I am a veteran of a thousand dhabhas - right from the sleepy ones tucked away in the dull greyness of Grand Trunk Road to the city-swank premises of Mumbai, Chandigarh and Chennai, where patrons can even have a back-rest to lean on. Dhabhas are as much a cultural icon as the Vedas and the temples of India and no sociological analysis of India is complete without a chapter on them. And for some of us, growing up very poor (translation: "depending solely on the kindness of dads, which in turn depended on college grades") dhabhas were economic necessities. Dressed only in torn kurtas and Kalyanpur tire chappals, no self-respecting restaurant in Kanpur would have allowed us in anyways and so dhabhas were also a cultural refuge where we could be ourselves.
The Plains states of India are the heartland of the Dhabha culture. Whether it is a rat-a-tat, metastable appendix to a building in Madhya Pradesh or a mud blot in the middle of nowhere on a dusty landscape in Rajasthan - this is ...., it! A little bit more north, such as in Haryana and Punjab, they tend to be more fancy and expensive (a direct consequence of this is the flood of milk products available there). Otherwise all dhabhas are equally equal, in an Orwellian manner of speaking. Who hasn't had a mango lassi or channa-bhatura at a wayside dhabha on a bus ride to somewhere? I have even slept in a few dhabhas purely because we were benighted at those places and the owners were kind-hearted enough. When we bade them a goodbye in the morning, our hearts would be as heavy as our stomachs. Any travelog on India is filled with dhabha anecdotes. I recently read one such on the Internet describing the menu in a Varanasi dhabha, featuring 'Tooty footy' (sic) and 'Child Juice' (probably meaning chilled juice).
The mother of all dhabhas in the entire Kanpur district was simply known as Sardar dhabha in Chungi and was manned round the clock by some burly looking fellas. It was right smack on the Grand Trunk Road and was quite a walk from our hostels and so, the expedition was reserved only for special occassions like Holi or Diwali when mercifully our messes closed down. Toward the end of our tenure in Kanpur, our Chungi visits were more frequent, spurred on by the obligatory 'treats' on obtaining an American Scholarship.
The Chungi dhabha itself was a primitive structure, with a thatched roof and rickety benches and stools and I don't think it was even blessed with electricity. Twenty two points of light illuminated the place. Two or three kids (the 'Chotus'), who never seemed to grow up, functioned as the waiters and cleaners and kept the place in order by serving as liasons between the customers and the Sardar. I remember, in my very generous moods, leaving behind a whole rupee as a tip for those over-exploited urchins.
Sardar was a very partial person. He literally curried favors to his regular customers - the equally burly looking truck drivers, rickshaw pullers and others who would look like cave dwellers. It didn't matter if we came an hour earlier and had been waiting with massive hunger pangs. We geeks didn't even count, although toward the end of my Kanpur stay I thought I had moved into Sardar's Preferred Customer list. Lots of times, we had to beg and plead with him to execute our orders - followed by even more tearful pleading and very occasionally even with threats of walkouts. But sardar was the boss and he followed the pecking order more than the order of our arrival. Often as a prelude to a wonderful dinner, we would strike up interesting conversations with the other patrons and occasionally would even realize that the gentleman we had been chatting with was actually a local goonda who had just then beaten up his arch enemy. Finally, and finally, the food would arrive!
Sardar's 'Butter Chicken' was actually made in heaven. Several of my friends were convinced that the bird in the curry was actually not chicken - but we couldn't care less. Sardar would dump a liberal heap of butter and other assorted grease, his secret mix of spices and of course, half a ton of chilli powder. Ten milli seconds after the first bite of a 'pranta' piece dipped in the Butter Chicken, the hot, hot curry would have seared the top layer of your mouth and tongue, after which the taste of the dish is only to be imagined. Sometimes, he would absent-mindedly double dose on the chilli powder, but what do you care ? In a mere half an hour, you are transported to an altered state where pleasure intermingled with pain.
This hearty meal, which usually lasted nearly three hours, would be flushed down subsequently with a 'masala chai'. Sardar's cauldron of milk has been boiling since the days of British Raj. You might get a queasy feeling in your stomach when you see the 'Chotu' wash the dirty glasses by dunking them in the same bucket of water for the umpteenth time. But then, you realized that the place was so harsh and dirty that even the AIDS virus didn't have a chance to survive there.
In the end, you felt so bloated you would have just enough energy to drag your feet to the multi-purpose post-dinner shop situated synergetically adjacent to the dhabha - to consume that mood-altering paan and cigarette and on special occassions, a 'joint'. This brought a logical closure to the whole experience. No one was ashamed of eating in dhabhas, in spite of its low-browness. In fact, it was quite a cool place to treat your friends for those once in a lifetime occasions. When dad's check came right on time, you even had money enough to prefix the meals with a glass of beer or two.
The 'tea stalls' of Madras are perhaps the closest to a Marxist ideal where the proletariat of all shades of blue-collaredness would co-exist, smoking their beedis and guzzling their 'single teas' - for in Chennai, tea comes in a binary mode, single or double - a Madras dhabha terminology for quantity. In some sense, the Chennai tea stalls provide some insights into that typical Indian 'north-south' dichotomy which has been analyzed by a zillion pseudo-intellectuals before me. The South Indian dhabhas are just quick, functional joints compared to the more laid back North Indian ones, Despite their working class customer base, these stalls are efficiently run by some slick entrepreuners who know how to make money. Even before you sit down after you order, you can actually see your chai being beta-tested - that uniquely south Indian concept of 'cooling the liquid' where the dextrous chaiwallah pours it from Glass A to Glass B, and back. And forth. In an algorithmic way, where it ultimately converges to your desired degree of hotness. Part of the 'paisa vasool' is that you get to witness this fluid dynamics spectacle and the meter long vertical liquid plume hanging in midair between the two glasses. Also, in contrast to North Indian dhabhas, the Chennai tea stalls tend to be quieter, probably because not many of them serve real food (only breakfasts where a rock hard bread called 'porai' is served. God help him who forgets to dunk it in his tea). It is a sheer pleasure to sit in one of these stalls, bright and early in the morning and observe the entire city slowly waking up, where men and women ghost-walk, sipping their teas forever and fumble around inside their dhotis to get out that all important first beedi of the day.
My experience of the South Indian dhabhas serving full fledged meals is quite limited. Of late, several of these tin-roofed eateries have cropped alongside the beach in Chennai where the moneyed yuppies stop by for a dose of garam pakoras and the eternally popular 'molaga bajji' (green chilli bajji - not for the faint-hearted). There are some uniquely exotic dishes served only in those wayside shacks which are just now beginning to make it to the mainstream restaurants - Chicken 65, for instance. Both Andhra and Tamil Nadu claim to be the birthplace of this 'mmmm' dish and they may even go to war over the matter. Does anyone know the recipe for this wonderful creation? Why is it even called Chicken 65, of all things? The other dhabha-evolved dishes include something called 'Gobi Manchurian' which is a combination of north-south and oriental cuisine. My friends who have been to Manchuria swear that they have never seen anything remotely resembling this dish there [Ramesh, perhaps it originated in the Gobi desert in Mongolia and is really a corruption of Gobi Mongolian, hehehehe - RP]. But its popularity is quite immense. In my opinion, the best place to taste this dish is this restaurant called Megh Sagar in Bangalore, a stone's throw from the Indian Institute of Science campus. Not a dhabha this restaurant, but it is also a great place for a lot of 'kadai' dishes, which are also becoming very hot items in India these days.
The Irani hotels of Mumbai have that Western touch (at least in the minds of country bumpkins like us who were from Chennai and Kanpur) we all were instantly attracted to them when we were in Bombay. We preferred the 'non-veg' and egg dishes than the Kosher stuff dished out by the Udipi restaurants. Besides, these restaurants were much cheaper and less crowded. Sitting down in one of them in Churchgate on a steamy evening and watching an ocean of humanity pass you by is an experience that cannot be conjured up even by Fellini in any of his movies (actually we were drooling over those cute Mumbai women and grading them on a scale of one to ten for sexiness). But somehow, Mumbai didn't quite have a big dhabha culture like the northern India. Their dhabhas seemed to cater only to a fringe element of the population.
Of course, years of living away from India has eroded that cast iron layer from my stomach and now I am no longer sure if I can go back to those dhabhas in Chitrakoot or Loharu or Shimla. I have probably even evolved into a higher state of sophistication preferring to go to multi-starred restaurants where five waiters may fuss over me, brandishing a weird bottle of wine. But I learnt quite a bit of Indian earthiness from its many dhabhas and I am proud of it. Those of you who still have your strong Desi stomachs - if you want to truly discover India, start by eating in its myriad dhabhas.
There is something timeless about the Dhabha - as timeless as India itself - even as the world around it is changing at a furious pace. A dhabha once established, seems to keep on going perpetually. Even natural calamities and economic cycles don't seem to affect it. Will this situation last forever? As we move toward Y2K, where globalization and world-wide-webbization are the new Mantras, aren't we witnessing an onslaught of culinary imperialism on India? Cornflakes are appearing where Idlis and Dosas had once ruled supreme. Entire generations are growing up in India thinking it is chic to eat pizzas and hamburgers. Would a day come when dhabhas are outlawed, (replaced by 'Fast Food' places) and the 'mooli parathas' go into extinction like the steam engine? Should I have to go to New Jersey to eat that perfect Tandoori Chicken? Do the dhabhas have even half a chance of survival? I don't know the answers. But I can always speculate - You can bring in a Pizza Hut or a McDonald's to India. You can even transplant Parisian cafes and Mexican cantinas over to India, till the cows come home. Herein lies the answer, for, in India, a lot of cows never come home. They just hang around (The Holy Cows?). And so, by a curious, convoluted illogic we can deduce that this institution called Dhabhas too will exist forever and forever. Heck, you can't get rid of them. For, in so doing, you would be taking away the very heart - and the guts of India.
Thaths Observes: Ramesh is obviously an amateur when it comes to Madras (anyone claiming to know all about Dhaba's would, first of all, call this city by it's correct name) Dhabas. Any true Madras Dhaba aficianado would never call them quite. The musical clatter of those karandi's (ladles?) clanging deliciously against the kadai (frying pan) making muttai parotta's (scrambled eggs and paratha) can never be characterized as quite.