A Dhaba Travelogue: How I’m Eating My Way Through India’s Highways
What makes dhaba food so delectable? Is it the coal-flavoured paratha or melting pools of white butter in the dal?
That December night was dark and cold. Icy winds lashed and managed to bite, even through closed bus windows. We, a group of 14 college students, were on our way to New Delhi from Roorkee. We were late to start, and Delhi seemed too far as we were famished. Our professors promised us dinner on the highway.
Approaching a place lighted with vertical tube lights, the sound of a Bollywood hit trailing on the wind instantly told us that it was time for a hearty dhaba meal. As the driver slowed the vehicle near the roadside dhaba, all of us jumped out of the bus anticipating a rustic feast.
Dhaba, that roadside food outlet, can have no other name. You know it'll be on the edge of a highway, with plastic chairs and dwindling tables that sometimes have little stones underneath to balance.
In the past, it was cots and planks where a weary traveller would stop to rest his aching body and tired feet as he waited for a simple meal of dal and rotis. Then, it was the truck drivers who ferried goods across the length and breadth of the country, stopping for food at dhabas. Later, anyone and everyone travelling by road relished the hot fare. That was a beginning of a new cuisine: the dhaba food. Today, dhabas are swanky food outlets bearing little resemblance to the dhabas of yore.
We settled in chairs, chattering, as the meal came over in stainless steel bowls – sizzling dal makhani, dry gobi aloo with long strips of ripe tomato, creamy matar paneer with a platter of tandoori rotis. A plate of onion, tomatoes and lemon slices with a bunch of green chillies in the centre completed the fare. It was a feast to live for!
For a while, the only conversation was the tinkling sound of spoons and plates. Then, someone broke the silence and asked for a pickle.
None was available, but the dhaba owner promised fresh pickle in minutes. Intrigued, we asked how this would be done. He welcomed us to watch the process –
Six lemons were washed and dipped in boiling water where they remained for a few minutes. Mixing black pepper, red chilli and carom seed powder, he scooped out and cut up the soft lemons, tossed in a spicy mix and inserting the latter into hot oil. In went turmeric, salt, and sugar. He then removed the mixture from heat after the sugar had dissolved and proceeded to use a stone pestle and mortar. After lightly pounding the mix for a couple of minutes, the dhaba owner presented us with the pickle with elaborate gusto. It begged to be eaten. Yes, it was lip-smacking.
The whole process had taken just 15 minutes. This 15-minute dhabe-wala pickle remains, till date, my sure shot recipe and a hot favourite at the dining table. Many times, it is served to the guests with this story.
When at a dhaba, eat local, and you never can go wrong. As you settle into the fresh produce, you will sometimes be served with fascinating food stories too.
For example, I got to know how one rainy-day kheera kofta was invented when the kitchen had kheera, onion, tomatoes, garlic and ginger. The dhaba owners rely on their ingenuity to concoct dishes with whatever available. Here, dearth is the mother of invention.
So what makes dhaba food so very delectable? Is it the coal-flavoured tandoori paratha smattered with a little dash of ash or the melting pools of white butter in the dal? Perhaps it’s the crisp cauliflower florets and potato cubes, covered with a peppery red sauce of ginger and garlic, or the long grains of basmati resting alongside peas, black pepper and cinnamon.
Yes, it’s that and more. Fresh, piquant and wholesome, it packs taste, texture and flavour. It does more than satiate hunger; it makes you blissful.
(Nupur Roopa is a freelance writer, and a life coach for mothers. She writes articles on environment, food, history, parenting and travel.)
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