combines with her garlicky, ghee laden pitla to create something truly outstanding and unique.

A lot of Swati’s best dishes are made of these combinations dreamed up by Jhaveri. A sticky jowar khichidi, for example, is served with a thin kokam sauce, or thick harhar dal (urad) rotis are served with chowli (black-eyed beans). This ‘traditional-fusion’ approach enables Jhaveri to achieve something important: a balance between Maharashtrian and Gujarati cuisines. Gujarati food by itself can often seem too rich, the natural flavour of the ingredients drowned in added sweetness and ghee. Maharashtrian food is the other extreme: austere and simple, sometimes to the point of dryness. Combining the two traditions makes for an ideal mix, very tasty, but never over the top. Swati’s food emphasises the qualities of the basic ingredients, particularly the less popular grains like jowar and bajra that Jhaveri likes using, not least because they’re much healthier. They are also much tastier as her bajra uttapam demonstrates. Made like a traditional uttapam, but lumpy and dark coloured from the bajra grains, it looks unprepossessing, but has a wonderfully satisfying, stomach filling taste.

This is not an easy trick to pull off; these are peasant dishes and could easily seem crude and out of place in an upmarket environment. But Jhaveri prepares them with enough of a style to make them seem elegant, but not patronising. Jhaveri’s other trick seems to be to pick up very traditional dishes that are no longer made much in home. One of her absolute must have dishes, and the best to start with, is Panki, delicate and lacy crepes made by steaming rice flour in banana leaves. Its a Jain specialty, but not regularly made these days because of the hassle of getting banana leaves at home. Served at Swati, with green chutney and the restaurants wonderful stuffed and fried chillies (not too hot to eat), it comes as a revelation. Jhaveri also serves a dill flavoured version. This is probably a large part of the reason for her success with the traditional Maharashtrian-Gujarati: there’s a strong nostalgia value in eating at Swati as I discovered when I once packed their jowar khichidi and sent them to my Gujarati father in Chennai. For days he was raving about how close it was to the way his mother used to make it.

Swati doesn’t only serve traditional dishes. She also offers the full range of Mumbai snack foods, from the standards like bhel puri, pani puri and sev puri, to the more Maharashtrian ones like dahi-missal and even the unashamed Bombaiyya street specialties like pav bhaji and ragda pattice, all impeccably made (and safe too: the restaurant uses only UV treated water, so this is the place to bring people who are nervous about eating from the roadside). Since South Indian dosas and iddlies are now also part of the city’s street food now, she offers them as well including local variations like the cheese dosa. Happily she draws the line at the other ubiquitous part of Mumbai restaurant cooking - the mandatory ‘Chinese’ sections. “People keep telling me to do this, but I don’t want to,” she says firmly.

For the sweet toothed, Swati’s offerings are few, but select. There’s an ultra-creamy malpua and a Gujarati style puranpoli dripping ghee (my one crib: I wish she’d offer the much more elegant, Maharashtrian puranpolis, delicately dry and flaky and to be eaten dipped in milk). In keeping with the street food focus, she offers ice-golas to satisfy our most childish instincts, but with shaved ice made from bottled water and special home made syrups. The restaurant is particularly famous for its jalebis and home made ice-cream, the items with which Jhaveri’s mother started the place, along with pani puri and other snacks.

Swati today is a far cry from those days, but Jhaveri clearly wants to maintain a link with that tradition. She’s recently started a scheme where every Sunday housewives are encouraged to sell their specialities through the restaurant. They have to come to Jhaveri with their samples and if she approves, she’ll give them a Sunday when their items are added to the menu along with their names and phone numbers. “Many of them have got excellent and repeat orders after we featured them,” says Jhaveri. Its offering them a first step and who knows - perhaps some of them might learn from Swati and set up their own restaurants some day.

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Great article, Vikram. I just realized that I've been reading and admiring your work in sundry Outlook Traveller issues for a while now.

This ‘traditional-fusion’ approach enables Jhaveri to achieve something important: a balance between Maharashtrian and Gujarati cuisines. Gujarati food by itself can often seem too rich, the natural flavour of the ingredients drowned in added sweetness and ghee. Maharashtrian food is the other extreme: austere and simple, sometimes to the point of dryness. Combining the two traditions makes for an ideal mix, very tasty, but never over the top.

This kind of says it all, and 'traditional-fusion' is a neat coinage. The food is a highly plausible outcome of the Bombay rality, even the regional reality I was talking about. It's not an experiment but a genuine fusion. Or so I maintain.

--

This thread will be extremely short, which is fine I guess. But perhaps it can morph into a discussion of something else you (Vikram) said at the beginning of this discussion.

Its one of the few restaurants where I feel there is someone really interested in food behind it.

What are the others, in the Indian tradition (at home or abroad)?

We have lots of restaurants which work on preserving, conserving, traditions. I'd put the dum-pukht and Bukhara's in this vein. But which are the restaurants which are innovating in an intelligent manner? Putting carefully considered new spins on old traditions? Reviving worthy techniques and applying them afresh?

I can think of only one, right away. It's called 'O Cozinheiro', and is tucked away in Betalbatim, Goa. There, you have the young Goan equivalent of the monomaniacal chef in 'Big Night', a person so devoted to his loving reproductions of local food that he scorns what is available and bakes his own bread (Goa is a land of good bakers), cures his own meats, makes his own vinegar. The food doesn't stray from the seasonal and the regional, but this is a bright, open-minded, young chef (with years of experience cooking abroad) who is willing to improve and innovate in order to avoid compromise.

Goan food, beyond the stereotypical sausages/sorpotel/vindaloo, is terribly represented in restaurants - even restaurants in Goa. Far, far more than the other cuisines in India you have to eat it at private homes. This restaurant, O Cozinheiro, changes that and you'll see it daily packed with the exact same (local) people whose households are famous for their food.

It's an expansion of the traditions, see, within genuine homage. And thus a very compelling place to eat.

--

You could easily say the same about Swati.

Now, where else is this kind of exciting development taking place?

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i'm cutting and pasting my response from the other thread in here since it is relevant:

(by the way, i figured out why i used "goanese"--i've been re-reading "english, august" for professional reasons and chatterjee describes agastya's deceased mother as having been "goanese" instead of "goan". blame him, not me.)

(edit to add: monica, do you think you might move the other relevant posts from the tea thread to this one?)

---------------

i don't mean to answer for vikram--i'm not that foolhardy--but the sense in which i took his comment is the sense in which food in our home growing up (and in my wife and mine now) is "fused across traditions". my father was in the air-force and we lived all over india and everywhere we lived we had friends from all over india--both locals and other displaced airforce officers. thus after a certain time a lunch time meal cooked by my mother included certain classically bengali dishes along with dishes she'd learnt from people from other places, and also dishes from other places that got significant bengali accents. this kind of thing is not usually considered fusion since when we think about "fusion" we mostly think about "east-west" fusion. thus even that strip of konkan coast may normally comprise fairly discrete food-practices that are being made to speak to each other at swati, let alone the more radical mixing that can happen in the armed forces or other regularly displaced context in india.

in our home here in colorado, this has taken on another dimension with my non-regional regional cooking meeting my wife's very excellent take on her own korean culinary tradition. thus our meal last night was punjabi style rajma, bengali alu-gobi, a take on a goanese pomfret dish, alongside korean panchan like kim-chi, toasted sea-weed and cold-spinach with garlic and sesame.

mongo


Edited by mongo_jones (log)

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Vikram makes a powerful case for why we should treasure shops like Swati Snacks that update traditional cuisine without stripping it of its identity. The ‘traditional-fusion’ term deserves to catch on! I would add that we should also treasure articles of the kind that Vikram writes - it's really the best kind of analytical food journalism, taking a single dish or establishment, but drawing out it broader implications in a totally convincing fashion.

Monica, moving posts from one thread to another is bit complicated. As far as I can tell, the only way to do it is to split the Tea thread, creating a new, temporary thread to "hold" the posts that belong here. You then merge the new thread with this one. The "moderatoin options" menu that allows you to this can be found at the lower left hand corner of this screen.


Sun-Ki Chai
http://www2.hawaii.edu/~sunki/

Former Hawaii Forum Host

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in our home here in colorado, this has taken on another dimension with my non-regional regional cooking meeting my wife's very excellent take on her own korean culinary tradition. thus our meal last night was punjabi style rajma, bengali alu-gobi, a take on a goanese pomfret dish, alongside korean panchan like kim-chi, toasted sea-weed and cold-spinach with garlic and sesame.

mongo

Mongo,

I'm very available for adoption, I do windows, floors, dishes, wax cars.........I'll even dust!

Edited for color!


Edited by nessa (log)

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