There’s travelling that I love, there’s food that I love and then there’s travelling for food—and that I absolutely love. My wanderlust combined with perpetual hunger pangs have often taken me on food quests to some of the remotest parts of the country. From gorging on Rosti, a Swiss delicacy served best at a godforsaken village in Spiti and forcing fish eggs down my throat in a quiet, unassuming railway station in Assam, to indulging in the oiliest but most eclectic plate of kebabs in Mirzapur; my adventures so far have been nothing short of an interesting culinary journey. After all, with our country’s blessed diversity, travelling for food rarely ever disappoints; not even when a hardcore non-vegetarian like me ends up in Gujarat, the state that largely swears by vegetarianism.
When I first landed up along a dusty street of Baroda after a tiring bus journey, the whiff of fresh dhoklas being made in a stall nearby, only elevated my hunger. Already aware of the state’s peculiar delicacies, and their narrower taste palette, my expectations weren’t the highest, per se. Plus, considering an elaborate egg breakfast awaited at a friend’s house, I left the dhoklas behind with only the slightest bit of guilt. My guilty conscience was relieved when the same night, after two (!) heavy meals (comprising of an egg breakfast and a wholesome, meaty Eid lunch), my friend’s family thought it would be wise for us to sample some ‘local’ food in a ‘local’ setting. A few hours later, I was standing across a rather peculiar market square reading the illuminated sign board aloud to myself, “Ratri Bazaar.”
Ignoring the loud Gujarati chatter that surrounded me, I took in the aroma of all the food around me—my mouth watering at the very prospect of all the delicious food that awaited us. “You cannot come to Baroda and not go to Ratri Bazaar!” exclaimed my friend, loudly.
“But is Ratri Bazaar a bazaar really?” I thought to myself.
A market square in a busy area of Karelibaug, Baroda, this ‘bazaar’ is more of an eat street than anything else. With about 42 eateries serving one all kinds of cuisines, it is spread over 15851 square meters and was initiated by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation. From authentic Guajarati food to Darjeling Momos, Italian, Chinese, and Mexican, all made in a very typical Gujarati style, the bazaar has a huge seating area in the middle. It operates daily from 5 pm to 1 am and 5 pm to 4 am during the Navratri season, when it dazzles the most. Some might even say it’s like a desi version of a food court in a mall except cheaper and better.
The one thing everyone must try at Ratri Bazaar is ‘Champak Bhai’s Pani Puri’. Champak Bhai’s stall has 5 jars of flavored paani: Regular, Hajma Hajam, Mint, Garlic and Lemon. Once you visit him, he will ensure that Pani Puri is all you’ll think about for the next few minutes of your life. Stuffing our mouths with one Pani Puri after the other continuously, defying the law of marginal utility, we continued till we had completed two rounds of each flavor. A total of 10 Paani Puri’s for only INR 20. As we held on to our stomachs wanting for more, deciding between heart and reason, Champak Bhai smiled at us, knowing that he had made his customers truly happy.
Walking straight ahead from the Pani Puri stall, the passage opened up to a full square, with the eateries surrounding a space covered with cheap plastic chairs and tables, filled with friends and families hovering over plates full of cheesy fried goodness. The chaos of the market was exciting, there were huge frying kadhais with hot jalebis frying in one corner and noodles at the other end. The vendors yelled out their specialties, sending out young waiters to personally invite (read force) the customers to come to their food joints.
“Madame! Idhar special Manchurian rice.”
“Didi, aaiye PIZZA khaiye!”
“Madam, spicy chaat!”
“Dhabeli 20 ki do.”
After treating myself to a surprisingly good Gujarati vegetarian extravaganza that included (Sevpuri, Dabeli, Khandwi and Farsaan) I was obviously thirsty. My very Gujju friend dragged me to a tiny stall in a corner, that read ‘Cold Coco’. To be honest, that drink was possibly the most beautiful part of my trip. My mouth drooled as I saw him churn thick liquid chocolate in a huge silver utensil before pouring it into a plastic glass. Sweet, thick, chocolaty and absolutely divine, the taste lingered on my tongue for a long time. Also, I feel compelled to say this—I strongly feel like this is secretly what alcohol-deprived Gujju people get drunk on.
Turns out, the concept of night food markets is not unique to Baroda alone. Ahmedabad too has its own popular chowk that thrives at night and is open way past midnight. I remember walking into Manek Chowk, almost a year later after my Baroda trip only to be greeted with familiar whiffs of food, chatter and environment. Their pizza, the most ‘Indian’ one I have ever had was absolutely delectable with oodles of cheese and chutney. But more than the food, Manek Chowk’s location was what truly fascinated me. Situated inside the walled city of Ahmedabad, Manek Chowk takes you to a century old Gujarat. Try the khaman and take home some khakras, these are perhaps the most authentic ones you will get. End your meal with some Malai Kulfi, a sweetness that is metaphorical of Gujarat.
Having traveled far and wide simply for the love of food in every form, Gujarat sure was a sweet surprise (quite, literally). Not just because of the variety and taste but also because of the space and the midnight food culture it has given rise to. From families to friends and locals to travelers, food is the common ground that binds everyone, a universal experience that everyone can relate to and happily come together for.
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