If you were to take a road trip along the highways of India, you would probably find yourself stopping at one of the renowned dhabas for a quick bite to eat. Open 24 hours a day and serving an impressive array of local delicacies, these eateries are an unmissable culinary experience if you are visiting the country – but what are they exactly, and how did they come about?
Dhabas were originally established by go-getting Punjabis who noticed that there was a gap in the market for feeding hungry truck drivers and other people travelling long distances; in fact, many of the truck drivers themselves were also Punjabi. The first dhabas were recognisable for their hut appearance and long-bench seating, otherwise known as charpai.
Dhabas can be found in both rural locations and on quiet streets within cities. The aim of the dhabas hasn’t changed since their early days, with proprietors serving hot, nourishing yet rustic food to weary travellers at any time of day. But as their popularity has grown, they have gained an almost cult-like reputation - many young, trendy diners now forego city chain restaurants and flock to their nearest dhabas, instead.
So, just why have dhabas proven to be so successful? One factor that has contributed to their popularity is their al fresco setting – dining outside under the shade of the surrounding trees and watching the people come and go is a truly memorable experience that’s hard to replicate anywhere else.
Another huge plus about these eateries is that the food is cooked fresh to order – something not all cafes and restaurants can attest to! And speaking of the food, the quality and variety on offer is enough to keep diners coming back for more, even if they weren’t intentionally in the area.Meals are served on a large metal platter called a thali, and both vegetarians and meat-eaters are catered for - although the meat-based dishes do tend to be more popular.
One example of a dish that often appears as part of a vegetarian thali is the dal makhani, which uses whole black lentils (urad) and kidney beans (rajma) as opposed to ordinary lentils. A staple food in the state of Punjab, this speciality can traditionally take as long as 24 hours to prepare, creating an intense depth of flavour that means you don’t even notice that it doesn’t contain meat.
Other firm favourites among vegetarian diners include vegetable curries, paneer, tandoori roti, dahi and paratha. And what does this all get washed down with? A steaming cup of aromatic chai, of course!
Although India’s dhabas started off as quick stopovers for travellers passing through, they have grown to become culinary destinations in their own right. If you live in the UK and wish to experience a taste of what Indian cooks serve their guests, pay a visit to one of London’s authentic Indian brasseries - from lunch through to street food snacks, cocktails, full à la carte dinners and desserts, they are the perfect pit-stop when you need some delicious refreshment in the capital.