The tastiest of dishes – from the simple to the complex – can be found in Indian homes; and on the streets of the country. The ubiquitous dhabas or roadside eateries, serve up some interesting food, often reflective of the state they belong to. So a road trip in any state is bound to give you an intriguing mix of food native to that place.
A dhaba is essentially a pit stop, that probably came up as the road transport industry emerged. Patronised mostly by truck drivers looking for a break and romanticised by Bollywood [the leading pair will stop for a meal and fall in love; or the cops will have a shootout with a much wanted criminal here]; today, dhabas are pretty much the only eating places you will find even if you are driving in a fancy car or taking a bus. No longer associated with truck drivers alone, the food one gets to sample on Indian highways is quite simply, delicious, wholesome and cheap.
The NH 1 Festival, being held at the Spice Junxion at Taj Deccan, Hyderabad till the 24th of April, is a tribute to the arteries of our country – the highways that connect various villages and towns. The National Highway 1 or NH1 runs from Delhi to Attari at the border in Punjab goes through Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. This festival encompasses the food served in these places.
We started with tiny clay pots filled with shikanji or lemonade, lassi or buttermilk [the one drink all dhabas serve no matter where they are] and given that it is mango season, a delicious aam panna – a raw mango drink that is cooling during the hot summer. The mango drink was the most popular on the table and we all had several refills. The starters included Tandoori Chicken – well, we are talking about a highway that goes through Punjab – and no self-respecting dhaba will open for the night without this dish. There was also Amritsari Machchi or fried fish which was cooked Punjabi style with a crisp and spicy batter coating the soft fish inside. The vegetarian starters included Chatpati Dahi Arbi – colocasia cooked to perfection in a marinade of curds and spices; and Bhuni Shakkarkand – roasted sweet potato.
My favourites in the entire lot were the fried fish and the roasted sweet potato. Both dishes had varying flavours and one could truly savour the spices in every succulent bite.
The mains, laid out as a buffet, though the festival is a la carte had a lavish spread of Pudiney ki Tari wali Machli – barbecued fish cooked in mint and herbs; Gosht aur Shalgam ki Tari – a mutton and turnip curry from Afghanistan; Penda – a chicken korma cooked with garam masala and potatoes; Paneer Bhurji – scrambled cottage cheese; Punjabi Rama Masala – red kidney beans – a staple of Punjab – cooked in a curry; Aloo Methi ka Saag -fenugreek and potato vegetables; Aamchoorwala Karela – bittergourd stuffed with peas and dry mango powder; Dal Fry – a mixed dal preparation and Maa ki Dal – another blend of lentils native to Punjab and cooked with butter.
I tried most of them and the winner for me was the humble karela – soft on the outside with a very tasty pea and dry mango powder filling. The chicken korma was flawless and the garam masala gave it a rich flavour. Served with plain rice or a choice of rotis, I chose the Chef’s recommendation – Khamiri roti – a soft and flaky paratha that just melted in the mouth. Though dhaba food can be overwhelmingly spicy, the dishes here were delicately spiced and not too hot which was a relief.
The desserts were also worth not stuffing myself earlier with the starters and the mains. The Malai Ghevar – a flaky dish made with cream and sugar; the Gajarella – carrot halwa and the Paan ka Meetha – ice cream served wrapped in a betel leaf – were the perfect end to a very satisfying meal.