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Sweet and sour

Theplas, aam ras and shrikand... savour the delectable Gujarati flavours at Navaratna, Le Royal Meridien


IT'S ABOUT flavour. Full bodied, aromatic, temptingly delectable flavour. Flavour that makes you want to trash all your diet books and loll about gleefully in a lavish celebration of rice glistening with fragrant ghee and desserts lolling in thick cream. Gujarati cuisine brings together a galaxy of flavours and textures in the most delightful ways. And now, luckily for Chennai-ites hungering for `homemade' dhoklas and kachoris, Moti Lal Maharaj, a free-lancing chef from Ahmedabad, is in town — cooking up a storm. The Gujarati food festival, on at Navaratna at Le Royal Meridien till April 11, brings some unforgettable samples of Thepla-Aam Ras cuisine together with all the usual Gujarati clichés - a crew of loudly enthusiastic Dandia dancers and miles of tie-and-dye material generously wrapped around an assortment of banisters and pillars.

Chef Moti Lal Maharaj, however, is definitely `the real thing.' The Gujarati equivalent of Chennai's Arusuvai Natarajan and Mountbatten Mani, he stirs his way through gallons of khadi (a glamorous version of butter-milk made with chickpea flour, yoghurt and green chillies: thick, deliciously spicy and sweet at the same time. Served piping hot) every year in Ahmedabad - for weddings, birthday parties and a host of other celebrations. His meal at Navaratna begins with warm spongy dhoklas, served up with a splash of green chutney. A golden khasta kachori follows, and then comes the main course: Long grained rice basking in ghee bursting with a medley of flavours contributed by bright green peas and beans, caramelly fried onions and a carefully chosen collection of spices, and sizzling puris coloured green by spinach.

Gujarati cuisine is very different from the food of the rest of India. It's mainly vegetarian and traditionally served on silver platters with both rice and a variety of breads. It blends the sweet and spicy, creating a genre of food where every spoonful conjures up a plethora of flavours and leaves behind a pleasantly sweet after-taste. The katoris of bright accompaniments that arrived besides the rice showcased this hot-and-sweet cooking style picturesquely. There was Pumpkin Parwal, slices of soft pumpkin buried in grated tempered coconut.

There was a rather uninspired vegetable collection - cauliflowers and tomatoes brought together in a blameless, but unremarkable curry. And, of course, there was a small pond of steaming khadi. But what really stole the show was the Turia Patra, a brilliant combination of firm green peas, creamy leafy vegetables and braised brown coconut. The dessert list included shrikand, a thick, creamy yoghurt-based sweet spiced with cardamom and saffron, and Aam Ras, the popular mango preparation, which like all Gujarati food is a little sweet and a little sour.

Navaratna has also introduced a new menu, which continues to combine the best of royal Indian cuisine from a host of regions, cultures and geographical boundaries enabling Goan lobster Caldin to rub shoulders with mutton chettinad and Kerala idiappams to hang out with kakori kebabs.

Le Royal Meridien has also just announced the launch of the `Royalty Programme,' which entitles members to special discounts at its restaurants. For more details call 22314344.

SHONALI MUTHALALY

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