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Smacking snacks

Manek Chowk in Ahmedabad, surrounded by heritage structures, is the place to go to in the evening for a generous variety of street food

It’s a beautiful breezy night — the air replete with festive fervor. Ahmedabad may have just bidden goodbye to Diwali but the warmth of the fun-filled continues to charge every corner of the city and of course, the cheerful lot of friends I am with as we jostle our way through a thick crowd, past the imposing old structure of the city’s old structure called Teen Darwaza.

We are headed towards Manek Chowk, an area famous for its food market that springs up here every evening. A street vendor selling a popular local savoury calls out to us. “Gathia lo,” he says and as we watch he first — all with the dexterity of a master chef — mixes some chickpea powder with spices, then fries it in hot oil before offering it to us on a piece of newspaper with a sprinkling of green chilies and onions.

Managing to find some space on the side of this shop, we enjoy the amazingly spicy fare that could well be called the edible icon of Gujarat. “Achcha laga?” asks Ashokbhai, a veteran who’s been at Ahmedabad’s food heaven for more than 30 years. “Have it every morning and it’ll keep you fit – Narendrabhai (Modi) ki tarah. His breakfast comprises mainly of gathia,” he insists.

This savoury is not the only popular snacks, our Gujarati friends here insist. “There are many other specialties, each boasting its own unique taste and flavour.”

It is to have a taste of all these and more that we are at this popular local market that always bustles with delightful activity through the year. “Every evening, the whole city seems to descend here and there’s no place to even stand. But that’s what adds to the fun of the experience at Manek Chowk,” smiles Kirtibhai Thaker who we meet here. “The true-blue Gujarati loves feasting on street food and that is what this neighborhood is so famous for, especially in the evenings.”

The decades-old market, he tells us, is surrounded by many historical structures including the Maneknath Temple, Badshah no Hajiro, Rani no Hajiro besides, of course  the Ahmedabad Stock Exchange that is housed in a 1894 heritage building. “It has quite a few avatars — starting with being a buzzing vegetable market in the morning hours and post noon, turning into a bullion market and even a jewellery and textile centre visited by hundreds from across the globe,” he adds.

Like Indore’s Sarafa Market, this one too — no sooner than evening descends —turns into a go-to place for food lovers. For that’s when kiosks and stalls, banners and signboards announcing the varieties of food on offer start making an appearance. And sure enough, the amazing varieties of preparations including bhaji pao, dosa, sandwiches, samosa and kachori and, of course, kulfi among other sweets and ice creams are enough to make you drool.

“Coming here with a full stomach is an absolute no-no,” laughs Kirtibhai. We can’t help but agree as we first step into a shop offering varieties of chivda that are often regarded as the piece de resistance of Ahmedabad and a must-carry back home. On his recommendation, we pick up some sanchal and heeng sev, besides some chilli pickle, mini mathiya and khakra.

Looking out at the vast street covered with tables and chairs placed next to thelas and kiosks, you realize that food is serious business at Manek Chowk. Among the specialties that are a must-try here, as we too discover, are bhaji pao that is very different from the kind you get in Mumbai. Here the bread is sliced into smaller portions, warmed up on a tawa with butter and offered with bhaji but not without a generous sprinkling of red chilli on top.

Moving ahead, we try out some dahi-vadas that are best eaten by first slicing them into two and then covering each portion with pieces of sliced onions and green chilli. Another not-to-be-missed experience that the locals suggest is the tawa pulao — rice mixed with a number of veggies and spices. And then there are  dosas, served with a well-mashed bhaji preparation.

Going by our friends’ strong recommendation, we try some chickoo kulfi and then, despite being full, are tempted to give a shot to another must-do specialty of the place — ice-cream sandwiches.

A thick layer of chocolate ice-cream (well, that’s the flavour we opt for, though the strawberry flavour is believed to be great too) over slices of bread with generously shredded cheese on top. Those among us counting their calories look worried but are soon tempted by what the ‘creator’ of this ‘masterpiece’ finally places before us.

The vendor, Kantibhai, seems happy to answer all our questions and looks amused when we ask him to pose for our camera. What makes his dish so popular? He just shrugs happily saying, “Alag chपe”. Yes, it’s unique, we concede walking back towards the historic Teen Darwaza that has long been witness to thousands coming here to savour the street food of Manek Chowk.