In India, the word hotel is synonymous with an eatery and it doesn’t have to include accommodation. As with so many names and expressions in India this is very confusing at first but after a while it becomes just another term. Almost every city in India has at least two to three names that are all in use. The Hotel Annapurna in Bhuj is both a hotel and an eatery and a very memorable restaurant, indeed.
The state of Gujarat, home to the Annapurna is a very conservative state, predominately Hindu, largely vegetarian and a dry state as well. But don’t let that put you off. The region is famous for its cuisine. The renown cookbook author and actress, Madhur Jaffrey, once said that the vegetarian cuisine of Gujarat is the vegetarian haute cuisine of all India. And the Annapurna does not disappoint.
It has two rooms. One serves North Indian food which is good but it is the other room where they serve the Kutchi specialties that I lust after. There is no decor to speak of and no pretensions whatsoever. The food makes up for the lack of ambiance. This is where the colorful locals come to eat. And the food is cheap.
The Annapurna has a unique system of serving. A thali is usually a stainless steel circular tray that holds a number of small cups filled with all kinds of dishes. The waiter brings you the thali loaded with all of the options of the day. He also places an empty tray in front of you. You then select the dishes that you want. The waiter removes the rejects.
In the photograph, you can see the feet of the waiter, waiting for me to decide. It’s always a struggle because I want everything. The locals only take one or two dishes and fill up with the rotis, like they do in Mexico with tortillas. Not me. I ordered a rotla which hasn’t been served yet. Rotla is a rustic flat bread typically from the villages and made from millet. It is heavy, healthy, delicious and filling. I always have a hard time photographing food. I can’t contain myself. I usually want to take a bite before I even get near the shutter.
It is standard fare to wash all this down with chaas which is like buttermilk. In Gujarat, the drinking of milk is almost a religious ritual. No meal is ever served without chaas. At first I couldn’t get used to it but it complements and neutralizes all the complex flavors of the thali perfectly. You can see the chaas in the steel tumbler.
Indians who haven’t visited Gujarat tend to turn their noses up when you mention the food there. It has the reputation for being sweet. Yes, many of the dishes have sugar or jaggery added which only enhance the taste when it is well done.
The owner, Vinod Gor, is a caring and kind restaurateur. If you are unknown to him, he will come over to your table and explain the system and all the dishes too.
All restaurants in India have a public sink. Most Indians eat with their hands. Even if they don’t eat everything with their hands, they do use them to tear off pieces of the flat breads so a sink is essential. You wash your hands before and after a meal. Most Indians routinely carry a cloth handkerchief with them to wipe their hands dry and for other assorted wipes. In the top photo of the Menu Board, you can see the edge of a woman in black. She is at the sink.
After a most satisfying meal, I wash the remains of my lunch off my hands, smile at myself in front of the mirror, pay my bill and wander out, wondering what will grab my attention next out on the street.