Okay, I’m back in Bombay and back at another iconic Gujarati vegetarian restaurant, and depending on who you talk to, perhaps the iconic Gujarati restaurant in the city. Soam opened about a decade and a half ago and quickly established itself as the main challenger to Swati Snacks‘ crown as the purveyor of the finest Gujarati food, traditional and contemporary. My Bombay friends—those who live there and those who visit often—are pretty evenly divided. Some say Soam, with its larger menu and size and its less spartan aesthetic, is the clear front-runner; others acknowledge that Soam is good but wonder why anyone would ever go there over Swati Snacks. As one who is not from Bombay, knows little about Gujarati food, and has not eaten enough at both restaurants (three times at Swati Snacks, just this one time at Soam), I am not qualified to have an opinion. I can, however, tell you what my lunch there on this trip was like.
I should say upfront that this meal was in the company of a very good friend of the house, Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, and that we were not shown a bill, let alone allowed to pay. I’ve known Rushina for a long time now. We first met online in the early 2000s and in person in 2005. At the time she was beginning her professional journey in food; now she is very established, a very major figure indeed in the food world in Bombay and in India more generally. Talking to her on this trip I was struck both by how little I know about Indian foodways in comparison and by how unpretentiously and lightly she carries her expertise. If you’re interested in Indian food you should consider following her on Twitter and Instagram.
We were supposed to meet for a late lunch at Soam along with another friend of hers, a food maven from Chennai. As I’d never been to Soam before and don’t really know Bombay streets that well, I was nervous about not being able to find it and left plenty of time to sit in traffic and/or get lost. Of course, this meant I got there early. And right after I got there I received texts from Rushina saying that both she and her friend were stuck in traffic elsewhere in the city. I hung out at our table, observing the ebb and flow of the restaurant and got an order of paani-puri to pass the time. I regret to inform that this was just ordinary—but then again I wouldn’t expect paani-puri to be excellent in a sit-down restaurant.
Once the others arrived Rushina took charge of the ordering. As I know little about Gujarati food I was only too happy to be guided by her. This is what we ate (after my solo paani-puri):
- Handvo and chutney: Handvo is a sort of cake made with fermented rice and lentil batter with various grated vegetables and spices; the consistency is more or less like that of corn bread. This was rather good.
- Farsan platter: Farsan is the name for a range of Gujarati snack foods and is one of the central genres of Gujarati cuisine. The platter on this occasion included dhokla, makai vadi (a sort of corn cake), samosas with cheese and spinach filling (somewhere between traditional samosas and spanakopitas) and ghughra (another snack in the samosa family but with a filling heavy on mashed peas). All were very tasty but the ghughra is what I enjoyed the most.
- Panki: Now here’s a dish that I was able to compare directly with Swati Snacks’ version which I’d eaten just about 48 hours before. I enjoyed Soam’s version a lot but have to give the nod to Swati Snacks’ version whose spicing I just liked more.
- Turiya Paatra with biscuit bhakri: Here’s an example of a very traditional dish, rarely seen on restaurant menus, combined with something a little more mod’ish (I think). Turiya paatra refers to the leaves of a plant eaten more often in India for its tubers: arbi or colocasia. In this rendition the leaves are smeared with a spice paste, rolled, steamed, cut and then cooked with ridge gourd. Very tasty indeed. I really liked the biscuit bhakri as well on its own but would probably have preferred to eat the vegetable with regular bhakris or chapatis.
- Shrikhand-puri and batata nu shaak: Here’s a dish old friends from my food forum days will be very shocked to know I ate. My aversion to shrikhand after an encounter with it in my teens used to be a cornerstone of my identity. Then again, so was my aversion to brinjal/eggplant and I recently started eating that with great gusto; accordingly, I decided that it was time I gave shrikhand another try. Well, I did not hate it but I also did not regret neglecting it for more than 30 years. This, I hasten to add, is not because there was anything wrong with Soam’s version—the shrikhand-positive people at the table liked it a lot. However, I did like the accompanying potatoes (batata=potato) a lot.
- Undhiyu with chapati: The classic winter Gujarati dish. I’d heard so much about it over the years but this was my first time eating it. I obviously have nothing to compare it with but I really liked it. (If you’d like to know more about it, check out this podcast episode from Vikram D. featuring, among others, Rushina). This is a winter-only dish and so not on the regular menu; it normally comes with puris but we asked for chapatis instead.
- Sambhariya khichdi: While they have khichdi on their regular menu they also had a separate khichdi menu. We were very full but as this menu was the one new thing for her, Rushina wanted to try something from it and so we got this version made with toor dal and brinjal/eggplant. I did not have room to even try it but I think she liked it.
We’d started out thinking we’d get the besan ladoo ice cream for dessert but we were stuffed to the gills and so passed on dessert entirely.
Launch the slideshow below to see pictures of the restaurant and the food. Scroll down for more on the ambience and service and to see what’s coming next.
As I said, we were not shown a bill or allowed to pay. The prices, however, are very reasonable and very good value for the high quality of the food. Based on my three meals at Swati Snacks I’d probably give them the slight edge but this is nitpicking of a high order. Soam is very good indeed and I’ll be very happy to return and try more of their menu on my next trip (when I hope to be able to actually pay for my food)—and also to try their hand-churned ice cream which has a very strong reputation.
The clearest difference between Soam and Swati Snacks (and I am sorry for making it seem like they’re in a competition) is in general ambience. Soam is a much larger restaurant and more of a restaurant-restaurant, whereas Swati Snacks has more of an old-school canteen feel. Again, your mileage will likely vary on which style is more to your taste. Service at both is very present but is probably more polished at Soam (then again we were certainly getting more attention on account of Rushina’s presence). At any rate, if you’re a first or second time visitor to Bombay and have not eaten at Soam, you should go.
Coming up next from Bombay, two very meat-centric meals. But I’ll have at least another London report and perhaps another Minnesota report before that first.