The first time you enter Surati Farsan Mart is a potentially overwhelming experience. The place resembles a Jewish deli more than a restaurant, and during peak hours, the line can stretch out the door. The clientele are loud and almost entirely Indian. There are more women dressed in saris than jeans. In line, a child is eloquently begging her mother to order her a sweet (or two), and is triumphant when she agrees. Another woman is methodically checking her shopping list; Surati Farsan Mart, in addition to sweet shop and restaurant, is the local place to get puffed rice and cracker mixes dusted with chili.
There are three TV monitors hanging on the wall, which display hundreds of unfamiliar words that may as well be written in Sanskrit: dahi batata puri, pav bhaji, kasta kachori. They presumably refer to food. You ask a nice man at the counter the appropriate questions (what is that?), which are answered with an air of practiced patience. After some rudimentary education, you place your order, only vaguely aware of what you’ve agreed to eat.
Pani puri arrives as a plate with half a dozen or so puffed spheres of dough, as crispy as a thin cracker and approximately the size and shape of a hollow golf ball. You’re told to carefully break the top of a sphere with your finger - one of the sides if easier to break than the other, as if the thing was invented for this specific action - and fill it with various accompaniments: diced potato, a dash of tamarind-date chutney, tiny black chickpeas, and a transparent, spicy liquid with a hazy green hue.
When you bite into it, the entire construction collapses around your mouth, flooding the gaps of your teeth. If it's a platitude at this point to refer to something extraordinarily tasty as an explosion of flavor, then its source is likely pani puri.
After your meal (it will be a good meal), it will occur to you that, in India, it must be absurdly easy to never eat an animal.
This is the food of Gujarat, a western Indian state famous for its vegetarian cuisine. Because of the strong influence of Jainism, a religion notorious for its strict dietary restrictions, fewer people eat meat in this part of India than almost anywhere else in the world. This is particularly remarkable because Gujarat borders the ocean; it’s one of the few places on the planet where a society has traditionally refused to take advantage of easy access to seafood.
In Los Angeles, Gujarati food is done well enough, though it’s fairly common to hear Indians speak harshly of the local food scene. Those who know their dosa from their uttapam can’t help but wistfully compare what we have here to what’s in the Bay Area, where the wealth of Indian food around Sunnyvale is the equivalent of the Chinese food we have access to in the San Gabriel Valley – that is, the best in America.
It’s probably fair to claim our Indian food is not so good as our Oaxacan tacos or our Shandong knife-shaved noodles, but, relatively speaking, it’s pretty damn good. Notably, we should appreciate what we have in Pioneer Boulevard, a street in Artesia that has more than a dozen extraordinary Indian restaurants in the span of a few blocks.
Among them is Surati Farsan Mart, which has become the standard for Gujarati cuisine in Southern California. The restaurant specializes in chaat: vegetarian Indian snack food that is not particularly healthy but is addictingly delicious. Surati’s explosion in popularity led to a major expansion project a couple years ago, but the place remains consistently crowded.
Understanding what you’re eating is something of a process. Almost everything revolves around potatoes and legumes, the latter of which is the main source of protein in a land with no meat. But the flavors are molded by the sweetness of tamarinds and dates, the fragrance of saffron and cilantro, and the heat of red chili.
While a standard lunch in Gujarat is extremely simple – some rice, a tortilla-like bread called roti, cooked chickpeas or lentils – there is a clear distinction between home food and restaurant food. Home is where Gujaratis simply fill their belly; restaurants are where they enthusiastically splurge on chaat and thali, the former of which is eaten only occasionally as a kind of guilty treat, the latter a pre-arranged dinner set for events or large family gatherings.
Pani puri is the norm for snack food: a bread or cracker splashed with sweet chutneys and filled with potato and chickpeas. Dahi batata puri is similar, although the puri is not puffed but flat, as if the bread failed to expand but the cook is still expected to do something with it. Kasta kachori is pani puri in evolved form, where the spherical puri is two or three times bigger, the dollops of chutney a little more generous, the yogurts a tad heavier. Bhel puri, where puffed rice is tossed with onion and chutney, will make you rethink the concept of a Rice Krispies Treat.
There is more: dhokla, delicate rice flour cakes sprinkled with mustard seeds and artfully garnished with coriander and coconut shavings; samosas bathed in chickpea chole, a wonderfully spicy gravy tinted red with tomato and chili; ragada patties, a sort of Gujarati latke, also often immersed in chole or some bean concoction.
Pav bhaji is two pieces of bread served with a simple lentil spread. Apparently, the particular type of bread used in pav bhaji is only produced in Gujarat, so restaurants in America have resorted to using buttered hamburger buns. You may be familiar with masala dosas, rice flour crepes served as long as a baseball bat and filled with spiced potato. They are traditionally served in southern India, and often with meat, but Gujarat has adopted them in its restaurants. Rava masala dosa is a different breed that resembles a carefully crafted bird’s nest.
There are several kinds of breads, all of them flat and round. When served hot, they are soft and supple enough to almost make you regret eating them, as if it should be a great disappointment to watch them leave the world. Roti is almost unique to Gujarat, though it’s probably an interesting history question as to why it has the same name as similar bread served in places such as Malaysia and Jamaica. Most of the rest of India, Gujarat included, enjoys paratha, which is defined by its characteristic layers. Puri refers to bread that is puffed and fried. In a country where people use fingers more often than forks, each piece of bread is simultaneously employed as silverware and plate to sponge up chutneys, gravies and curries.
You probably are familiar with palak paneer, where spinach is mixed with tiny cubes of cheese. Gujaratis often mix their bread with it, but also with chole or sambar, the latter a common plain curry with lentils eaten around India and Sri Lanka.
Surati Farsan Mart and other chaat joints, especially Jay Bharat down the street, are good options for trying these foods à la carte. But a truer experience is available at the thali specialist Rajdhani, also on Pioneer Boulevard.
Sometimes thali is served pre-arranged on a circular metal plate, but Rajdhani is one of two restaurants in California that serve it the traditional way, as an all-you-can-eat event. This is not your typical Indian buffet. Waiters stroll by your table carrying a contraption with three pots, each filled with chole or dhokla or some other food. When you nod your approval, they will slap some of the food onto your plate or bowl. Sometimes they will do so regardless of your approval – Gujaratis are famously hospitable. (If you only know one word in the Gujarati language, it should be bus, which roughly means “enough.”)
Gujaratis also are enormously proud of their sweet tooth. The sweets are not baked but mixed and cooled. Without eggs to hold them together, they are crumbly, like dry soil. Restaurants often serve up to 30 different kinds. Among them: burfi, which is nut-based; jaggery, a palm sugar mixed with nutmeg; halvah, a mixture of sugar and a second ingredient, often carrot; gulab jamun, a spherical doughnut draped in fragrant syrup; shrikhand, yogurt flavored with cardamom; and laddu, a butter ball of sugar and dough made of lentil flour (in Gujarat, laddu is what they call fat children). Surati Farsan Mart has a good selection, but some people – admittedly, not many – prefer Jay Bharat, Ambala Sweets & Snacks or Bombay Sweets & Snacks down the street.
L.A.’s Gujarati food is not limited to Pioneer Boulevard; snack shops have begun to sprout around the county. In Upland, of all places, there is a homey chaat joint called Ashirwad the Blessings that has earned the love of students at the Claremont Colleges. In Diamond Bar, you can find India Coffee & Snacks, which is similarly praised.
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A large Indian population has begun to migrate eastward, apparently, and in a few years it wouldn’t be surprising if Diamond Bar were L.A.’s Indian culinary center. As good as Sunnyvale? Perhaps not, but we’re happy enough.
Surati Farsan Mart, 11814 E. 186th St., Artesia; (562) 860-2310; entrees, $2.50-$11.49.
Rajdhani, 18525 Pioneer Blvd, Artesia, CA 90701; (562) 402-9102; thali dinner $13.99.
Jay Bharat, 18701 Pioneer Blvd, Artesia, CA 90701; (562) 924-3310
Bombay Sweets & Snacks, 18526 Pioneer Blvd, Artesia, CA 90701; (562) 402-7179
Ashirwad the Blessings, 583 E Foothill Blvd, Ste 10-11, Upland, CA 91786; (909) 608-1313
India Coffee & Snacks, Diamond Bar, CA 91765; (909) 396-0350