Delhi has probably overtaken Bombay as the premier food city in India* but there are a number of cuisines for which Bombay is rather obviously superior. Malvani, Mangalorean and Parsi are three of these cuisines and Gujarati is another. And if you are in the city the very best place perhaps to eat Gujarati food is the venerable Swati Snacks in Tardeo. A Bombay institution that first opened in 1963, Swati Snacks is the kind of place where you can get a handle on how difficult it is to talk glibly about “traditional” food in the Indian and especially in the Gujarati context. Culture does not stand still and there’s no tastier way to confirm this truism than by taking the measure of the menu at Swati Snacks where thalipith with pitla can be had alongside bajri paneer pizza. A meal at Swati Snacks is a must for every first-time visitor to Bombay. Me, I go on every visit to the city.
It is, however, a very sad place to go to alone, and such was my fate on this trip. This is not because it’s chock-full of couples on dates—far from it—but because there is so much you will want to eat and no matter how hungry you are, you will not be able to eat most of it, because this is heavy food and you will not want to waste any of what you do order. And the sadness will be compounded exponentially by the sight of the food overflowing on tables occupied all around you by large family groups. Sadder still, however, would be to go to Bombay and not eat at Swati Snacks, so if eating solo is your fate, embrace it.
They now have a branch in Nariman Point but the Tardeo location is the iconic one in Bombay—there’s another in the belly of the Gujarati beast in Ahmedabad. If you’re going for lunch on a weekend—as I was—your best plan is to arrive soon after they open at noon. I got there at about 12.15 and was seated immediately. Within 10 minutes the place was full and when I left at about 1.15, there was a long line waiting outside.
What should you order once you have a table? It is impossible for me to not get their panki with chutney—and I think most local foodies would tell you that that’s a can’t miss dish there. Panki is made by steaming seasoned batter in greased banana leaves and Swati Snacks’ version is amazing. The other dish that everyone will ask you if you ate when you tell them you went to Swati Snacks is the peru shaak, which is basically guava cooked like a vegetable. Having had it on my last two visits, I regretfully left it off my solo order this time. But I could not resist getting again their thalipith with pitla. This on account of both their thalipith—a type of stuffed bread made with a mix of flours and lentils—and their excellent pitla—a sort-of seasoned besan or gram flour porridge. I was quite full by the time I finished these two dishes but could not resist adding on an order of dabeli dhokla. Dhoklas are a type of steamed, seasoned gram flour cake—light and spongy and sour—and the word “dabeli” means “pressed” in Gujarati. What you basically get is a circular dhokla, cut in half and served like a sandwich with a tangy, spicy filling in between. I was ready for a nap when I got done but I had no regrets.
For pictures of the restaurant and what I ate please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it all cost and to see what’s coming next.
All of this came to Rs, 735 or just above $10 at the current exchange. With a hefty tip it was below $13. This is very reasonable even by Indian standards. Service is brusque but efficient and the food comes out at a steady clip. The restaurant itself is bright and attractive—and despite the crowd waiting outside, no one will hassle you to eat quickly. If I lived in Bombay I’d eat there every month. If all goes well with the work I was in the city for, I should be there for five weeks every other year starting in a few years, and I think there’s a good chance I’ll eat at Swati Snacks every week on those trips.
Coming up next on the food front: Sichuan food in London and then a report on an excellent Malvani dinner in Bombay.
*I know this statement will probably offend/enrage a number of Bombay people; I am happy to discuss it in the comments if you’d like.