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In Indian dhabas
From the archives of The Times of India
Gudgud cha in Ladakh, crunchy grasshoppers in Nagaland, fish head curry in Kerala, sandwich dhokla in Gujarat, lachha rotis in Punjab. Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma writes about the unusual, unexpected and unknown eating experiences they have had in some of India’s most amazing dhabas
More than 80,000 km, 600 eateries, 2000 different dishes. That’s what we’ve done in the last 5 years. Why do we do it? It’s simple, really. If you take the foods of the world on one side and the foods of India on another, our pile would easily tilt the scales. In our years of travel we’ve yet to repeat a dish, and we won’t have to even if we go on for another 5 years. If the joy of discovery is the motivation that keeps us going, the incentive is eating and talking about true Indian cuisine found across the country — something that countless millions savour each day as they head for work, stop on a journey or take their families out on vacation. There’s another, very gratifying thing that we realised through our endless trips. The love for our foods does unite us. Let’s start at the top — Ladakh. High up in the Himalayas lies the barren desert of sand and snow. ”Our land is so harsh that only the best of friends or the fiercest of enemies will ever visit us” goes an old Ladakhi saying. The Manali-to-Leh road which we took is kept open for just a few months in a year. At the high passes the hostile weather can block the stretch anytime. In season — peak summer — small dhabas spring up to serve hot vegetables, rotis, dals, instant noodles, offering a place to sleep for as little as Rs 100 per night. We asked the owner of an interestingly-named dhaba called ‘Zing Zing Bar Restaurant’ why he braved the -20 degrees chill for sparse business. “Many guests come to Ladakh,” he said. “If they get stuck at the passes it can be very dangerous. I’m here because you are all our guests and we Ladakhis know how to take care of our guests.” The Ladakhi food he gave us was smoked yak meat with khambir (bread). Up in those heights, the gudgud cha is had all the time — a green tea salted and rich with butter. Most eateries in Ladakh will have a long thermos type tea maker at the door for visitors. But the food here is designed to keep you alive at this altitude; taste is not very important. The favourite is thukpa, a stew/soup of anything that you can find, mostly carrots, potatoes, onions, wheat strips, yak meat, mutton, chicken, and cooked in a hearty meat stock along with noodles. Salt is the only seasoning used. Far in the east is Nagaland. The Nagas have perhaps the most varied diet in all of India in respect to the ingredients. But finding a true Naga eatery is difficult even in Kohima. We found one, though — the ‘Chingtsuong restaurant’ in Kohima. Asked for authentic Naga cuisine, the owner replied: “Can you eat our Naga food? It’s very strong on flavor and chilly.” To our amazement we found out that when the Nagas say ‘strong’ they mean ‘stronnnnggggg.’ Fermented meats, akhuni pork (pork cooked with long, fermented soya beans paste), kellu (woodworms), grasshoppers, hornet grubs, fermented fish with Naga king chilly (the hottest natural chilly in the world) were all powerful and difficult tastes to negotiate, but negotiate them we did. We, of course, drew the line at the dog meat. The rest went down easy. The grubs and the worms were rather tasty. The kellu was fried with a chilly paste and tasted a bit like corn when done. The Nagas are a fiercely proud people and come across as being a little aloof. Breaking through the food barrier always helps. The owner sat with us and we laughed and joked like we were old friends. At the end of the meal, he refused to take any money from us. In Kerala, the language was difficult to work around. Then someone told us about the ‘Mullapanthal Toddy Shop’ in Kochi. All across Kerala are toddy shops. This one, on MLA road, Tripunithura, had to be among the best. And not just for the toddy (reason enough), but for the incredible food which is hugely spiced. The most popular item on the menu is the ‘fish head curry’ cooked with all the popular spices of Kerala in generous measure. The strong chilly is tempered with servings of fresh, hot puttu — a rice-andcoconut paste steamed in bamboo to perfection. Once we got going, we had a few toddy glasses too many. Then, even as the proverbial ice broke, there were loud strains of Punjabi songs that got mixed with the latest Malayali numbers. This went for a while, until, we are ashamed to say, we (the two of us and five other local patrons) were politely asked to leave. Oh, the shame of being asked to leave a toddy shop for bad behaviour! Gujarati food, they say, is sweet because the people there are sweet. The other thing the people of Gujarat are is hungry. They eat all the time. But they are lucky, too. They have, quite possibly, the greatest variety of vegetarian food on the planet. If in doubt, make your way to the trade centre on Naurang road and look for the ‘Das Surti Khaman Wala Shop’. Life can be divided into two parts, one before you ate here and the other after. Yes, it’s that good. This humble little shop will put out a variety that will surprise you. Here’s an inside tip: if the dish is made of rice it’s ‘dhokla’, and if it’s made of chana dal it’s ‘khaman’. Now you know. You should try the ‘khaman tamatam’ (tomato khaman), ‘sandwich dhokla’, ‘Chinese samosa’, and the amazing ‘paatra’. All these snacks together are called ‘farsaan’. Punjab deserves a special mention simply because the word ‘dhaba’ probably originated in this state. There are thousands of dhabas in Punjab, but the ‘Kesar da dhaba’ in Amritsar is something else. The walk to this eatery that started in 1916 is through narrow lanes. The kitchen is the first thing you see, and a hole in the roof lets in a beam of light that illuminates the roti maker who deserves this spotlight for rustling up the most divine ‘lachha’-style rotis. Even the ‘baingan ka bharta’ (brinjal mash) is legendary. There is a pot in a corner of the kitchen that bubbles all day long as the dal in it slow cooks to perfection. All the curries and food is displayed at the kitchen as you enter and the very sight of the food does it for you. There is true joy here — one just has to look around to see how the delicious food is consumed in huge quantities by the patrons, everything king-size. As we like to say, make food, not war.
Dhabas on highways
From the archives of The Times of India
One of the specialities of the Mullapanthal Toddy shop in Kochi is the piping hot puttu — a rice-andcoconut paste steamed in bamboo to perfection and served on fresh banana leaf
Heaven is on the highway Rishad Saam Mehta traces—in between bites of piping hot rotis and butter dal—why dhabas continue to bring joy to millions It was 2 am at Sirohi on the Ahmedabad-Jodhpur road and a low wattage bulb shone like a homing beacon. It emanated from the solitary dhaba on the road, from which emerged the mouth-watering aroma of hot rotis fresh from the clay tandoor. After hours on the road, this was reason enough to break journey, stretch legs and start feeding. Whenever the word ‘dhaba’ pops up, it is that holein-the-wall eatery on NH 14 with its hot tandoori rotis, lipsmacking shahi paneer, pure-ghee-tempered dal and rich lassi that comes to my mind. To me, the quintessential dhaba is like that. Small, intimate, minus neon-flashiness and soft drink signboards. Dhabas started off as simple and basic eateries mostly catering to truck drivers — a sort of rest and refresh stop after long hours on the road. On my first ever travel assignment 14 years ago, which was to journey by truck from Bombay to Delhi, I had a chance to experience these eateries first hand. The staple dhaba furnishings included the mandatory tandoor, charpais in the courtyard and an open water tank adjoining it. At a discreet distance, there would almost always be a grassy field for private business. The food was consistently mindblowing as it was freshly cooked and served piping hot. Of the few passenger cars that would stop, some would be put off by the hairy men enthusiastically scrubbing their underwear at the adjoining tank and carry on. Others would settle down on the charpai and order food. There is no doubt that the latter carried back tales of supreme culinary satisfaction. This is probably how dhabas gained popularity outside the truck driver community. To cash into the dhaba culture, a slew of what I like to call pseudo dhabas sprung up. These have grown into mini mall complexes. While simple dhaba fare still features on the menu, one also has the choice of Chinese food, pizzas, burgers, idlis or dosas. While these places are very convenient when you’re travelling with finicky co-travellers who’d rather go to a stinking toilet than an open field, discovering old world dhabas still remain one of the simple joys of Indian road travel.Sometimes on pristine country roads the whiff of pine smoke tells of the existence of a small roadside eatery. One of my favourite such tea and snacks dhaba is on the approach to the Jalori Pass perched on the bank of a tributary of the Sutlej. It is run by a pretty local lady who lives half-a-kilometre down the road and has fantastic tea and delicious biscuits which she bakes at home. Another favourite is Balbir Singh’s dhaba on the road to Ludhiana. Even though that road is crowded with flashy restaurants claiming to be dhabas, Balbir refuses to upgrade or redecorate. He has no need to. Whenever I’ve visited his establishment, all his charpais are sagging under the weight of hungry truckers belching in appreciation of the food. “I’m happy, my customers are happy. Why change?” is his simple reason for stubbornly refusing to go neon and table-chair. As the popularity of road tripping in India escalates, everyone in the restaurant business (including international brands like McDonalds and KFC) sees the potential of a joint on the highway. But the authentic dhaba is still going strong because these new restaurants will not entice truckers who are staunch dhaba loyalists. Besides this, true travellers looking for the authentic Indian road trip experience would rather eat at a dhaba than a fast food restaurant. Because, sitting on a charpai and snacking on a piping hot buttered roti dipped in aromatic dal tadka is one of the sublime joys of road travel in India.
From the archives of The Times of India
Atul Sethi | TNN
A restaurant-hopper, a thali-sampler or a walk down spice and vegetable markets. Food tours are catching up in India and the intrepid traveller unafraid of Delhi belly seems to be loving it
In a crisp, well-plaited saree, black handbag by her side, Deepa Krishnan expertly negotiates the busy by-lanes of the Matunga market in Mumbai. Leading a group of tourists through the bustling market — which sells vegetables, spices and snacks pertaining to the city’s predominantly vegetarian communities like Tamil Brahmins, Gujaratis and Jains — Krishnan is in her element as she points out the various stalls that dot the colourful landscape. Her guests are all ears as she holds forth on seasonal specialities and the role they play in the preparation of different foods. The tour ends with a tasting session, followed by a steaming cup of hot coffee and South Indian snacks for which the area is famous. “I love food and talking about food, so this comes easily,” says Krishnan, who left a flourishing financial services career to start a sightseeing company which specialises in niche tours. She now organises food tours similar to the one in Mumbai in a number of cities like Chennai, Kolkata, Pune. A similar passion got former lawyer Prashant Kalra to start Delhi Food Tours that takes (mostly foreign) tourists around the capital’s landmark food joints to enable them to have a taste of their specialities without, as he claims, the accompanying Delhi belly. “Most of our guests come to India with a fear of Indian food despite their overwhelming desire to try it,” he says. “The desire is stronger with places like Delhi which has a legendary food culture. The popularity of food tours stems from this conflict of fear and desire. If the tourist has the option of seeing the city with local experts while eating clean and safe food at local joints along the way, the conflict disappears.” Not surprising then that culinary tours are an increasingly popular segment. “More and more tour planners and operators are realising that culture and agriculture can be fused,” says Julie Sahni, a New Yorkbased chef and author who organises an extensively designed gourmet tour to India every year. “The moment a tour is built around food, it attracts people as at the end of the day everybody loves a good meal.” Food tours come in all sizes and involve varying experiences. The most common are walks which take in the sights and smells of a city and usually end with either a meal at a famous eatery or a cooking demonstration. Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, a cooking consultant and food blogger — who has been organizing such walks in Mumbai under the name ‘Masala Maeanders’ — says the tours are a good way to understand a cuisine’s varying flavours in the right context. One of her tours on Gujarati food, for instance, takes visitors to bhaji galis or the vegetables lanes in Crawford Market, and ends with a cookout where she demonstrates the way Gujarati cuisine incorporates seasonal vegetables. For those who are only interested in binging, there are restaurant-hopping experiences like the ones arranged by Delhi Food Tours which feature at least 4-6 restaurants and come, as Kalra puts it, “with a guarantee of leaving you with a full stomach as the food is unlimited and the duration depends on how much you can eat.” It’s almost a similar deal in ‘Thali Trippings’, a food tour conducted in Mumbai by Shriti Tyagi. Besides introducing her guests to different kinds of thalis — Gujarati, Rajasthani, North Indian, Punjabi and even ayurvedic and Chinese — she says the tours can be tailored so that one can have breakfast at the food stalls in Khau Gali and after lunch soak in the experience of an Irani café over bun-maska and chai. Mouth-watering they may be, but food tours, as of now, are more popular among NRIs and foreign tourists rather than resident Indians. One reason for this may be the cost of these tours (see ‘The taste trail’). However, tour organisers justify the prices, citing the efforts that they put in. Sahni, for instance, says that she does at least four months of detailed ground-work for each of her twoweek long culinary tours. Kalra says their preparations start much before their guests arrive as they customise the tours based on interactions with guests about their allergies, spice tolerance and level of adventurism. “Most of our guests tip us quite heavily so they are obviously happy with the experience.” Sounds like a belly-full of joy for the intrepid traveller.
Foreigners and Indian cuisine, Indians and foreign cuisines
CNN: Indian has the world’s 6th best food culture
This is [CNN’s] take on some of the best food cultures and destinations, but of course it's subjective.
10. United States
2019: Indian cuisine is world’s 9th most popular
Ten days later Britain’s YouGov published the results of a survey, based on a very large sample, which said that Indian cuisine was the world’s 9th most popular. This was a scientifically conducted survey and is extremely accurate about the culinary tastes of Indians. Therefore, the rest of it, too, must be equally accurate.
Italian food was voted the most popular cuisine, according to a YouGov survey of 50,000 people across 24 countries. It garnered an average popularity score of 84%, with pizza and pasta among the most popular dishes in the world. Next on the list was Chinese food which received an average popularity score of 78%. Indian cuisine was number 9 on the list, with an average popularity score of 62%. Of the countries surveyed, the biggest fans of Indian food were India, Britain and Singapore respectively. According to the survey, the least popular cuisine in the world is Peruvian, receiving an average score of just 32%, scoring only fractionally higher than Finnish food.
Some famous dhabas
From the archives of The Times of India
Kake da hotel | New Delhi
Believed by many to be one of the first authentic Punjabi dhabas in Delhi, Kake da hotel has now become a Capital landmark. Situated on the fringes of Connaught Place, it has spawned a number of similar eateries in the area, which exist cheek-by-jowl. Butter chicken is the old favourite here, prepared with the same recipe founder Amolak Ram prescribed and drawing in the salivating faithful in droves
Puran Singh dhaba | Ambala
There’s a problem of plenty with this one – not in choosing what to eat but which one to eat in. In a cluster on the NH 1, near Ambala bus depot, there are a number of dhabas, each one claiming to be the ‘asli’ Puran Singh. Finding the real one though is worth it, for the tastiest mutton curry on the highway
Kesar da dhaba | Amritsar
Perhaps one of the oldest dhabas in the country, this one stands out for its all-vegetarian fare. Tucked in an old bylane of Amritsar, gastronomes make the pilgrimage here for a taste of true-blue Punjabi food – made in the old style without sparing the desi ghee. Dishes to watch out for are the lachha paranthas, dal tadka with dollops of butter, palak paneer and the signature phirni
Pal dhaba | Chandigarh
Regulars at this eatery – which started life as a dhaba but has now mushroomed into a restaurant – rarely bother looking at the menu. They straightaway get down to business – by calling for the dhaba’s signature mutton curry, served with crisp tandoori rotis, preferably buttered. It’s a taste which apparently hooked Ranbir Kapoor too, who came here while promoting ‘Rockstar’ and has a dish named after him on the menu.