Junagadh, Gujarat 2009.
Food is one of the delights of India. Colour, smell, flavour, eating is an experience for all the senses. In Junagadh, we found two wildly different favourites.
The Jay Ambe Juice Centre was a welcome retreat, a place to rest and watch India from a distance. Great for a fresh juice or a delicious milkshake – chikku, (sapodilla), valiyari (aniseed), kesar (safron), badam (almond) – we tried several. Three oblong tables filled one side of the shop. Long benches lined either side of each table. If it was busy people sat wherever they could. It was a clean, breezy place with a front open to the street – a place to sit and watch the world go by. But Indians didn’t linger. We sat, and sat, and stayed some more. They ordered, drank, and went. A blue counter, stocked with glasses, and topped with fruit – pineapples bookending a pyramid of carrots sliced through the middle, and rows of oranges and pomegranates – ran the length of the shop. The young waiter, small and skinny, looked for all the world like a schoolboy – except he sported a moustache – leant against it at slack moments. At right angles to this counter, a display with an impressive row of blenders enticed people into the shop. Garlands of oranges strung in nets hung from the frontage, and fresh pineapples dangled in between these streamers – alternative Christmas decorations! A mouse nibbled a crumb under the counter, and fans whirred. The waiter clattered stainless steel jugs and glasses and wiped his hands on his short brown apron. The milkshake maker sat on a stool staring into the distance. They rarely spoke to each other, each seemingly locked into his own private world.
There was nothing private about the Vihar Restaurant on the Kalwa Chowk. A packed street-side restaurant, everything was way out in the open, even the kitchen spilled out onto the pavement. Huge round pans, blackened with use, dotted the area outside the shop. The chapati maker, constantly pressed and kneaded dough, rolled it out, and tossed it to the man cooking it on a griddle – a never ending supply of piping hot, fresh bread – needed to supply the non-stop stream of men eating, for here, places were filled as soon as they were vacated – a whirl of bustle, noise and activity. An army of waiters, most of whom seemed to be well into their eighties, shuffled about, dolloping curry and dal into small round dishes. This was a thali joint, a ‘one size fits all/what you see is what you get’ kind of restaurant, but supply was limitless. We pointed to what our neighbour was eating, the waiter took pains to tell us it cost Rs. 35 and once they were assured this was OK, a huge condiment pot was plonked on the formica table – great tubs of raw onions, lime and pickle. Next our thali arrived, a big stainless steel tray with little individual bowls filled with curry, vegetable, dal, rice, two chapati and one poppadom. We were given spoons but everyone else ate with their fingers.
The food was a bit spicy, (like a flame thrower tickling your tonsils) but delicious, and Vihar’s had atmosphere by the bucket load. The owner, an old man with a blue shirt, and very kindly face, kept an eye on us and came over to tell us to spoon the dal into the rice – the two were supposed to be eaten together. I tried to tell him it was just too hot for me to eat. He seemed worried that we were not eating enough, and kept trying to press more food on us. ‘Masala chapati – good, good’ said one of the elderly waiters, holding one out in front of us. Jim took it to satisfy him but I couldn’t eat more.
I watched the chapati maker; the waiter taking a breather, trailing his fingers through the massive bowl of rice waiting to be ladled out to future punters; and men eating, rolling rice and curry into small balls with their right hand and popping food into their mouths. We were offered more food constantly, the man in the blue shirt even bringing me a bowl of different dal – ‘sweet’ – he said, proffering it. He seemed to feel it was his responsibility to fill us up; it was like eating at a favourite aunts, who won’t take no for an answer. At the end of the meal, they lead us over to the tap in the corner, so we could wash our hands. Our table was already being wiped down with a giant rag for the next customer.
Well satisfied, we paid our bill, (approx. Euro 1) and walked back to the guesthouse.