Remembering La Bella, Ahmedabad

Remembering La Bella, Ahmedabad

Late in the summer of 2014, I found myself some 1600 kilometres away from home in a service apartment in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, all pumped up and excited to start my first job. In the three months that I lived in the apartment on Sargassan Cross Road, I learnt how relentlessly Gujarat tries to make a vegetarian out of an omnivore. Let’s get this clear, I come from Bengal and fish is my staple protein and in this part of the country, even Pizza Hut strives to have a suddha-shakahari identity. We eat quite a lot of vegetables in the Bengali household and I love a good shukto and aloo posto but this was a totally a different world where you were not expected to have a choice. Needless to say, it was a struggle. Forget meat, I was famished for the scent of garlic. Less than a fortnight into strict vegetarianism and food-depression started to get the better of me.

The struggle that ensued between me, a voracious carnivore, and Gujarat, a state surviving purely on select plant matter, was real. The Jain vegetarian diet means even the seafood thriving off the coast of Gujarat doesn’t make it to the plates. Even certain produce like tubers, onions, broccoli, eggplants, etc. are prohibited. Don’t get me wrong; Gujarati fare is delicious— the variety of dishes they make with vegetables is astounding— but back then my experience with food was limited and I was homesick, craving mom’s special kosha mutton. Compounding my misery was the fact that Gujarat is a dry state. The boy who would spend his weekends in Kolkata trying out new eateries and waxing eloquent over whiskey in Oly Pub was spending lonely Sunday afternoons drooling over YouTube videos on tenderloins and rib cuts.

It is not easy to move to a new city where the culture is totally alien to your own. It is especially difficult when you can neither find restaurants that serve your food nor resources to recreate your favourite dishes at home. The khakda, fafda, dhokla fatigue was setting in when on a fortunate afternoon I came across a blog.  La Bella, the blog said, is a local legend in Bhadra and among only a handful of places in Ahmedabad that proudly serve meat and seafood at dirt-cheap prices. It is frequented by students of NID, CEPT, and IIM, all renowned academic institutions where students come from all over the country and searched, just like me, for a break from the overbearing vegetarianism. One phrase: meat curry, and I arrived at La Bella the following weekend riding a rented scooter across the city, over the Sabarmati River, with a friend who was vegetarian back then but suffering from similar strains of existential crisis.

Finding La Bella in Ahmedabad

Finding La Bella wasn’t the easiest of tasks but now, four years later, I remember the euphoria as we spotted the bright blue mural of a peacock. The interior was dimly lit; the walls were covered in red paint with the iconic Coca-Cola signs. A massive painted bust of Salvador Dali and paintings of black cats occupied a large part of a wall. We didn’t know the aesthetics of the owner but finding La Bella was nothing short of surreal. The tables and chairs were casually arranged in the two dimly lit rooms. Patrons were huddled around tables engaging in the piping hot food and conversations. Aunty and her establishment, both looked ancient like pages taken out of an old mystery or parts of a relic misplaced in time. From outside, La Bella seemed like an unkempt shack that served meat but inside, it was an escape from the oppressive ideals that puts a restriction on what one can choose to eat and what one cannot choose to eat in this UNESCO heritage city in India’s fifth richest state. In Gujarat, like in many other parts of India, meat and alcohol can make you a sinner but the choice to be intolerant to the dietary habits of others and to put a ban on what is perhaps the staple source of protein for many communities cannot.

Also read: Revolver, Darjeeling: A Home Away from Home

La Bella
Interiors of La Bella

Run by Mrs Mary Lobo, popularly known as Aunty, this 60-year-old eatery is an institution in Ahmedabad. Born and brought up in Goa, Aunty moved to this city after marrying Mr Lobo, a temperamental but kindhearted man who was brave enough to start a non-vegetarian restaurant in a staunchly vegetarian clime. La Bella, consequently, had been rewarded by the students of the local institutions. A search on the internet yields hundreds of testaments to La Bella written by patrons who no longer remember what they studied but recount each dinner they have had here in vivid, mouth-watering detail. In the mid-90s, after Aunty took over the reins of La Bella, her Goan sensibilities made it to the menu and the eatery started focusing more on Goan-style fiery beef and pork dishes. Recipes were tweaked so that even popular North Indian style curries had an underlying hint of Goan eccentricity.

Aunty is aided by Anna, her brother, in the kitchen now and he is the one who cooks these days. Of course, everything happens under the watchful eyes of aunty. I had ordered a plate of rice and Beef Curry for lunch, something I probably can no longer do now that The Gujarat Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act, 2017 has banned cow slaughter in the state. You might be enraged, or delighted depending on your sensibilities, to know that the act does not seek to protect Homo Sapiens (who, scientifically speaking, are animals too) as is evident from the lynchings and mob violence that is being perpetrated on communities that do not choose, religiously or otherwise, to abstain from consuming beef. When the food arrived, I had dived in with my hands. The curry was aromatic, cooked long enough for the flavours to develop an exuberant richness, and the beef was tender. I had savoured the curry-soaked rice, thanked the internet for directing me to this slice of Heaven, and promised myself a treat: to return in the evening. I had reasoned that my sudden withdrawal from animal protein was wreaking havoc on my health and taste-buds. For dinner, it was another plate of rice with a decadent, spiced, slightly tart Pork Masala. I had eaten slowly, savouring every mouthful with gratitude and joy that had tripled when I had looked at the bill, less than INR 120 for two whole meals.

Rice and Curry
Rice and Curry at La Bella

Also read: Eating at Siddheswari Ashram, Kolkata

La Bella: A Review

If you prefer ambience and aesthetics, La Bella is probably not your cup of tea. Goan-style cooking more often than not involves a dash of sour into most dishes and this might also be another hurdle for some to pass. There is no fixed menu either. On some days, you might find dishes like Chicken Tikka Masala, Fish Fry, and Chunky Pork Curry. On other days, you will find delectable Mutton Cutlets, Chicken Fry, and Mutton Masala.

Looking back, this was one of the defining moments of my stay in Gujarat. The rebellious project of one Mr Lobo, La Bella, gave me a sense of belonging in a foreign land. Food has no religion and you can choose to disagree with me. La Bella still does not have a shiny exterior. Neither will it ever. It will also never give you the confidence that comes with being inside a well-maintained eatery that’s on top of hygiene. Looking from a strictly gastronomic point, the food it offers is not out-of-the-world delicious either. I have tasted better Goan curries but you do not come to La Bella for ambience or for world-class cuisine; you come here to find a slice of familiarity, a slice of home, for comradeship. It is surprising that one of the most legendary culinary gems of Ahmedabad is not even really about the food it serves. It is an eatery with two dimly lit rooms and walls painted with the face of Salvador Dali where an old woman from Goa, a state that has nothing in common with Gujarat, prepares dishes from her childhood for her ever-changing but ever loyal customers every day with motherly affection and as long as Aunty is there, La Bella will continue to give lost souls like me a moment to grasp the buoy and find the way ashore.

Disclaimer: We love vegetarian food! In fact, one of us survives primarily on a vegetarian diet and is contemplating veganism. If you can lead us to your or your friend’s grandma’s Gujarati kitchen and treat us to your favourite dishes, we will pay you in hugs and wishes. I’m grateful for the time I spent in Ahmedabad and I would love to return to explore the city; what distresses me is the fact that the dietary culture of certain communities is being targeted by certain political and religious agendas. What you choose to eat should be your, and exclusively your, choice.

Have you been to Ahmedabad? Share with us your stories. 

La Bella Ahmedabad Review

68 thoughts on “Remembering La Bella, Ahmedabad”

  • Lol! Can’t stop my laugh for this. Don’t get me wrong. Actually, currently we are living in Gandhinagar and basically of punjabi origin. So, we are also facing the same problem regarding food choices.

    • Right? Gujarat is difficult. They not only take away the meat but also the booze (oh, heartbreak!) But Ahmedabad has some of the most fantastic architecture. Also, Bohri food…don’t know where to find some but heard tales of delicious Bohri dishes.

  • What a challenge! I had some friends who were Janist so I know about the dietary restrictions and can only imagine ok ne how it must have been to be far away from home with not even your favorite foods to comfort you. Thanks for sharing.

  • It can be quite a challenge when you travel or move to a place where you can’t find the kind of food you are used to eat (or love). I remember when we moved to Athens, we had a hard time in the beginning to find a sushi place or any restaurant serving raw food! It took us several weeks to find one, and were sooo happy that we returned to the same place at least once a week despite it being quite expensive! 😀

  • I am vegetarian, but as I was volunteering at a hospital in Gujarat, I wasn’t exposed to the best cuisine. I started eating at the naturopath clinic just to get some food my stomach would tolerate. My wife and I do travel with food allergies, so we know how hard it can be to find the food that best suits your body.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jennifer. It is difficult to travel with food allergies and more so in a country like India where people, unless you are in an urban area, are not always aware of food allergies.

  • I loved this! Admittedly, I know very little about the cultures of different Indian states. I didn’t realize that there were some that almost entirely banned meat and alcohol! Food is such an integral part of who we are – being able to eat the food you enjoy or are familiar with can be a huge comfort in an unfamiliar place.

    • There are 5 dry states in India. Gujarat and Rajasthan (both in Western India) are two states where the majority of the population is vegetarian but since Rajasthan is more touristy, there might be more cuisine options in the cities but we haven’t visited so we can’t say for sure. We totally agree that food that one is familiar with is a huge comfort in an unfamiliar place.

  • What a lovely memory, and putting into context how much you had been struggling with the restrictive diet. Like you, I have no problem with other people choosing their diet as they like, but find it impossible when they wish to impose their restrictions on me! I can well imagine the sheer joy and relief of finding La Bella that first time!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kavita! I find it extremely off-putting when others try to impose their restrictions on me. Go to any food-focused Facebook group and you will see the kind of comments people leave under posts about eating beef. A lot of people don’t seem to understand how to respect the choices of others.

  • This is truly a wonderfully eloquent and descriptive piece, my mouth is watering at the thought of your delicious meal here! Beyond the food, I’ve learned new things about culture and food practices, so thank you for educating and sharing!

  • “Tries to make a vegetarian out of an omnivore,” at least you can find humor in the situation. What you choose to eat should definitely be a personal choice! Fingers crossed things improve and you can find more options.

    • What made it more difficult for us in Gujarat is the general atmosphere of “you cannot have a choice when it comes to food.” Most places that I’ve been to give you a choice. Sometimes it is difficult to find vegetarian food but it is never impossible but in Ahmedabad 4 years ago (I hope there is more diversity now), it was incredibly difficult. We couldn’t even find eggs in restaurants!

  • I’m sorry you had that food-homesickness experience and glad you found a place that helped make it better. As a vegetarian who usually struggles to find suitable food when I’m traveling, I can definitely relate. Even if you can find foods that meet your dietary restrictions, it’s hard to find that AND have the food actually be good!

    • Food-homesickness is just the perfect way to put it! Thanks, Carrie. I prefer to eat vegetarian, my partner is a voracious meat-eater but I been to eateries that had no vegetarian options on the menu but they were willing to rustle up something for me.

  • Well, I’ve been a vegetarian for fourteen years, so it’s good to know that I can visit Gujarat if I’m looking for lots of delicious vegetarian choices! I’ll be skipping La Bella, however!

    • Gujarati cuisine is often called the haute cuisine of vegetarian food. You must try it! Most of the dishes are a little too sweet for my taste but the variety, the fact that you can prepare an infinite number of vegetarian dishes, is astounding. It might be somewhat difficult to find vegan options though. Order a Gujarati thali at a place like Agashiye in Ahmedabad and you’ll be delighted!

  • I love how you say “La Bella, gave me a sense of belonging in a foreign land.” Made me smile. I also agree with Kavita’s comment. It’s fine for others to choose the diet they like, but it’s another thing when they try and impose it on others!

    • Gujarat strictly abides by the “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” proverb. The difficulty of finding familiar comfort foods– fish/egg curry and rice for me– made my first month in Ahmedabad nearly unbearable.

  • Not having food you like where you are living or visitingis definitely a challenge! I am so picky , I prob wouldnt make it in a country outside the US or Europe.. lol

  • I grew up in Ahmedabad, stayed there for 25 years before I got married and moved to Bangalore. Three generations of our people grew up there – my grandpa, dad and then me. So, the place is special to me. It shaped me into the vegetarian and teetotaller I am today. We were vegetarian and teetotallers at home anyway, and the place helped.
    I can understand how you would have felt, away from home, though. Glad you found La Bella.

    • Would you lead us to some traditional Gujarati dishes next time we are in/around the city?
      It’s a very different culture and often while travelling within the country, one doesn’t take into account culture shock. Though I knew that Gujarat is predominantly vegetarian, I guess I thought there would be restaurants that served, if not anything else, Punjabi Butter Chicken. Like you know, I was so wrong!

      • I would love to do that! Let me know the next time you are there – I’ll definitely share some suggestions. That said, it’s been ages since I left the place, so I don’t know if my favourite haunts still exist. I visited this January and found some new favourite foodie places, so I could take you through those for sure.
        I’d also like to say that what you experienced in Gujarat isn’t ‘enforcing one’s views on others’. A large part of Gujarati population is vegetarian, so there are a whole lot of vegetarian restaurants around – simple! We found it tough to find good vegetarian fare in the North-East – there’s a largely meat-eating population out there, so that’s natural.
        I have non-vegetarian friends living there, and they do find food of their choice there.

        • Thanks! We’d love to go back. I’m really drawn to the architecture of the city.
          I think what I found the most surprising was the lack of options in a UNESCO heritage city but this was back in 2014. More people visit Ahmedabad now than they did 4 years back as I understand from the numerous posts on the old city. I believe I would react to the food situation differently if I was in rural or even semi-urban Gujarat. Having said that, I grew up in Calcutta and though Bengali food is predominantly centred around fish, you wouldn’t find it difficult to find vegetarian options. That not having the choice that I was so used to having (to pick) in almost all eateries baffled me.

  • I guess I really never thought about the restrictive diets of different lands. In the States, we have people who are carnivore and vegans, and while some may try to persuade others that their choice is right, there are not such oppressive restrictions. I can only imagine the pressures that Aunty has faced throughout the years to change La Bella.

  • I loved reading this. Your love of food (both veggy and meaty) really shines through your writing!! I am glad you found this oasis of happy food to make you feel at home away from home. 🙂

  • Enjoyed reading this post and you have a lovely writing style that keeps me reading! Through reading about the food now makes me also hungry haha! It’s so easy to eat all kinds of foods when abroad or in new locations but still its the things from home that you crave for. I had the same now that i am in the Netherlands missing British food, but then its extra special when I go back home and eat all the food i’ve missed out on!

  • I appreciate your thoughts about food. I agree that food tends to unite people, that is why in several cultures, food is a symbol of hospitality. At the same time, to each their own and everyone has their own preference. I for one is not afraid to try anything at least once!

  • No, I haven’t been to Ahmedabad, however, I know exactly what you are talking about. I adore this sort of places that have been there forever, that are an institution and do not become a stupid tourist trap but keep on catering to their old loyal customers – and accept some new ones like myself 😉 Beautiful post, thanks for introducing La Bella to us.

    • Calcutta, the city we are from, has a treasure trove of such institutions. They are not known for their ambience thus don’t feature in upscale/trendy/millennial magazines but if you ever visit Calcutta, we would love to show you around. Eateries like Tung Nam in the old Chinatown, Broadway in Chandni, the much-loved cabins of North Calcutta are must-visits.

  • I have to admit I honestly did not know where Gandhinagar, Gujarat was until I read your post and 1600 klms away from home is a long way but I’m from Melbourne and I live in London 🙂 I agree with you I think food definitely brings people together from different backgrounds and cultures.

    • It does, doesn’t it? When I first arrived in Oregon to attend grad school, I almost always used food as an ice-breaker or to talk about my culture. Hearing someone talk about their eating etiquette, about ingredients that are prohibited, dishes that are special, etc. are a wonderful window to learn more about their culture and sometimes even the socio-political climate of a place. Thanks for stopping by, Mel!

  • I understand missing the food from the place where you grew up. When we lived in China, one year we managed to get roast a turkey for Christmas (we had to order it online, and some ingredients too). I also remember really missing curry when we lived in Korea – they had only one Indian restaurant where we lived.

  • As a vegetarian I wouldn’t mind the lack of meat too much, but I’d definitely miss the lack of options! And, let’s be honest here… the wine deficiency would be pretty tough as well 😉 Good thing you found a spot to get some of the flavours you were missing!

  • I love finding gems like La Bella! In all of my traveling, I’ve only found a few places that I consider to be “special” like this. It’s such a nice feeling!

  • Interesting post with a touch of humor. I have been to Gujarat thrice and in total, I spent a month. I love the food and some of the dishes are my all time favorite. (Maybe because I like to eat new things 😉 )

  • I have the opposite problem, when I visit states and there are no veggie options! As a vegan I would love to visit this state! I had no idea there were whole states where there was only vegetarian food! I feel bad reading your post as you were homesick I was just getting excited!

    • Haha! India is a vegetarian’s delight. It might be somewhat difficult to find vegan options in Gujarat since milk products are extensively used but you can always request for vegan variants.

  • This is so interesting to me – I usually hear stories about vegetarians or someone gluten-free trying to find safe havens for eating in another country but rarely do I hear of an omnivore/carnivore having these difficulties! But food is such a comfort and provides us with our sense of home, I can greatly appreciate how difficult it must be when you’re homesick and can’t even turn to food to help counter the loneliness. This sounds like an amazing restaurant and place to find a bit of home.

  • It is not the landmarks or places in general but the food more than anything else that comforts us and reminds us of home. Having lived in Dubai for many years I’ve learned to love Indian food. When I come to visit today the very first thing I always do is a stop by my favorite Indian restaurant for butter chicken. It feels like home. 

    • Thanks, Eva, for stopping by! Even in the most difficult of situations, eating familiar dishes feels comforting. I’m interested in hearing what people with eating disorders or those that have/have had a difficult relationship with food feel about it.

  • It is interesting how the primal need for sustenance runs side by side with the cultural experience. Both can deeply inform our connection to a location. I think almost as much as the communicative interactions between people when we share food we share their world. Whether that is familiar or foreign, aligns with our tastes or goes against them. Thanks for taking us on a journey into your food experience, with all its authenticity and honesty.
    Thanks for sharing. Keep travel blogging. Adventure is better shared with friends!

    • Thanks, Anthony, for sharing your perspective with us. Experiencing a new culture through food is something we are interested in exploring. We are also keen on understanding/exploring whether the politics of the land affect what food people have access to.

  • I’m gluten-intolerant and also don’t eat pork or beef – finding food while traveling can be a challenge, so I totally sympathize. I wouldn’t mind the lack of meat, but if it’s a staple for you, I get why it was tough for you. Thanks for sharing!

  • I come from the omnivore school of thinking — any food is good food as long as it is local (the odd insect and grilled grub delicacy I have yet to stomach notwithstanding). But, that said, I am absolutely sure I would make a beeline to La Bella after a several days of the same local vegetarian and no wine or beer with your meal fare … and just reading “decadently spiced, slightly tart pork masala” made my mouth water.

    • You can get the mutton/pork masala fry at La Bella. I’d like to note that Indian curries are very different from South East Asian curries. Otherwise, Gujarati cuisine has a lot of fries and vegetables sauteed in light sauces. There is also the dhokla, a steamed, spongy lentil cake, which I love!

  • Having stayed in Ahmedabad, I can understand the predicament of a Non-Vegetarian. But being a vegetarian myself, I did not face such issues. Though yes the Jain community does not eat onions, potatoes, and anything grown below the earth, there are plenty of choices for other vegetarian fare. La Bella seems to be an oasis for those Non-Vegetarians living in the city.

    • It is! La Bella was a welcome break from the vegetarian thalis we were eating every day. Can you point us to good home-cooked traditional Gujarati fare in Ahmedabad? Most of what I ate in Ahmedabad were terrible lunches served in the office canteen. We’d love to return to the city and eat some good food.

  • We love to discover a country through its food. I am always looking for something different to try. Sometimes with luck, sometimes less so. And we do here and there crave for something very specific, which can be tricky depending on where you are!

  • I loved your post and the honesty behind it. I haven’t traveled to India though I know I would be concerned about what I would eat during my visit. I’m a huge fan of veggies and curries so hopefully, that would work for me. I flip back and forth from being a vegetarian to being a meat eater. To be honest, I mostly miss a good burger more than anything, and sausage. Thanks for sharing a subject I knew very little about before reading your post.

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