The Enduring Allure Of Swati Snacks’ Yellow Plates
The panki — a fermented rice pancake steamed between banana leaves — has unknown beginnings. It was a recipe passed down by 73-year-old Asha Jhaveri’s grandmother, to the daughters of the family (and their cooks). When she introduced it to the menu at Swati Snacks, patrons supposed it to be a traditional Gujarati snack like some of the other options on the menu and soon everyone, from other restaurants to food bloggers, was making a version of it. “It isn’t Gujarati, it isn’t Maharashtrian. It’s just something we made in our family,” says Jhaveri, when I meet her on a Thursday morning, in the kitchen of the Tardeo establishment, sporting a hairnet and tasting the dishes that have been sent in from the central kitchen. Using banana leaves for steaming is after all not a trait of Gujarati cuisine, but instead a technique borrowed from the southern or eastern states of India.
Whatever its origins, this austere, nutritious preparation, served with mint chutney and pickled whole green chillies, propelled the fortunes of this small eatery which began as a four-table joint selling chaat in 1964. It was started by Jhaveri’s mom Meenakshi with the assistance of her family cook, where plates of bhel and hand-churned ice-cream were sold for four annas. Today the restaurant which serves an average of 220 punters daily, sells 200 plates of panki every day, at its iconic Tardeo flagship. On weekends that number is doubled. Almost every customer who walks in through the glass-and-steel doors is sure to order this simple, ungarnished dish with uncertain heritage. The story of this snack — its growing popularity from the confines of the South-Mumbai Gujarati circuit to the to-do lists of culinary enthusiasts from different cities including foreign tourists — is also the story of Swati Snacks. Over the last 55 years, the all-vegetarian, cafeteria-style restaurant has become an institution of sorts. Growing from the ‘one gala’ space to car service on Sundays (“I ran about serving 30 to 40 cars at a time”) to its current size, with two other established outlets (one in Ahmedabad and another more recently in Mumbai’s Nariman Point) with a third in Ahmedabad in the works, all without a rupee spent on marketing.
And, no serving of the steaming, green banana leaves, their sides burnt and curling, concealing within them thin, diaphanous sheets of fermented rice batter and spices, would be satisfying without the pop of yellow underneath. In the year 2000, the restaurant let go of its steel plates and introduced yellow plastic tableware. The spartan plates and cups, which were at once casual and elevated, began to give the restaurant a brand identity beyond its mishmash of quick culinary treats. Tea tastes better in your favourite mug or in a cutting glass on the roadside and panki tastes better served on this clean, round yellow plate. There have been studies that link the colour of your plate to the experience of your meal, and the taste of it. But even if there was a science beyond the tactile experience of crockery, it wasn’t on the restaurant’s mind. Conceptualised by Jhaveri’s brother Anand Jhaveri, an architect based in Ahmedabad, the plates are sourced from a local factory there. “The two most important things I was looking for was durability and a bright colour,” says Zaveri on a call from Ahmedabad. “This kind of fast-moving restaurant can’t sustain glass or ceramic plates and the pop of colour was required to balance the lack of overt design elements in the space. Red would have been too much. Yellow was the perfect choice. The food sits well on it.” And so on any given day the shiny expanse of the steel countertops holds a parade of yellow: plump dahi batata puris, falafels that taste nothing like the Lebanese street food, crunchy Tex-Mex pizzas, ghee roast dosas, pav bhaji and Gujarati specialities like satpadi roti and gatta nu shaak. “We do have customers who think it’s below an acceptable standard to serve them in plastic plates,” shrugs Zaveri. “I think they’re wonderful!”
Karan Shah, Jhaveri’s 35-year-old nephew who is a scriptwriter and in training to take over the management of Swati Snacks from his aunt, has been using the plates as a canvas for his Instagram art, inspired by artist, author and animator Christoph Niemann. “There was no Instagram page for Swati; there was no cohesive design from the way the space looked to the cutlery used,” says Shah. “The focus had always been on the food and so these are gradual changes we’ve been bringing about.”
But the thing that’s remained constant is the menu (save for seasonal and healthier additions like bajra pizza) and the taste. Every morning, unfailingly, Jhaveri and now Shah taste every item on the menu before it’s sent out to customers for the day. The outlet in Ahmedabad follows a similar system with her brother and his son, Shaan. So the recipes and quality control remain firmly within the family and everything is handled akin to a mom-and-pop establishment. “We have nobody from a catering or hotel management background,” says Shah. “Our supervisor used to sell LPG cylinders, but Asha mami saw something in him and hired him.”
It’s almost noon and the diners are pouring in. Gujaratis are early eaters. The panki batter, the undhiyu, the idli dabeli are all tasted and approved and the waiters, carrying four to five bright yellow plates each, hurry back and forth, setting them down with satisfying clunks. And just like that, the bare, minimalist room is filled with colour.