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A Taste of Home: Finding Gokul Sweets

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A Taste of Home: Finding Gokul Sweets

Amin Virani at Gokul Sweets in Patel Plaza. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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About this series: This is Part 4 of our four-part “A Taste of Home” series. South Asian writer Anila Yoganathan and photographer Dean Hesse shine a new light on some of Decatur’s popular South Asian businesses. The Decatur area holds history of being a space for these businesses. As new development comes to the area and more people are discovering these businesses, Anila wanted to showcase the important role these businesses play for South Asians in Georgia but also throughout the South. To read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here. To read Part 3, click here.

By Anila Yoganathan, contributor 

Decatur, GA — Philomina Haley was on a journey to connect with her roots when she found herself in Gokul Sweets in Patel Plaza by fate, searching for an Indian sweet she had only just learned the name of.

Haley found her taste of India in Decatur, Ga.

The name Gokul comes from the village where the Hindu god, Lord Krishna spent his childhood. He was raised by adopted parents after his parents sent him away as an infant for his own protection.

Adopted at the age of seven by an American couple in Maine, Haley was raised primarily around white people and American culture. When she turned 30, she decided to move to the Atlanta area to connect with her Indian roots and a community with more people of color.

Philomina Haley. Photo provided to Decaturish

A lot of Haley’s memories of India are a series of flashes. Some are not pleasant, such as living in the orphanage. Some are flashes of traveling around South India and walking around in the market, seeing bangles being sold on the side of the road, a festival celebrating cattle where all the cattle were decorated in flower garlands and then there is her memory of a sweet treat she couldn’t remember the name of. 

“I know that this sweet exists because I dream of it often. All I can tell people is that sometimes it’s folded up like a pretzel or an onion ring, but it has a sweet syrup on the inside and nobody knows what I’m talking about,” Haley said. “And so one day, I said it to somebody, and they said ‘Hey that [sounds like] a Jalebi.”

After moving to Atlanta, Haley kept having a recurring dream of being in the market in India and being offered Jalebi by a street vendor. 

She decided she needed to find the sweet and try it again. An Uber driver recommended she try Gokul Sweets in Decatur. Haley made note of the shop but hadn’t made plans to go until three days later when she was randomly in the area after dropping off a client she was driving for Uber.

“I just ended up at this market and when I tell you I saw an entire pastry case of sweets…some I had seen, some I had never even seen, hundreds of them,” Haley said. “The whole time I was just looking for the Jalebi. It was the most euphoric feeling in the world [to find it]. I could never describe it to anyone if I tried, it was such an amazing feeling to have found it.” 

Jalebi at Gokul Sweets in Patel Plaza. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Haley quickly purchased the Jalebi and went back to her car to take a bite. It was like time slowed down. She was instantly transported back home, from hearing the music, the sounds of the market as she walked around barefoot before a street vendor opened a box and offered her the sweet treat. 

“And I just remember eating it and then being like, ‘Wow, like this is so much sweeter than I remembered it.’ And then I couldn’t stop eating, and I think I ate five just right there, sitting in the car,” Haley said.

Make your mouth sweet, an Indian tradition

Sweets are a large part of Indian culture as they are used in religious ceremonies, gifts, snacks and of course to satisfy every day cravings. In Indian culture, it’s important to “make your mouth sweet” as directed by a common Hindi saying: “Muh mheeta karle.” 

The bright colors, shapes and flavors draw customers in as they pick out their favorite pieces for different occasions. Many are milk or nut based and can be bought by the pound.

“If someone dies, you need sweets. If someone is born you also need sweets,” said Saleem Sattani, owner of Gokul Sweets, about the significance of sweets in Gujurati culture (Gujurat is a state in India). From giving sweets as offerings to God in religious ceremonies to giving them as gifts to people, sweets are integral.

Gokul Sweets at Patel Plaza. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Sattani learned how to make sweets in India in 1969 and after opening two stores, he moved to America to earn money and bring the rest of his family over, including his three children. He landed in New York at first, but because he already had family members based in Georgia, he moved down here.

One of his cousins, who is also his best friend, told him he should do something in Georgia, either a job or opening a store. Sattani decided to open a store, and he had three names in mind.

“My friends and I were sitting together, and I liked three names,” Sattani said. “Everyone liked ‘Gokul.’ They said ‘Name it Gokul, name it Gokul, Gokul is best.’”

Sattani opened Gokul Sweets in 2003 near where the Grace Plaza is now off of Dekalb Industrial Way. He used to start his day at the shop at 9 a.m. and leave at 1 a.m. 

“People were eating like they were crazy,” Sattani said, laughing as he recalled the initial response. No matter how much he made, it would all be gone. 

It was just him, his brother and a man he hired to wash dishes. In those days, there weren’t many Indian sweet shops in the Atlanta area, so when Sattani opened Gokul, the shop would be emptied in two hours.

“So back in the day before Gokul moved into the Patel Plaza, it used to be behind the Patel Plaza, I would go there all the time with my parents, and I would beg for a kulfi (a type of Indian ice cream),” said Roshni Patel, a former Georgia resident. “They used to make a strawberry kulfi, ah! Oh my goodness, it was so good! Loved it. To this day, it will be in my heart because they don’t make it anymore.”

If you walk into Gokul’s Decatur location today, you will find cases filled with sweets, shelves lined with savory snacks behind the display cases, and there are the extra large metal trays containing even more sweets on the counter tops and even more stacked behind the counters, one on top of the on top of the other.  

Right by the door is a metal cart decked out with fake marigold flower garlands, designed to emulate the food carts back in India. 

The cart contains Pani Puri, a type of Indian street food which involves puffed bread with the consistency of a chip that is filled with chutney, boiled potato pieces and sometimes lentils and topped off with spicy water that is flavored with chutneys and other spices. One bite awakens all the senses with the textures and flavors.

“We really enjoy going to Gokul Sweets. They have amazing Pani Puri there,” said Chetan Bhagwad, a now Georgia resident who previously moved from India to Maryland.    

Gokul Sweets at Patel Plaza. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Customers hustle in, either going straight to the food counter to order a meal and sit at one of the booths or to the sweet counter, buying sweets or snacks by the pound, box or bag.

Over time, Sattani knew he could expand the business, but it came down to manpower and strategy, how to make sure alternate locations would be successful. So he opened a store in Duluth, an area where his customer base now exists.

He now buys his ingredients in bulk and makes his recipes in a warehouse to supply the two stores. And the variety has expanded over the years. When Sattani visits India, he looks for new types of sweets. He also makes batches of sweets with Splenda. There are vegan food menu options as well as gluten-free items.

There are even some sweets that Sattani makes that are generally difficult to find in America, such as Khaja, which Sattani’s daughter-in-law, Rizwana, said people will sometimes have shipped or come and take in bulk.

“You don’t find it in America,” Sattani said.

And if it is found, each one is very different from the other, Rizwana added.

Long-time Gokul Sweets employee Gulshan Sammani. Photo by Dean Hesse.

The shop does a bit of wholesale. Families can place bulk orders for weddings, Rizwana said, noting that if they tell Sattani two months in advance, he’ll have the order ready. He doesn’t travel to supply other stores, but people can come to the shop and buy in bulk. You can even find Sattani’s sweets in an Indian grocery store up in Knoxville, Tenn. 

People from all over the country will come to the shop: Texas, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, South Carolina, Alabama, and more, Sattani and Rizwana said. 

“When they come here, they tell people ‘I’m going to Atlanta,’ people will tell them ‘bring me this or that from Gokul too,’” Sattani said smiling, noting that customers from out of town would end up spending l$200 trying to get everything on their list to take back to family and friends.

Years ago, you’d have to travel back to India to get sweets that would remind you of home. These days, people just need to go by their nearest sweet shop. 

After Haley made her first trip to Gokul to find Jalebi, she decided she needed to go back. She made it a goal to go to the shop at least once a month for eight months to try a new sweet each time. 

With each new experience, she hoped it would spark a new memory from her childhood in India from before she was adopted. And there were plenty of sweets to choose from. 

“I really had this weird sense of, every month I need to go to this market and try a dessert, so I can have this weird teleporting experience of like going back to India only through sweets,” Haley said. 

Gokul Sweets has two locations in Georgia. Here are addresses to both:

— Decatur (inside Patel Plaza): 1707 Church Street, 8 C-8 C, Decatur, GA 30033

— Duluth: 4315 Abbotts Bridge Rd #3&4, Duluth, GA 30097

Gokul Sweets at Patel Plaza. Photo by Dean Hesse.

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