Biryani in the time of Fafdas

Sanjay Kapoor

My recent trip to Gujarat was largely uneventful except for all the fafdas (some crazy shaped puffs made of gram flour) that I had during my road journey to Surat from Ahmedabad. Every time I would tell my driver Ratanbhai that I wanted to have tea and a little bite - he would park the car at the nearest fafda place. I wanted to have an omelette and told him so, but I could not have committed a bigger blasphemy in his eyes. He made a dirty face and told me that it was not available on this highway and its consumption was generally not encouraged! I did not protest and allowed him to make me a fafda convert. Truth be told I did not really mind this wafer light snack served in abundance on a plate with another gram flour sauce as an accompaniment. Fafda is a snack that belongs to a larger category of Gujarati small eats labeled as Farsan.

 I look around in the roadside restaurant and see how others including Ratanbhai are freaking out on Fafda and I earnestly wonder whether these Gujju bhais are missing out on the delectable tandoori foodstuff  that is available on highways that emerge out of Delhi to Punjab or elsewhere? I did not conduct any survey amongst the fafda eating crowd about whether they would like butter chicken, malai tikkas or maa ki daal, but it seemed unlikely that anyone of them would jump at these dishes. As the influence of Vaishnavism and Jainism has grown, Gujaratis` have become synonymous with vegetarianism. What is forgotten is that there is a robust history of Gujarati non-vegetarian cuisine, but one would struggle to find it in the menu of many five star hotels in the state. A Google search reveals an interesting nugget from an anthropological study that says that a few hundred years ago, 70 percent of the Gujarati society was non-vegetarian. A Gujarati non-vegetarian cuisine book written by Bhanu Hajratwala titled: Gujarati Kitchen: Family Recipes for the Global Palate has dishes with a nice Gujarati sound to it: Boomla Batakanu Shaak (Bombay Duck and potato curry) or Marghana Mamna (mutton Kofta curry). I found none of these dishes in any of the menus that I explored during my short journey. This doesn’t mean that chicken pizza and chicken curry was not available in Ahmadabad, but Gujarati non-vegetarian dishes did not proudly sit in the menu as the fiery mutton curry “Lal Maas” did in Rajasthan’s top hotel’s like Fairmont, Rambagh Palace and even Jaipur’s famous restaurant, Nero’s. 

I heard some grumble in Surat, though, about how the rule of the vegetarians in Gujarat had driven out not only the non-vegetarian cuisine from menus, but also its consumers out of housing societies. This reality is common knowledge amongst the populace. Many housing societies promoted by wealthy vegetarian families just cannot countenance anyone cooking lamb or chicken in their complex. There are instances of tenants being chased out once it was discovered that they were cooking meat. Muslims, therefore, are not entertained as tenants in most societies in Gujarat and even parts of Maharashtra. No one wants them (Muslims) to pollute their societies by cooking food which is not kosher.  It is due to this reason that the rise of the vegetarian ideology has seen the emergence of a Muslim ghetto, Juhapura. Located near a landfill site, Juhapura is inhabited by fairly rich members of the minority community. Its population ballooned after the Hindu-Muslim riots. This ghetto in a certain way meets the demand of the aggressively vegetarian ruling elite that neither has a like for non vegetarian food nor the votes of those who consume it. This is at least true in Gujarat.

The same mindset is aggressively replicating itself on the back of an anti-beef campaign that has been launched by BJP led governments in Maharashtra, Haryana and Rajasthan. Gau Rakshaks and cow protection committees are not just targeting cattle traders ferrying live stock from one place to another, but also the hugely popular- Biryani. In Haryana, government agencies believe that the Mewati biryani uses beef and that means that cow slaughter is taking place in the region. This has spread panic amongst biryani makers and consumers who do not know when they would get a visit from a policeman.

 The humble Biryani that is cooked in so many different parts of the country has acquired religious connotations and that can be worrying for those who eat for the sake of eating. In these times when religion and its practice is being codified, eating lamb biryani could be an anti-national act according to some of those who are happy eating their crispy potato wafers or fafdas.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2016