Khandvi. Gujarati-style pasta made from chickpea flour.
Think of Leicester
, and you’ll think of a farily non-descript city a short train journey south of Nottingham, the most common reference points of which are Walkers Crisps
, Kasabian and more recently the Plantagenet King of England, Richard III whose final resting place was discovered to be under a car park used by the city’s social services. But for these fine features, the city holds little allure for me and presumably most of the sane among you, too. That said, it does have one saving grace.
As many of you probably know, Leicester is home to a sizeable community of Indian immigrants and their descendants, the majority of whom fled persecution from Amin-era Uganda where many worked in the textile and garment industries. These East African Indians, brought over as economic migrants from the North Eastern Indian state of Gujarat, have successfully established their own thriving businesses along Leicester’s Belgrave Road (often nicknamed the “Golden Mile”) and have injected this previously declining inner-city district with their own vibrant, colourful and exotic culture. With this, they’ve also brought with them their distinct cuisine, which the doyenne of Indian cookery Madhur Jaffrey once famously described as “the haute cuisine of vegetarianism”.
The Gujaratis boast a splendid range of dishes immediately distinguishable from the largely Pubjabi-influenced fare found in most of Britain’s curry houses. For a start, the food is almost exclusively vegetarian as per the edicts of Jainism, a polytheistic faith found chiefly in the state of Gujarat which prohibits the slaughter and consumption of animals. Secondly, it’s far more sophisticated and lighter than the typically creamy, coconut-laden curries you’ll find up and down the country, with delicate and nuanced spice blends designed to harmonise hot, sour and sweet flavours. Gujaratis compensate for the lack of meat by making use of a wide variety of vegetables; a typical thali, or lunch plate, will usualy consist of 3 vegetable shabzi, or curries, and is served with chappatis or roti (used to mop up the sauces), and a small sweet and nutty morsel to finish.
On arriving on the Belgrave Road (just north of the city centre ring road) you’ll notice, amid the countless South Asian jewellers, saree shops and Indian banks, quaint little bakeries selling an array of electric-coloured and frankly cloying Indian sweets or mithai, plus an equally if not more exciting selection of farsan, or savoury Gujarati snacks. From khandvi, an exquisite Fettucine-like pasta made from gram flour and drizzled with a light, vinegary chilli oil , to handvo, a savoury cake made from 3 sorts of lentils and topped off with toasted sesame seeds, the offerings on display show just how refined, delicate and complex the vegetarian cuisine of Gujarat really is. For an authentic taste of Gujarati home-style cooking, I opted for the Four Seasons Chaat House, a modest café-style diner with a long list of effusive reviews serving delicious and 100% vegetarian Gujarati fare for rock-bottom prices. A plate of chaat (the house speciality and a staple dish throughout India consisting of chickpeas and mixed Indian crisps), a masala dosa (a hearty pancake with a spicy potato filling) and a mango lassi (a yoghurt-based milkshake drink flavoured with thick mango pulp) to wash it all down, came to just £5 in total. Without exaggerating, I can truly say that this was one of the best Indian meals I’ve ever eaten in the UK.
Idli sambar and paper dosas were gobbled up with lashings of coconut chutney at the splendid Four Seasons Chaat House in Leicester.
After filling up on copious amounts of food, I was told by my local fixer (himself an Indian of Goan descent) that the perfect digestive was paan, or betel leaf wrap filled with a concoction of spices laced with an unearthly red rose syrup. The ritual of eating this time-honoured delicacy has the feel of taking an illegal drug (albeit without actually doing so), and after munching into this tender leafy package, your teeth will be left stained and looking as though you’ve been chewing on novelty blood capsules.
Aside from all the wonderful food available here, perhaps the most heartening thing about Belgrave Road is the warmth and earnestness of the local Gujaratis themselves. Everyone I came across, from the tiny saree-clad lady I met in the Indian supermarket, who showed unlimited patience in explaining to me the tastes and cooking potential of various Indian vegetables like the bitter kerela and ubiquitous metha leaves, to the irrepressible proprietor of a Bollywood DVD and record store who delighted in my enthusiasm for Hindi classics like “Sholay” , were friendly and only too willing to share with me their culture and customs.
Not once was I, a conspicuously white European with attendant British reticence, made to feel like an interloper in their community. Just by showing a little readiness to learn, I was able to access a culture distinct from my own and to have an authentic taste of Gujarat, without ever straying from the East Midlands. If you’re up for a spot of adventure one afternoon, I suggest you make the short journey south and do the same.