Vegetarians of the world - rejoice. Thackers at Marine Lines, upmarketed beyond recognition by architect Hafiz Contractor, has reopened. Let's get back to trirangi dhoklas and methi theplas and sakkarkan nu undhiyu. The best of Surti Gujarati food in Class I comfort.
I have been a once-a-month regular at the old Thackers. Last week, I went to the new Thackers, and was suitably impressed. The decor is changed but the food is familiar. The restaurant, in case you are not familiar, is in First Marine Street, the road that connects Metro Cinema to Karve (Queen's) Road. There's a valet to park your car, necessary in the busy Dhobi Talao area, and, once you enter, a spacious reception room to wait for your table.
The eating area is built on three levels; steps lead to the basement, mezzanine and an upper floor. And the impression you get is of space, white marble, bright lights, suitable distance between tables, sitars and santoors (recorded) playing in the background. I must clarify, Hafiz Contractor initially designed the place, architects Rumi Shroff and Janak Nandani completed the project.
No liquor is served, in fact the restaurant proudly proclaims to be the only A Grade place in town that does not serve alcohol. And it has no intention of greeting a licence at a later date.
So, if it is food you want, vegetarian food and mainly Gujarati, come to Thackers. As introduction, you could not do better than the thali. Unlike most restaurants, it has only one standard thali, no super and extra super de luxe thalis. It costs Rs. 175, plus taxes, and is quite lavish in the variety of items. The items change twice a day, lunch and dinner. And you consume as much as you physically can. Says general manager Niten Trasy, "You may have 40 chapatis, 50 puris, ten-helpings of pulao, our stewards will not stop serving."
It is not compulsory, but you follow a certain order when you eat a Gujarati thali. First, you are served the farsans. These are tid-bits that Gujaratis love to eat at the start of their meals, during their meals, and in between their meals.
Thackers serves two farsans per meal: they could be patra chat, served with curds and sev, and tikhi-mithi chutney, vegetable cutlets, corn pattice, idli-bonda (two idlis around a green peas' stuffing, dipped in besan paste and deep fried, served with an idli chutney). Or it could be one of the Guju dhoklas, those lovely velvety savouries: tri-rangi, makhani, sandwich, or khaman dhokla. The last-mentioned are the normal dhoklas and, I think, the best of the lot, garnished with grated coconut, mustard seeds, curry pattas.
Next, you are served sweets, also two types, and you eat them, don't keep them aside for dessert. At Thackers one of the sweets is dry, probably a Bengali sweet, or moong dal seera. Gujaratis love seera, though I do not think it is Gujarati sweet, theirs is sone halva, gunderpak, a whole range of sweets that Ahmedabad's mithai shops are overstocked with.
The second sweet served is liquid based, srikhand, basudi, rabri etc. The difference between a Maharashtrian and Gujarati srikhand is that the Maharashtrian one has charoli in it, the Gujarati does not. And while one waiter is serving you sweets, another is serving vegetables.
Three vegetables per meal, all being cut, cleaned and cooked as the meal is going on, in true Indian style. One of these is invariably a potato item: aloo bhaji, aloo sukha, bagare aloo, raswalla batata, aloo-capsicum bhaji, rajwadi batata (which is an Indian version of French fries, with dry masala and slight tadka).
The second vegetable item is a mix veg., kadai nu shak, mili-juli subji, undhiyu. Re. undhiyu, I shall deal separately.) The third vegetable is probably the main vegetable, cauliflower, baingan (Gujaratis call it ravaia), parval with patra. The last mentioned is my favourite, parval is like gherkin, but thicker and with a lot of seeds. The restaurant makes a bhaji of it, with miniature patras. Next on the list are the kathors (pulses): channa raswalla, makai ragda, mung channa. Followed by rice and pulao, and you are welcome to have both. Also, in the rice, there is plain steamed rice and jeera rice. And a dal, and, if it is your lucky day, the Gujarati dal, a Thackers speciality.
Then there are rotis (rotlis), puris, methi thepla, sometimes parathas, plus butter-milk, boondi raita, various achars and chutneys. That's the thali for you. An electro-plated nickel silver thali, with seven katoris (at last count), a body of waiters in constant attendance, fresh food at every helping, relayed direct from the kitchen.
The thali of course, is not the only thing available. There is a section of Punjabi dishes, Nargisi kofta, the dumplings made from potatoes, channa and dry fruits; paneer tikka and palak chole. And a small Continental section, with a vegetable au gratin that I understand the Gujaratis freak out on. Every Gujarati wedding has to have one baked dish. Check it out.
However, Thackers main claim to fame are the Gujarati dishes. The Gujarati dal, Rs. 60, which is the oily tur dal, cooked with a little jaggery and chillis, but more sweet than spicy. It has broken cashewnuts in it. And the Gujarati dahi kadhi (Rs. 60), curds and besan, mustard seeds, dry red chillis, curry patta, a distinct flavour of ginger. Have it with steamed rice nothing like it in the world, except, perhaps, the Punjabi kadhi.
The Thackers go back a long way into cooking. The late Ramanlal Thacker, used to cater for Gujarati passengers on ships bound for the African coast. He looked after the catering at P.M. Hinduja Baths, took charge of Matheran's Rugby Hotel.
Today, his sons, have interest in the catering at the Birla Kreeda Kendra, CCI, private parties at the chief minister's and mayor's residence. And Dilip Thacker has now redone and reopened his Thackers at First Marine Street, all Elgin marbles and elegance personified.
But in restaurants, I balieve, it is not the place but the food that counts. And every restaurant worthy of its salt and pepper, has to have at least one speciality dish that people would travel from Ghatkopar to Dhobi Talao to have. At Thackers, naturally, it is the undhiyu, which is to the Gujaratis what the dhanshak is to the Parsis or roasted beef and Yorkshire pudding to the English. It is priced at Rs. 110 and three can eat from one portion.
The dish is a native of Surat, not Ahmedabad, though I understand it is also eaten in the desert areas of the state and bits of Rajasthan. The fine papdi, which is the main ingredient of the dish, comes from Surat daily also the danas (pulses). The dish is a bit of a stew, but dry, papri, danas, snowpeas, brinjals, yams, both red and yellow, sweet potatoes (sakkarkan),raw bananas, with the skin, they are all cooked together, and muthias added to the mixtures. Muthias are dumplings, tiny kababs made of besan and methi, deep fried. The entire mixture is cooked together and served, it is also tinned and sent to homesick Gujarati NRIs in California.
Ketan Chande, the very presentable assistant manager at the restaurant, tells me that in the desert they prepare the undhiyun in a matka, burying it in the sand and allowing it to cook in the heat of the land. It takes about eight hours to cook and has a smokey flavour, much admired.
At Thackers, however it is cooked on conventional fires, and I do not think it is any the worse for it. It is served lunch and dinner, and I suggest tonight, provided you get a reservation, you order it. Make sure the waiter serves you the special garlic and coriander chutney that goes with the undhiyu.