Glimpses of India’s dhaba culture at a premium hotel

Glimpses of India’s dhaba culture at a premium hotel

By ANIRUDH VOHRA | | 6 August, 2016

The Grand Trunk Road is one of Asia’s oldest and longest major roads. For more than two millennia, it linked the eastern and western regions of the Indian subcontinent, connecting South Asia with Central Asia. It runs from Chittagong, Bangladesh west to Howrah, West Bengal in India, then across Northern India through Delhi, passing from Amritsar to Lahore in Pakistan, further up to Kabul in Afghanistan.

As per Wikipedia, the route spanning the Grand Trunk (GT) road existed during the Maurya Empire, extending from the mouth of the Ganges to the north-western frontier of the Empire. The predecessor of the modern road was rebuilt by Sher Shah Suri, who renovated and extended the ancient Mauryan route in the 16th century.

In order to culminate three decades of culinary perfection chefs of The Dhaba by Claridges, took a journey across the Grand Trunk Road exploring India’s heritage and bringing with it, a glimpse of the next three decades of Dhaba at The Claridges.

The dishes offered in the menu are picked right from the roadside dhabas which were visited by the team during the journey. These dishes are not fine-tuned and are being served the way the chefs had them and are renditions of the cooks of those particular dhabas; not just textbook dishes.

Chef Sahil Sabhlok, Executive Chef, The Claridges, talked to Guardian 20 about this new menu and décor of the restaurants. “These dishes were tasted and tested by us during our journey on the GT Road and the ones we felt reflect the exact dish true to the particular area or dhaba and were different from the usual dishes. They  were selected to be featured on our 30 year special menu.”

The Grand Trunk Road, the axis of the Indian subcontinent›s heavily populated north since the 16th century, was the brainchild of Sher Shah Suri. It was first built during the Mauryan times from the mouth of the Ganges to the north western frontiers and later upgraded by Sher Shah as Sadak-e-Azam. The road was re-named Grand Trunk Road by the British who re-laid it between 1833 and 1860.

These dishes are not fine-tuned and are being served the way the chefs had them and are renditions of the cooks of those particular dhabas; not just textbook dishes.

Spanning from Chittagong in Bangladesh to Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, the Grand Trunk road is not only Asia’s most extensive road but also one with the strongest ties to India’s past.  It has   survived and flourished through the rise and fall of empires, and like any city or region, with it, it developed its own culture.

Driving along the classic route, full of footprints of history and culture, one has an unmatched opportunity to discover the culinary riches of India. Along the massive length of GT road, the iconic roadside eateries have served weary traders, colonial officers, freedom fighters and now, still standing, they provide the same food to present day travelers. These dhabas are a reflection of the province they are situated in, providing glimpses into the nuances of the cuisines of the area.

“The seductive flavours range from the barbequed temptations of Peshawar and Rawalpindi to the sumptuous secrets of the imperial dastarkhans of Delhi and Agra; from the succulent kebabs of the Awadh region to the sublime vegetarian repast of Varanasi and the tantalizing sweets of Bengal. Indeed, the GT Road is the best introduction to the fulsome flavours of India,” says Chef Sabhlok

 “To celebrate three decades of Dhaba at the Claridges, the chefs will take you through this culinary journey in the coming two months. Divided into three phases, Dhaba’s chefs aim to cover every major stop the Grand Trunk Road has within India,” adds Sabhlok.

The first phase which was from 22nd July to 31st July took the army of chefs to the very beginning of GT road, to Kolkata, where culture and creative energy is ingrained in the city’s very spirit. This inventive spirit is seen in the dhabas of GT road, where traditional maccher jhol and mishit doi are staples, but also other seafood dishes and sweet desserts are experimented with and re-imagined. The railway colonies of Mughal Sarai follow this stop. Amidst the chaos typical of Benaras, the mouth-watering chaats, tikkis and other varieties of fried food offer a façade of calm. Perhaps what gives Benarasi food its unique flavours and tastes is that it does not only represent the area, but also it offers a mélange of the city, its spiritual past and the influences of many a foreign traveller. Allahabad, the next stop on this journey, is decidedly more mughlai in its flavours. The Ilahabadi raunak, the chefs believe, is a must savour of this menu.

Phase 2 takes you through to Kanpur, where sweet aromas emanating from the halwai fill the early morning air. Thousands of tourists and Kanpuriyas alike throng the streets for varieties of chaats, kachoris and subzis.  Further ahead on GT road lies erstwhile capital of the Mughal Empire, Agra. Famed for its jalebis, the dhabas flanking GT road offer this rich, sweet dessert. En route to the third stop of phase 2, the capital city of India, the roadside eateries offer rich, flavourful mughlai curries, served with a side of breads. Delhi offers spicier and more varied street food, its chaats and dumplings and wraps being the highlight. The phase commences on 12th August and ends on 21st August at Dhaba.

Karnal marks the beginning of the final phase of this journey. Starting on 2nd September, the festival will take you through to Ludhiana, Jalandar and finally to Amritsar. The staple flavours of Punjabi cuisine  — rich, thick and spicy  — are evident in all three stops. Butter chicken, Dal Makhani and naans dictate the nuances of the area, with little variations or twists to keep you engaged through the journey. This will embark the end of the Grand Trunk Road Festival on 11th September.

“Dhabas — or the roadside eateries — have been a popular attraction for decades, especially for those travelling along highways. Most of them are popular for serving hot, spicy and fresh food. Going on a dhaba trail along the GT Road was a great way to understand the culture of the local people and also to meet interesting people, especially fellow travelers. It was a great way to taste and experience the local food,” the chef further explained.

Out of all the places in India, there is no other place more symbolic of the Dhabas than GT Road. Dhabas are known countrywide for their rich and finger-licking food on the roadside. While dhabas along highways are popular, at certain places even within city limits, some of the dhabas have acquired a cult status. Though these city-based dhabas are more like casual restaurants rather than having the look of a rustic dhaba, they attract hundreds of dhaba-food hungry clients every day.

The chef while reliving his travels said, “the most memorable moments from the dhaba trail along GT Road was meeting the local people and fellow travelers. There were so many hidden food secrets here that one can’t possibly unravel in a lifetime. This is what made it mysterious and exciting.”

Dhaba at The Claridges is carefully designed, with an aim of providing wholesome experience of a North Indian highway food eatery.  The kitchen works only with patilas and barnis and the official uniform of the Dhaba team is a traditional Punjabi attire, a lungi and a kurta. The innocuous parking of a truck, pickle jars adorning the walls and a radio reminiscent of our past, all add to this contemporary expression of the highway theme.


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