In good taste

Oct 01, 2012, 07:15 IST | Amit Roy

As we mark Gandhi Jayanti tomorrow, a look at an Indian restaurant in London which is considering making the big hit Gandhi thali a permanent feature on its menu

It has been widely reported that Ganapati, an Indian restaurant in south London is offering a Mahatma thali consisting of dishes made from ingredients apparently recommended by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi himself. But that is only part of the story.

Gandhi, Miraben and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya visited the Dairy Show at the Royal Agricultural Hall, London
Gandhi and the goats: Gandhi, Miraben (centre) and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya (right) visited the Dairy Show at the Royal Agricultural Hall, London, October 23, 1931. The goats’ milk was supplied to Gandhi by the farm. The prize winning goat was named Mahatma Gandhi. pic/, Zuma Press - Archives 

Claire Fisher, the Britisher who set up the small restaurant eight years ago, is now in a bit of a dilemma. The restaurant, which seats only 35, likes changing its menu every six weeks but the Mahatma thali has proved to be such a hit with diners that Claire is considering making it a permanent feature of her menu. “We have had it for some time now,” she said. “We serve the Mahatma thali in the evenings and at weekends. It has surpassed our expectations. Generally speaking, our customers prefer non-vegetarian items – fish, chicken and lamb – but we try to be flexible. We may decide to keep the Mahatma thali going.”

The patrons of Ganapati restaurant enjoy the Mahatma thali
Floored by food: The patrons of Ganapati restaurant enjoy the Mahatma thali

That is not all. When Claire had invited special guests to dinner to gauge their reaction to the Mahatma thali, they sat on the floor and dined in the traditional Indian style. Now, she is receiving requests from other patrons that eating on the floor be allowed at Ganapati. “It’s not very practical,” commented Claire. “People have to take off their shoes, sit on the floor and it is only a small space.” That is why Claire, who set up Ganapati after a life-changing trip to India, is now seriously considering opening another restaurant with more space for people to dine while sitting on the floor.

The room on the second floor of Mani Bhavan
The room on the second floor of Mani Bhavan, where Gandhiji lived and worked

One of the items Claire uses in her thali is goat’s milk. Gandhi favoured it over cow’s milk, which he refused to drink. Goat’s milk is still an acquired taste in Britain. At £2 approximately Rs 172 a litre, it costs four times as much as cow’s milk does. And recently, goat’s milk got a prominent mention in Downton Abbey, the nation’s favourite period television drama. It tells the story of the Earl of Grantham and his wife, the American heiress, Cora, and is set in 1920. In the opening episode of the third season, Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson, a stereotypical rich widow (played by Shirley MacLaine) arrives in England for a family wedding. Martha’s lady’s maid, Miss Reed, announces in the kitchen that her mistress will only have “goat’s milk” and “boiled water”. Clare laughs, “It’s going to become all the rage.”

Gandhi’s and Martha Levinson’s preference for goat’s milk might have been considered an eccentricity once. Today, however, goat’s milk is recognised as having greater nutritional value as it, “contains less fat and less cholesterol than cow’s milk and most closely resembles human breast milk,” Claire points out.

The dishes
The other ingredients used in the thali are: wheat, rice, dry cereals, pulses, seasonal raw vegetables and fruits, jaggery and pure ghee. Manali Jagtap, an artist who settled in Britain 10 years ago, suggested them to Claire. “Unknown to many, Gandhi spent almost 35 years experimenting with food and working with nutritionists,” said Manali. After researching Gandhi’s prolific writings on food, Manali felt that the Mahatma would approve these ingredients.

Claire and her chefs then put them together to create the following dishes of the Mahatma thali: tulsi chamanthee (dry chutney made from fresh coconut, green chilli, ginger and basil – since real tulsi is hard to get in London,); inji pickle (fresh ginger, chilli, tamarind juice, shallots); red rice; cucumber moru curry (cucumber, green chilli and curry leaves in yoghurt made from goat's milk); dal (tempered with okra); raw cabbage, carrot and spinach thoran; rasam; goat’s cheese paneer salad; pickled salted chilli; methi roti and moong dal payasam (a typical South Indian sweet pudding). All this for just £14.50 (approximately R1,250), with 12.5 per cent added as a service charge — a reasonable price for London.

Incidentally, when Gandhi first came to London as a 19-year-old law student in 1888, he sought out places where he could find vegetarian fare. He had promised his mother he would not touch meat or alcohol. “There was at that time hardly a vegetarian restaurant in London that I had not visited,” he wrote later in the chapter titled The Superiority of Vegetarianism in his book, Diet and Diet Reform. “I made it a point, out of curiosity, and to study the possibilities of vegetarian restaurants in London, to visit every one of them.”

As Manali puts it, “Gandhi had a strategic vision for India. A balanced diet makes for a healthy people. This vision was also in stark contrast to what we see today: over-consumption, obesity in the developed world, food scarcity and sky-rocketing food prices.” 

The Mumbai connection
Gandhi had a close relationship with Mumbai (then Bombay) as it was his home from 1917-1934. He resided at Mani Bhavan, the two-storied home of his friend Revashankar Jagjeevan Jhaveri. It was from this building that he started several movements such as Civil Disobedience, Satyagraha, Swadeshi, Khadi and Khilafat movements. It was here that he learnt to spin the charkha, which would later become the symbol of the freedom struggle. After his death, Mani Bhavan was converted into a museum in his name. The items he used in jail, his charkha and several of his books are still preserved at the museum.

>> To celebrate Gandhi Jayanti, Gandhi Smarak Nidhi and Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum have organised a series of events from October 2 to October 7. These include a solo singing competition for school teachers, group singing competition for students of Std I to IV and a seminar on Gandhi's views about Panchayat Raj. All events will be held at Mani Bhavan at Gamdevi. Preregistration is required only for the seminar. Call: 23805864. An exhibition cum sale on khadi products will also be open during these days.

>>The Gandhi Book Centre at nearby Nana Chowk, which deals exclusively in books about the Mahatma, will sell them at 10 to 50 per cent discount from October 2 to 11.  

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