Travelogue Archive

One for the Road

A city of great historical significance and culture, Amritsar is in the state of Punjab. This city is home to the holiest shrine of the Sikh community, the Golden temple, which is unnaturally clean and actually looks more majestic up close. Other attractions include Jalianwala Bagh and of course, the Wagah border, 30 km away. Seeing our friendly neighbours, one is filled with a profound sense of patriotism.

Ask any Amritsar local where you’d want to eat unpretentious hearty Indian food and he’d probably suggest a dhaba.
Yes, we refer to cheap roadside establishments selling hearty Indian food as dhabas.
They’re affordable, no-nonsense and, of course, they make a name by selling very good food.
What’s the difference between an Indian restaurant and a dhaba?

Loads. Seating, air conditioning, smiling waiters, cutlery, crockery and clean bathrooms are virtually nonexistent at a dhaba. They only want one thing from you: eat, pay for your food and leave. I’m from Delhi and Delhi is home to many dhabas, some “world famous”. We all know about them — Kake, Bhape, Rajinder, National etc. etc.

They have two things in common. They’re Punjabi and they’re pretty damn good.
I came to Amritsar to dig deeper. History suggests that dhabas in Delhi came into existence after partition. These dhaba founders opened their establishments in Delhi and their families have been running them since. Most of them were from the then gargantuan state of Punjab. When it split, they went to various parts of India, taking with them tandoori chicken and other dhaba delights which later evolved into famous restaurants and franchises.

But wait, what happened to the ones who didn’t leave Punjab?

Amritsar is the first stop on the famous GT road, the same road that used to run from Peshawar, now in Pakistan all the way to Bengal. Dhabas rule the roost here because of the sheer volume of cars and trucks that pass through every day. Everyone knows what Amritsar is famous for  — Lassi (yogurt smoothie), Amritsari kulchas (local stuffed breads), chhole (chickpeas), tandoori foods, Amritsari fish (cubes of fish, flavored with spices and batter fried) and everything else Punjabi. A very interesting thing to note is that dhabas in Amritsar are known for individual dishes or a group of individual dishes. A joint is famous for either vegetarian or non vegetarian, never both at the same time. Those which have made a name for themselves only specialise in one thing. Here is a list of famous dhabas along with their signature dish.
Kulcha Land for many types of stuffed kulcha
Brother’s dhaba for north Indian vegetarian
Brother’s dhaba for non vegetarian north Indian
Gautam’s for their chhole kulche.

When one visits these places, it is important to not be critical and picky. If you have a problem with hygiene or service standards, traditional Dhabas may not be for you. Delivery would work though.

For them, it all comes down to food. If you complain about the food, they might do something about it. If you complain about other things such as ambiance in a dhaba, they’ll remind you where you are and how much you’re paying, and rather rudely too. One should know better. This isn’t a restaurant. A dhaba’s target clientele doesn’t particularly include you and me.

Rating a dhaba on things other than food is like rating an athlete on the basis of their looks, style and market value, overlooking the only thing worth rating.
A sportsman, ideally at least, doesn’t care about all this. His athletic ability is what matters at the end of the day. For a dhaba, its food sets it apart. They know what they’re good at and where they lack. Us making it obvious really doesn’t make any difference to anyone or anything.

I wonder what people expect after paying pittance for an entire meal? Five star Service? A mait’re D?

Rating a fancy restaurant that charges people extra for their fixed costs such as rent, ambiance and service would make more sense. Maybe then they’ll focus on the one thing that they should focus on.

They should, at least.

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