Everywhere on the Ahmedabad-Rajkot highway, signboards hold out the promise of “pure veg” to the traveller. But we are looking for meat. Not butter chicken or mutton rogan josh or seekh kebab — which, contrary to stereotype, one can find in the cities of this “vegetarian” state — but authentic Gujarati meat dishes.
In the stretch between Bavla in Ahmedabad district and Chotila in Surendranagar district, only a couple of run-down dhabas, shrinking apologetically in the shadow of plush vegetarian food joints, offer “non-veg”. Many dhabas have come up here recently to cater to migrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. They deny that they sell meat—“only eggs,” says an owner.
On a bare roadside before the Chotila hill — a popular pilgrimage site in Surendranagar — one is led by the aroma of spices to a dhaba (owned by Nitinbhai Thakore, an OBC). On the menu is mutton nu shaak, machhli and chikan (chicken), cooked in the “Kathiawadi style”, and souped up with bajra and wheat rotlas or rice.
Six charpoys, each with a rectangular wooden plate placed across its middle, makes for the dining table. Kamalakant Upadhyay is a Brahmin and a vegetarian, who learnt to cook meat from a hotel he worked in in Godhra. He reluctantly shares the recipes of the greasy curries. “Kaarigar kyare nahin kahe (A workman never shares his art),” he says sternly.
He takes you inside the kitchen, which has a part of the tin roof torn off to allow some light. A man pats out hot rotlas from an earthen tava on a woodfire chulha. Upadhyay shows us the three vessels of curry he has made. The largest one has mutton, the medium chicken and the smallest one fish, indicating what is popular. “We sell 30-40 plates of meat and fish daily,” says dhaba manager Virendra Dave.
The chicken curry is made on wood fire. Onions and tomatoes are the primary ingredients but this is not a typical north Indian dish. “We only make broiler chicken, because desi chicken is unavailable now and four times the price,” says Upadhyay. The fish is the marine khaga (catfish), a delicacy in these parts.
Chief minister Vijay Rupani has said he wants a shakahaari Gujarat, after the government amended a law to make cow slaughter punishable by life imprisonment. But if he were to have his wish, he would have to convert a substantial chunk of the state’s population to vegetarianism.
According to the Sample Registration System Baseline Survey 2014, carried out by the Census of India, almost 40 per cent of Gujarat’s population is non-vegetarian, (39.9 per cent male, 38.2 per cent female), which is higher than Punjab (34.5 per cent male, 32.5 per cent female) and Rajasthan (26.8 per cent male, 23.4 per cent female). Meat eaters can be found in every region of the state and they mostly belong to the OBC, Dalit, Muslim, Rajput and tribal communities.
But there is a distinct whiff of disapproval of meat eaters in Gujarat’s culture, and an uncomfortable division by religion. Meat is available sparsely in so-called Hindu areas and identified as a “Muslim” food. In Ahmedabad’s Paldi area, dominated by the powerful Jain community, itself a minority in the state, even public eating places make pizzas and dal makhni without onion. In nearby Narayannagar Road, where Muslims live, you can find non-vegetarian food. Fifteen years ago, the American chain, Pizza Hut, opened its first vegetarian outlet in the world in Ahmedabad. During the holy Paryushan period of Jains, slaughterhouses are shut down in major cities and towns. Despite that, dhabas run by Muslims — the ubiquitous fry centres and tawas — sell chicken and mutton dana, biryani and mutton samosas in all cities, and are patronised by (mostly men of ) all communities, even if not openly.
Sociologist Ghanshyam Shah traces this strong vegetarian strain in the state to the Jainism and Bhakti movements of the 10th and 11th centuries that led to conversions to vegetarianism, mainly among the upper castes. Most of north Gujarat came under the influence of the movements. “Eating meat was looked down upon, and considered backward,” he says.
And yet, dishes like tetar ni kadhi (partridge curry), boklo no kalejo (liver of he-goat) and mutton nu shaak were as much a part of Gujarati cuisine as undhiyu and shrikhand. They have disappeared from the public palate for reasons ranging from the ban on hunting, to unavailability of people who can cook them.
A handful of royal families in Kathiawar and Kutch are trying to revive traditional meat recipes in their heritage hotels and homestays. Yogini Kumari, the yuvrani of the erstwhile state of Wankaner, decided to offer mutton nu shaak and chicken keema to their guests at Royal Oasis, the heritage property the family owns in Wankaner town. Its recipe handed down from royal cook to royal cook, this version of mutton nu shaak is made with the meat of a billy goat. It is cooked with browned onions and other spices. What sets the Kathiawadi cuisine apart is that it does not use any marinade. “The meat is fried with chopped onions and allowed to slow cook in an earthen pot, with green chillies and garam masala and so on,” says Yogini Kumari, 32.
She says that the “conversion” to vegetarianism in Gujarat shocks her. “Even in local Rajput functions, everything is vegetarian. Kshatriya wives don’t know how to cook non-vegetarian food, at least in Rajkot, Morbi and Wankaner. It is a culture that is lost,” says Yogini Kumari, who is from the royal family of Sirohi in Rajasthan. In her home state, Rajputs have not given up on meat, she says.
“Why should we shun something which is a part of our culture?” she says. Most of her palace staff is vegetarian. “It is difficult to find people who can help in the kitchen. This growing thing of vegetarianism… people don’t want to touch it (meat), they don’t want to do the dishes.”
The Wankaner palace is decorated with trophies of deer, bears, goats, big cats and even elephants, once hunted by its kings. Wankaner, Jasdan and Kutch were the only states that had their private forests for hunting. Now, desi chicken, specially reared in Wankaner, is the preferred meat.
Similarly, Shalini Kumari, the queen of the erstwhile state of Kutch, is training cooks to make the bhugo — a dry dish of minced partridge — to serve at her homestay at Sharad Baug palace in Bhuj. “Bhugo was a part of my husband’s childhood, so I decided to revive it after learning the recipe from the family’s old chef. Since partridge is not available, I use chicken,” she says.
The chicken is first minced, baked, mixed with spices roasted in ghee, and wrapped in a muslin cloth to remove all the water. It is baked again, till it is completely dry and can be stored, says Shalini Kumari. “Garnished with lemon and coriander, it is usually a tangy accompaniment with drinks or can be had with soup,” she says. Shalini Kumari is also digging into old recipe books to make traditional Kutchi mutton dishes like seekh and paper chaap.
It is not just royal kitchens that hold secret recipes of exotic dishes. You can find one on the road to Anand from Ahmedabad — at Hungry restaurant in Chikodra village. Its speciality is the matla chicken, which is cooked in the same style as the ubadiyu or umbadiyu (a mix of different beans and tubers, cooked in south Gujarat by packing them in a clay pot and setting it on fire in a pit dug in the earth). In this case, the chicken is marinated for a whole day before it is cooked, says manager Vagtaram Dadariya. “A pot is layered with plantain leaves at the bottom. The marinated chicken is wrapped in foil and placed on the leaves, and covered with banana leaves,” says Dadariya. The recipe uses no oil. Before foil was available, it used to be wrapped in a soft cloth. The pot is sealed, turned upside down on a bed of coal, covered with a jute cloth, and set on fire for a couple of hours. The result is a semi-dry, mildly spicy dish, which can be eaten on its own or with rotli.
Siddharth Patel, who belongs to Chikodra and owns the Hungry restaurant, learnt the recipe from his mama (mother’s brother) in Sarsa village in Anand. “My uncle, his son and all of us used to make it and have it on our picnics to the farm. We all love it,” says Patel. His entire family eats meat, he says, and most of his clients are from his community.
Patel is from the Sattavis Gaam Patidar Samaaj, a community of Patels from the Charotar region, which has a large presence in the United Kingdom. About the idea of turning Gujarat vegetarian, he says, “What can I say? I think everyone should be given a choice.” He has now opened branches in Vadodara as well.
Vadodara is the more cosmopolitan of Gujarat’s cities with a substantial meat-eating population and strong Maratha and Bohri influences. A food enthusiast and expert in Bohri cuisine, Zainab Clipwala, 52, vouches for the mutton undhiyu, which has been a traditional culinary delight of the Muslim Bohri community in Gujarat. The dish is prepared just like the vegetarian undhiyu, with an addition of mutton toppings. “In our community, a meal is incomplete without meat, and somebody must have added mutton to the traditional undhiyu. Over the years, the dish has gained popularity and become a favourite with many meat-eating Hindus too,” says Clipwala.
On the menu in Narendra Gadkari’s Chefzy India, a restaurant in Vadodara, is the traditional Maratha chicken, prepared in the Gaekwadi style. Gadkari, 52, learnt some of the secrets of the cuisine as his sister is married in the extended Gaekwad family. “Gaekwadi cuisine is well known but not available in restaurants. We decided to incorporate one of the signature dishes in our menu,” he says.The dish is heavy on onion-coconut gravy and crushed whole spices. “It is among our popular dishes. We also cook our dum biryani like the royal kitchen,” he says.
Along the coastline in Saurashtra, seafood is a part of everyday meals. For the Kharwas community, a staple is prawns pickled just like the gorkeri (Gujarat’s famous jaggery-mango pickle). “Pomfrets are a popular fish in these parts, cooked in at least six styles,” says Dipeshbhai Godhaniya, who runs a taxi business in Porbandar.
In Junagadh, which used to be under the the Babi dynasty till 1948 when it acceded to India, the cuisine was heavily influenced by the Mughal culture. Matin Khan Babi, 30, from Junagadh’s royal family, was in the hospitality business, and now lives in Rajkot. He tells us about the mutton akhni, a meat-rice dish, which is a staple in their home. “The recipe includes onions, green chilly, cloves, cardamom, turmeric, and you could add potatoes,” says Babi. The onions are sautéed till brown, then the meat is added with spices and salt. It is then cooked on a slow fire for about four-five minutes, and turned all the while. Finally, rice and water are added. Both are cooked on a slow fire for 30 minutes. The dish is so simple that anyone can make it.
Despite the culinary divide in the state, meat-eaters are a growing lot in its cities. Rachitbhai Davda runs a takeaway in Ahmedabad’s Vastrapur area, one of the few in the upmarket western part of this city that sells meat — chicken and meat wraps, burgers and other fast food. He believes that more upper-caste Gujaratis are willing to experiment with non-vegetarian food—albeit outside their homes. “Two years ago, I had mostly non-Gujarati clients. Now 70 per cent of my clients are Gujarati,” says Davda.
Nankubhai Manjaria, 70, a retired police inspector from the staunch meat-eating Kathi Darbar community of Gujarat, wonders if the decision has to be all or neither. He says, “Our mythologies testify to meat-eating, even by women. If there is a ban on meat, this whole country will go hungry.”