Chole from
Chola batura is a favourite recipe across India Image Credit:

I empathise with the Indian expat in Sweden who paid Rupees 1000 (about Dhs50) for a plate of comfort food, as I too stressed when buying tomatoes in Saudi Arabia.

The expatriate has got a huge outpouring of sympathy from netizens who were angry at how the plate of ‘chola batura’ was presented, and its price.

For the uninitiated, ‘chola batura’ is a dish of fluffy, deep-fried bread, with chick peas cooked in spices.

The fun of eating this bread is by quickly poking into the puffed-up bread and nearly burning your hand as the steam escapes. The waiter brings the dish to your table with the bread heaped on the plate that look like brown balloons waiting to be punctured.

As the years passed, I had to pull a tissue from the box on the table and soak out the oil from the deep-fried bread for a few minutes, while curious people looked on, wondering what’s happening. (Most Indians believe oil is good for you and clarified butter (ghee) is even better).

Soul food

The ‘chola batura’ arrived on the expat’s table delicately and aesthetically presented by the chef, with the chick peas placed on the bread, that sadly looked deflated.

I quote the disappointed expat: “For those who are curious about the taste: Well, it was bad. The ‘batura’ was sweet, super thick, and almost dry. The ‘chole’ was like ‘palak paneer’ but with ‘channa’ instead (AND WHO THE (expletive) ADDS POMEGRANATE??). The taste of the chole was bland. No spice or any prominent ‘masalas’.”

In the earlier days of the expat migration from India to the Gulf, one could take all the necessary spices such as red chili powder and turmeric powder (the latter has now become a hit in Western countries where it is added into milk and called the Golden Milk Latte, or some such thing).

And nutritionists today say chili is good for health as one sweats and cries while eating, saying it cleans up the pores and helps in detoxing.

Indian mums would slave in the kitchen just before the expats left for their flights out, preparing various pickles, with lime, mango and prawn pickles being the most precious and eagerly awaited by the expat’s homesick friends.

But while the mothers took care of the culinary add-ons, expats still had to buy groceries from the supermarkets. “OMG, look at the price of tomatoes,” I would say to my wife, while calculating how much it was in Indian rupees.

I love mangoes and its cost in a Jeddah souq, was astronomical. “Let’s just buy a kilo and see how they are,” my wife would say, not knowing that once you start eating mangoes you cannot stop. One kilo gave us one biggish mango and one puny one. “Let’s not calculate in rupees anymore,” she would advise.

(Many, many years later in Bengaluru, I would repeat the exact, same thing to my wife, “OMG, look at the price of tomatoes” I said, after the unusually, heavy rains, that ruined crops and shot up the price of vegetables and fruits. “Look at the ridiculous price of ‘benishan’ (‘banganapally’) mangoes”!

Some years back in Canada, we took our friends for a ‘dosa’ treat in Mississauga and we were warned that if we did not book our table in advance, the wait would be an hour or more. (The crowd must have been because of all the IT guys in Canada from Bengaluru, Telangana or Chennai).

Since I had become a bit sophisticated as the years passed, I did not goggle at the bill when it arrived, but had to take out my credit card to pay for it, as the cash in my pocket was not enough. (One dosa was Can $8, about Rupees 430).

Meanwhile, if you pine for a mouth-watering “shawarma’ and get nostalgic about Arab and Turkish cuisine, never eat a ‘shawarma’ at an eatery in India. It is quite sad and you would be as disappointed, just as our expat who was served a cold and sweet ‘chola batura’.

Mahmood Saberi is a storyteller and blogger based in Bengaluru, India. Twitter: @mahmood_saberi