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Dhabas – culinary signposts

Indian Food

(Credits:  Times of India)

In our gastronomic memory, dhabas aren’t just eateries by the highway; they are bookmarks of unforgettable experiences. Their smoky flavours make us forget the priciest of meals in the best of fine-dining restaurants. There is nothing that can beat the satisfaction of spooning kaali dal into a crisp tandoori naan — all enhanced with blobs on white butter — on a cold winter day.

Dhabas are an inseparable part of our road journeys. Fauji dhaba, Pehelwan dhaba, Sher-e-Punjab — the names line our highways and stay in our memories. The Shudh Vaishnav dhabas on pilgrim routes even take care of cultural sensibilities, offering food cooked without garlic and onion.

The origin of the dhaba is nebulous. It is said they sprouted on either side of The Grand Trunk Road and other highways during the 20th century, essentially to serve the truckers. The menu reflected the fact that most truckers came from Punjab. Interestingly, many iconic dhabas are not located on the highway. For instance, Amritsar’s famous Kesar da Dhaba was founded in 1916 in Sheikhupura, Pakistan and moved to the walled city of Amritsar after Partition. Today, waiters serve its famous dal fry and chapatti in red T-shirts.

In a sense, dhabas are part of our shared heritage with Pakistan;  Several dhabas have now acquired legendary status. Puran Singh Ka Mashhoor Vishal Dhaba (near bus stand, Ambala Cant), Sharma Dhaba on the Jaipur-Sikar road and Sukhdev Dhaba at Murthal are some names that spring to mind. The upward mobility of dhabas is part of the larger India growth story. At many places, charpoys have made way for gaudy plastic chairs and tables. Some dhabas now even have a separate air-conditioned section. Many dhabas have upgraded their wares and expanded their menus. Note how several gourmet eateries and five-star restaurants replicate the dhaba look.

But for all that, even today, it is hard to replicate the taste of dhaba specials — butter naan, mooli ke paranthe, ande ki bhurji, dal fry, mutton rice curry and other dishes. What makes dhabas such a success story? Perhaps they offer a unique culinary experience — a combination of earthy hospitality, distinctive ambience and spiced up comfort food.