The Savory Cakes of Gujarat

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The Savory Cakes of Gujarat

Worldwide, Indian food evokes thoughts of scooping up spicy kadhai paneer with a wedge of garlic naan deftly curved to hold as much gravy as possible. Yet, this is only representative of one Indian state out of many. The flavor profiles of Gujarat, a state in western India, often come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the cuisine—so much so that even other Indian states have wildly differing opinions of Gujarati cuisine. How can the food be spicy and sweet? Why must makers of this cuisine sweeten everything? Why are they so fond of their farsan (savory Gujarati snacks)? Not only is this state colorful, so are its peoples’ taste buds. 

One particular memory from a trip to India never fails to remind me of the stature of farsan in a Gujarati’s life. It was a weekend morning and I, barely awake, stepped out of the room I was staying in to find my aunts and uncles in a calculated frenzy. Within an hour, they had aluminium pans lined up for breakfast, brimming with various snacks: farsan. There was dhokla, khandvi, patra, khaman, sev khamani, fafda: an endless array of the delicacies every Gujarati grows up eating.

Savory cakes are types of farsan, and they’re relatively easy to make at home. They aren’t served in global Indian restaurants (even within India, you’ll only find them in Gujarat) both because of the setting in which they’re usually eaten and the prevalence of North Indian food in Indian restaurants worldwide. Three common savory cakes are khaman, dhokla and handvo, all of which have a sponge-y consistency, similar to your average sweet birthday cake. Handvo contains veggies and is baked, unlike the other two which are steamed and contain either chickpea flour or a combination of lentils. In most Gujarati households, a stainless steel steamer is used to steam khaman and dhokla. 

Khaman is versatile, making it well-suited as a side dish for any meal of the day. I’ve seen my dad eat a few plates as a whole meal, so that should indicate the place khaman occupies in Gujaratis’ hearts. And although it is possible to make these cakes at home, streetside food stalls are some of the most popular places to find khaman, as are takeout snack stores known as farsan ni dukaan, most of which have a single counter and no dining space. 

Making khaman involves steaming a pancake-like batter consisting of chickpea flour (besan), salt, fruit salt, sugar and water. The fruit salt allows for instant fermentation and also aids digestion. A vaghar (also known as tadka in Hindi) of hot oil, mustard seeds, green chillies, asafoetida and water is poured over the steamed khaman. Normally, with other foods, only oil or ghee is used in vaghar; the added water gives khaman a spongy feel. Finally, the khaman is served with a cilantro garnish. 

As opposed to the relatively easy-to-make khaman, dhokla requires a bit of pre-planning. Making yellow dhokla involves soaking rice, toor dal, yellow split moong dal and chana dal for a few hours, then blending the mixture into a batter. Next, salt and yogurt (or lemon if you’re vegan) are added and the batter is left for another three hours. Then, a paste of green chilis, ginger and garlic is stirred into the batter in addition to turmeric, asafoetida and carom seeds. Again the batter is left to soak up the spices for about an hour. Right before steaming, a pinch of baking soda is added for sponginess. Olive oil is often poured on top before serving, creating an optimal mix of carbs, protein and fat. 

Idra, or white dhokla, are another common type of dhokla that Gujaratis love; it’s also my personal favorite. Idras get their signature zesty flavor from the long fermentation time – around five hours. The process is similar to that of yellow dhokla and only requires rice and urad dal, which are soaked in water overnight. Salt is added to the batter and left to sit for a few hours to ferment. A ginger and green chilli paste is stirred in. Right before steaming, black pepper is sprinkled on top. Idra, keri no ras (mango pulp and sugar), and puri (deep-fried bread) is a classic summer meal in Gujarat. Idra are also guaranteed to be on the menu at traditional Gujarati weddings. 

Handvo is similar to yellow dhokla, but ground peanuts can also be added to the recipe. The highlight of handvo is the addition of fresh fenugreek leaves or a combination of grated veggies such as zucchini, cabbage and carrots. Jaggery, rather than sugar, is used to sweeten the batter. Once the batter has been poured into a cake pan, a vaghar of hot oil, mustard seeds, whole dried red chili, curry leaves and white sesame seeds is poured over the batter, which is then baked. In my family, handvo has become synonymous with traveling. I don’t think we’ve been on a road trip where homemade handvo didn’t accompany us. Mornings weren’t spent eating stale hotel bread; instead, we’d have chai and handvo before embarking on the day’s activities. Handvo lasts for up to a week, whereas khaman and dhokla must be eaten within a day or two.

Of course, not every Gujarati eats or prepares these savory cakes the same way; these techniques reflect my mom’s expertise and are personal to me and my family. I was intentionally vague with the recipes because as the saying goes: Food in India changes every 20 kilometers. Growing up, I’d taste a variety of khaman, dhokla and handvo at extended family members’ and friends’ houses, and with each cook having such vastly different ways of making these savory cakes, it’s near impossible to declare one recipe perfect. Every time I eat these cakes, I’m reminded of the power they hold in making a meal feel complete. A piece of khaman or a few idras make all the difference between leaving the dinner table still hungry and leaving satisfied—the same effect a slice of cake has in the West.

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