Food on the Go
Getting a Fill at Dhabas and Chai Stalls En Route
A steaming hot cuppa goes well with a bite of deep-fried potato crisps as the highway breeze hits the face and flows through the hair.
With culinary tourism picking up pace in the country, roadside stalls, food trucks, dingy restaurants and good ol’ dhabas (restaurants usually lining the highways) are gearing up for an improvised look. There is no getting over the greasy butter chicken from a dhaba along a national highway or the extra sweet tea along with toast or biscuits from a road side stall on the outskirts of a big city. For those with an extra sweet tooth, gigantic jalebis offer a treat for the palate and soul. Made by deep-frying flour batter in pretzel or circular shapes, which are then soaked in sugar syrup, jalebis vary according to the region.
Variety is the only constant when it comes to on-the-go food, each distinct from the other, bearing a unique stamp of cultural and traditional reference of the region. The same holds true, especially in India, a land of diverse cultures and hence cuisines. For those not acquainted with Indian culinary tales, be warned beforehand about the rather immodest use of spices and oil in most of the dishes that road trips are incomplete without.
Tea: A Staple
The one thing that no one can ignore while at a dhaba is the golden liquid, also known as masala chai or spiced tea that is ideally served in small earthen cups. Even though dedicated tea shops with their fancy varieties of greens and reds adorn the posh neighbourhoods of metropolitan cities, on the go tourists swear by the ones with extra sugar and milk. These dingy tea stalls that tourists stop by are often the resting spots, where friends often catch up with each other over a smoke while discussing how tiring or exciting the journey has been till then.
These small shops, many of which have half-broken benches and chairs are the halting points and there is only one rule relax, sip on a cuppa, take out a handful of crunchy cookies and munch on them, cause chances are there are miles to go before you halt again. Tea shop biscuits are unlike any other and are not your average Marie biscuits. Sourced from local bakeries, the cookies come in several varieties- namkeen (salty) to meetha (sweet), khasta (crunchy) to suji (semolina). The salty and crunchy cumin cookies are an all-time favourite when it comes to namkeen cookies. Some teashops are also big on nankhatai, a traditional Indian shortbread biscuit. The word nankhatai is comprised of two words, naan meaning bread in Persian and khatai derived from the Afghan word meaning biscuit. A hot favourite all over Bengal is the Prajapati Biskoot (biscuits cut out in the shape of butterflies). This crusty biscuit has sugar sprinkled on top of it and goes well with a cup of strong black tea.
Quite like the biscuits, the milk tea also has its varieties. There is the kesar elaichi milk tea that works well as a refreshment drink. Flavoured with cardamom and a touch of saffron, the kesar elaichi milk tea is a crowd puller, given the right proportions of sugar to milk.
Pro Tip: Do not forget to dunk the cookies into the tea like the locals do.
Dhaba: Greasy Fingers
If there is one food that can be ordered at a dhaba without as much as a glance into the menu, it is butter chicken. Dig into a bowl full of butter chicken with kulcha (a type of stuffed flatbread) and pickles and finish the meal with a glass of chilled lassi (a yoghurt based drink). The butter chicken or murgh makhani is a mildly spiced chicken dish that is prepared with yoghurt, spice, green chillies, coriander, and fresh cream and white butter.
For vegetarians, a lip-smacking option would be naan and dal makhani. It is a popular dish from Punjab in northern India. The primary ingredients are whole black lentils, red kidney beans, butter and cream. This is usually savoured with naan (leavened, oven-baked flatbread).
For visitors in Kolkata in West Bengal, stopping by Balwant Singh’s Eating House in the wee hours of the night, a must try is the doodh cola. A closely guarded prototype of Balwant’s, doodh cola is a cold drink prepared with milk and Thumbs Up with shavings of ice.
Pro Tip: Sniff the aroma of the food, for a cleansing of the palate.
Crisps and Fritters: Oily Days
Indians are fond of their oily, deep-fried crisps. There is plenty across all corners of India, each with their own varieties and unique fillings. Take for instance, the famous mirchi bajjis from Hyderabad, a common snack or appetiser, which are basically stuffed green chilli fritters.
Another favourite snack, on the go is potato crisps, the ones that come in transparent packets with an extra dash of salt. These are oilier and tastier than the packaged chips that are mostly filled with air. Down south, banana crisps are more popular.
Talking about something spicy and deep-fried, while visiting Jammu & Kashmir, it is best to try bhalle when hunger pangs attack. Lakhanpur, the entry point to the state of Jammu & Kashmir is known among the masses for bhalle– a fried snack made from pulses, best served with shredded radish and green chutney.
Pro Tip: Do not drink water after having deep-fried food to avoid acidity.
It is needless to say, that any road trip in India is incomplete without tasting a bowl full of Maggi noodles, reflective of the regional food habits and culinary style.