Dining Dhaba Style – Roadside Indian Eateries

by Bob Bestor

roadsideIf I lived in India I’d be much healthier. Well, at least I’d have better eating habits. Sometimes. Like when we’re on a road trip.

You see I am a man who likes his Ho Ho’s. I like Ding Dongs too. Those mini doughnuts that come six to a package? Awesome! Just about any Hostess product is okay with me. And you can add Corn Nuts, Barbecue Potato Chips and lots more to the list. And as the ladies in my life know, when we are in the Shredder Van (aka, our 2003 Toyota Sienna) cruising up and down I-5, and we pull over for gas, that’s my chance. And Dad is bound to prowl the always-attached convenience store for the finest in roadside cuisine. For a man whose willpower is easily broken, those convenience stores are too convenient.

But in India, as you might imagine, things are different.

Rajasthan is a big state in an enormous country, and I spent a lot of time on its highways, by-ways and back roads on my recent trip with my high school buddies. On several occasions, lunchtime found us at non-descript and rough-around-the-edges truck stops in the middle of nowhere. The type of place that if you encountered it in the US, the closest thing you’d find to fresh food would be a couple of withered hot dogs sweating on rollers inside a glass case. Not very appealing.

But in India, nearly every one of these roadside stops (know as dhabas) offered up some of the finest, fresh-cooked food of our 16-day trip. In fact, after the first few days of eating at higher-end restaurants, we told our driver, Promode, that while we enjoyed the nicer places, we really wanted to dine with the locals. We asked him to take us to the places where he eats. After that exchange, our first stop the following day was a truck stop lunch. And it was fabulous.

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This first foray into Indian truck stop cuisine turned out to be quite typical. A huge dirt parking lot fronted an open, dusty pavilion with basic tables and plastic chairs. Almost all of our fellow diners were men–most of them appeared to be truckers. We ordered palak paneer, a mixed vegetable curry, and a lentil dahl. The tandoor oven was not fired up yet, so naan was not available. But chapatis are a wonderful flat bread alternative and they kept delivering a steady stream of them, hot and fresh off the grill each time, throughout our meal. With a few drinks and a round of chai at the end of what turned out to be a feast, we had stuffed the five of us to the gills with some of the best food of the trip for 1,000 rupees, which is about $15 total. It was our kind of place in so many ways!

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So dhabas became one more thing to look forward to on our adventures in Rajasthan. Piling into the car for a long day’s drive to the next city offered quite a bit more anticipation with the prospect of truck stop dining on the itinerary. Although it certainly would have been nice to have some mini doughnuts to go along with the chai for dessert.

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