Bhanu Hajratwala who brings out the new face of Gujarati cuisine — the treasures of Kshatriya cooking that has also seen influences of the lands she’s lived in

It was a bit embarrassing to be caught so unawares when Bhanu Hajratwala’s book Gujarati Kitchen was first mentioned. One expects staples like the thepla, dhokla, khandvi, undhio, shreekhand and other usual suspects to figure. Of course, they were there, but Bhanu was also talking taurande saucende that involved fish, kheema fataka – a starter with minced meat, and jinghlanu shaak was a shrimp curry! And here I was, thinking Gujarati food was all vegetarian.

Goes to show how diverse Indian cuisine is, and however much you think you know, the diversity of our cuisine will always spring you a surprise. But, not to be missed is the second line in the book’s title “Family recipes for the global palate”. It makes sense then to place Bhanu Hajratwala as the Gujarati born and raised in Fiji, who migrated to America in the late 1960s (when Indian ingredients were not easily available in the market yet). Bhanu, a physical therapist, indulged in her passion for food by teaching Indian cooking in clubs and communities she lived in.

In Bangalore recently to launch the book and do a cook-out, Bhanu admits: “Actually, till I wrote the book and released it in India, I didn’t realise that the idea here among people is that Gujarati food is only vegetarian. My book did surprise a lot of people… but I’m not offended. I’m from the Gujarati Kshatriya community and my ancestors are from Surat — we eat a lot of meat.”

Our global village status ensures we can easily whip up Italian here, and Indians abroad can make their traditional dishes because most exotic ingredients are available everywhere. It’s amazing then, to read Bhanu’s candid introduction in the book —there are mentions of how she cooked an eight-cabbage curry for a wedding reception, cooking one cabbage at a time in her small saucepan all through the day — she hadn’t cooked a cabbage in her life till then! Or how she craved masala chai on the morning she landed in her new home in America and just needed that cuppa after the rigours of unpacking, but had to make do with pepper and crushed cardamom for “masala” even later on. Or how 10 Indian students landed unannounced at her doorstep in New Zealand because the town was almost closed for Easter — she cooked them poori-potato curry instantly and arranged for them to stay over!

Having travelled and lived abroad mostly, how Indian does she consider her cooking? “I think my Indian is more authentic than many Gujaratis here. When my parents migrated to Fiji, they hadn’t known anything except Gujarati food — they never knew paneer or khoya. When they went to a new land, they reproduced authentic tastes from back home. I learnt it from them. I’ve not tried to change recipes. In fact, now since most ingredients are available abroad, there are no compromises on that either.”

Bhanu, 67, started compiling the book when her children grew up and started moving out of the house — they wanted to replicate their mum’s dishes. “Yes, the target audience of my book, apart from my children, are those in their 30s and 40s who have moved way from India, are struggling to cook and who need precise measurements and directions since they are not accustomed to cooking. My daughter-in-law, an all-American girl, was able to reproduce many of the recipes!”

The book really starts from scratch, helping the reader set up a basic pantry, giving out standard Gujarati masala recipes, and then takes you through modest sections of starters, main dishes, chutneys, pickles, tea-time snacks, all the way to mouth fresheners!

She also threw in more “involved” recipes for those who are used to cooking, especially since she was releasing the book in India. She admits that Indian women, by virtue of their experience are more instinctive cooks, throwing in a pinch of this and that. Women in Western communities “haven’t spent enough time in the kitchen and need measuring…I mean why re-invent the wheel? I sometimes cook from my own recipe book now because the dish turns out perfect!” Her husband Bhupendra Hajratwala has drawn illustrations for certain processes like how to make the samosa triangle!

Fiji influenced her cooking in the sense that they had to substitute some ingredients with what was available locally — taro and cassava were substitutes for potato, taro leaves were used instead of arvi leaves to make patra. “Fiji had a lot of coconuts, so though Gujaratis don’t use much coconut in their cooking, I did, specially to make sweets.”

Gujarati Kitchen is published by Westland (Rs. 395). Look up