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022: Horn. Ok. Please. Food in Dhabas

Updated: Apr 3, 2022

Brown, rough itchy ropes, tied in a criss cross pattern across a wooden frame await us. A roughly-hewn plank set in the middle of the charpoy, doubles up as a make-shift table. The weathered wood, a perfect canvas for a Punjabi culinary painting. The light purple of the onion slices, the sharp green of the fresh raw chillies, and the magnificent yellow of the lemons stand up in sharp contrast to the shiny steel plate. Tired truckers occupy the adjacent khatiya gulping down thick, white, creamy lassi from tall steel tumblers. The dhaba owners - always hospitable and generous plunk down a steel jug filled with water and ask us what we would like to eat.

The order is standard for our vegetarian family. Kali dal, tandoori butter rotis, and curd. Inside the hot open kitchen, balls of maida dipped in grease lie waiting to be flattened. They are slapped into shape by expert hands, and then stamped into the inside of an amber tandoor with the help of a small cloth cushion. The circles of maida stay stuck to the hearth, quickly morphing into crisp rotis. Bubbles of brown, black, yellow and charcoal-grey appear on their surface. Jabbed in the heart, they are fished out by a long sharp metal spear. Piled high, they are slathered in butter and sent out quickly. Piping hot, and crisp, we wolf them down hungrily.

Open air seating. Rustic no-nonsense food, served fresh from the kitchen. Generous cooks who love to feed. These are the dhaba memories of my youth. Now-a-days the dhaba has become a recognised aesthetic. It is an archetype of eateries in India, like the ‘udupi darshini’ or the ‘lounge cafe’. Now dhabas can be found almost anywhere - in the middle of metropolises, and even abound in the south as ‘daa-bhas’. These sanitised copies of the original lack the aroma of exhaust smoke, the ambient sound of yodelling horns, and the maida covered, banyan wearing cooks.

What are your dhaba memories?

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