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
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.
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.