Swati Snacks, Mumbai
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Many years back I thought I had landed a minor coup as a food writer. Asha Jhaveri, the reclusive owner of Swati Snacks, the much-loved Mumbai restaurant had, after much badgering, agreed to an interview.
Now I could ask questions like how she came up with the idea of pairing peru-nu-shaak, an unusual Jain dish of guavas cooked in a curry, with methi roti, whose slight bitterness perfectly matched the sweet-savoury curry.
Or how she had devised a system for turning out large amounts of panki, delicate rice flour pancakes steamed in banana leaves, whose fiddly preparation meant few people made them. And what led her to devise a variant marvellously flavoured with dill, a little used herb in Indian cuisine?
Or how she had come up with the idea of taking a Maharashtrian staple like thalipeeth-pitla, multigrain flatbread and besan curry, and giving them a richer twist for her predominantly Gujarati restaurant, yet still retaining their stomach filling appeal?
Meeting the reluctant restaurateur
I reached the restaurant just before it opened. As always, Jhaveri was there to taste the preparations for the day personally. She was rumoured to have turned down innumerable offers to set up new outlets, including in Gujarat, since she insisted on being hands-on every day.
I sat in one of the wooden seats that leading Mumbai architect Rahul Mehrotra had installed in his revamp in 2000. The old restaurant was cramped and filled with basic plastic furniture. The new avatar was minimalist and functional, yet quietly elegant with frosted glass walls and interiors of wood and perforated stainless-steel.
Jhaveri sat in front of me, looking uncomfortable. I launched into long questions, to each of which she gave monosyllabic and evasive answers. Finally, I asked if she might ever consider a Swati Snacks cookbook. “Why would I give away our recipes?” she asked incredulously. And with that, the interview was over.
Over the years I took food writers and chefs from around the world to Swati Snacks. They were all amazed at the food and effusive with compliments but Ms Jhaveri, when she agreed to talk at all, just looked uncomfortable. When one of India’s leading editors offered a book deal on the spot, she gave her the same polite brush-off.
So, I was amazed recently when visiting Swati Snacks, for the first time since the pandemic began, to see such a book on sale. A Culinary Journey of Hope and Joy, by Jhaveri, with the help of Tanushka Vaid, told the story of how she made Swati such a success despite being deeply reluctant to get involved with it at all. Even more striking was the endorsement on the cover from one of the richest men in Asia. “We are three generations of the Ambani family who cannot live without eating a meal from Swati at least once a week,” wrote Mukesh Ambani.
And, Ambani continued inside, in what hardly seemed like the standard written-by-PR style of such statements: “Ashaben, you have given Mumbai an immense gift in institutionalising Swati Snacks over the past few decades. Here’s wishing that Swati Snacks remains a timeless gift for the tastebuds of many generations of Indians.”
The secret element
It is rather amazing then to read in the book that Jhaveri doesn’t even know why the restaurant was called Swati Snacks. It was started by her mother Minakshi, who was evidently a very self-willed person. She was divorced when Jhaveri was young at a time when this was rare in her conservative Gujarati Jain community. Jhaveri writes that her family was even more upset by her mother’s decision to open a chaat shop: “Selling chaat was associated with the image of bhaiyyas carrying food and stands on their heads…” But her mother’s insight was that serving chaat prepared at home — Swati would only get an actual kitchen years later — was a real draw for those apprehensive of street sellers. I also think chaat made in Gujarati homes has started differing from street chaat, with better ingredients, for example in the date chutney, and slightly different spicing.
Making it was a chore though, with all the many different elements. So, when someone with impeccable home cooking credentials did it for you, people were ready to come and pay. Gujaratis are famously frugal, but also famously fond of good food and Swati’s was good enough to make them ready to pay.
Jhaveri, unlike most food entrepreneurs, readily credits her success to her staff. She says the consistent high quality of the food was due to Viralal Raval, whom her mother had trained to cook. He became their family’s maharaj, as such cooks are respectfully called in Gujarati homes, and then the genius of the Swati kitchen.
Jhaveri is the first restaurateur I’ve come across who talks about the importance of ‘water boys’, who clean and service the table, while the waiter takes the order. It is the lowest function in the restaurant hierarchy, yet they have the most contact with customers. In a busy place like Swati, they inevitably take on part of the waiter’s role, and Jhaveri details the challenges in familiarising them with the dishes and restaurant roles.
She also notes the problems staff face in staying in Mumbai, and purchases rooms in chawls where they can stay. Jhaveri notes wryly how the ‘trained in Swati’ reputation gives them a 20% premium in the job market. To retain them, Swati offers the career path that was common in restaurants in the past, but now must be rare — to move from waterboy, to waiter, and finally admitted into the secrets of the kitchen, as a Swati chef.
All this happened after 1979, the year in which her mother suddenly died, after years of running Swati entirely on her own. There were many offers to buy the place, but the family felt they owed it to her to continue running it. But Jhaveri’s younger brother had moved to Ahmedabad, which left only her, even though she had her own married life and aspiring career as an artist.
Jhaveri admits she often just wanted to run away from it all. But her sense of duty, combined with growing confidence as she learns how to solve problems, ranging from pushy customers to police complaints about parking, carries her through.
And finally, after years of turning away offers, she opens a branch in Ahmedabad, though only to ensure Swati’s future. She had no one to leave it to herself, so her brother’s family had to be engaged, just as she had been. Starting a branch there was the way to do it.
Despite being so candid about her struggle to run Swati, Jhaveri still keeps some secrets. She doesn’t actually talk much about the food. The book has recipes — not for any of the Swati classics, but home recipes of her own. They sound worth trying but one still wants to know about the secrets behind Swati’s unique satpadi roti, that sweet-savoury-bitter guava curry and methi roti combination and the incredibly delicious thalipeeth-pitla.
A Wall Street Journal journalist I took to Swati was doing a survey of food across Asia. He ended his year-long series by selecting the thalipeeth-pitla as one of the most memorable foods he ate across the continent. Jhaveri’s book still leaves us unclear how she arrived at it but we can at least still go to Swati, or its branches now, and relish her wonderful achievement.