In her pursuit of the Punjabi staple, Chitra Balasubramaniam discovers why paranthas in Murthal are strictly vegetarian.

Paranthas or paronthe (in Punjabi) make for ideal mid-morning brunches during cold winter days. Paranthas are made with all kinds of winter vegetables and eaten with gusto. So can such an ubiquitous parantha actually give a tiny non-descript town its prominence or better still, make people drive all the way 70 km — I drove 82 km one way, to be precise with a friend in tow — just to taste them? The answer is an unbelievable yes, when it comes to Murthal dhabbas and its die-hard favourite — the paranthas with the excellent kali dal. Murthal is a big village located on NH 1 linking Delhi to Punjab. It is beyond Sonepat and on the way to Panipat.

The dhabas appear on the left as you travel from Delhi towards Punjab. To reach them, avoid the newly built flyover which makes you shoot the profusion of dhabas; instead take the small road next to the flyover. And there stand clusters of dhabas — 50 or so, some on the other side too.

These are not your usual dhabas where you sit under the sky in the typical manji (charpoys) with prompt service by Chotu, the server boy. Instead, most of the dhabas have a tin-sheet cover fitted with fans, with uniformed servers (prompter than Chotu); eating is on clean laminated tables and chairs, tissues at hand; AC restaurant is available; there are wash basins with electric hand dryers, clean granite rest rooms and shops selling churans (digestive aids), pickles and even stuffed toys.

The dhabas were started in 1948 or so, to cater to truck drivers. Since there were limited options for truck drivers, this stop proved to be popular. At that time, there were only three or four dhabas. Ahuja Dhaba, about 65 years old and the oldest one around, followed by Gulshan, started in 1950. No one knows how paranthas came to be associated with this place. It is said that crisp fried paranthas, a typical Punjabi staple breakfast with lassi and dahi, served throughout the day, caught the fancy of the drivers and of course the passing traveller. Since paranthas were not so readily available then, the ones here caught on. Most people say the dhabas were around from the time these stretches were one huge road.

The first stop was at the much touted Gulshan ka Dhaba and it did live up to its name. A cursory nod to an alu pyaaz parantha and my chit chat about the paranthas was rudely interrupted with “Aap ke paranthe tande ho rahe hain! (your paranthas are getting cold).” We were amazed for in a matter of minutes there were piping hot paranthas with dollops of home-made white butter (it is milk country where the largest sizes of washing machines have been known to churn out butter!), with kali dal (whole urad dal fried). This is accompanied by pachranga pickle, sirce wali pyaaz (baby onions pickled in vinegar) and fresh green chillies to bite into.

The paranthas are not the typical ghee-fried ones, but have been made on tandoor. I enquire about the ghee paranthas, to be told “who has ghee paranthas anymore?” Hearing this Manoj Gulshan, one of the owners of the dhaba, thinking that I was also an enthusiastic fan of ghee paranthas, asked, “Do you want to try the ghee paranthas? It will just take 10 minutes.” Given his enthusiasm, I was much persuaded, only to see my friend glaring at me with an expression, “How can you think of ghee after so much of butter?” I mumble a quick, “No thanks.” Manoj explains, “Originally the paranthas were shallow-fried in pure ghee. It is this new health consciousness where people do not take pure ghee paranthas that 15 or so years ago we switched over to the tandoor ones. Those are real paranthas, I still have one made that way every day. I do not enjoy the tandoor ones and feel they are slightly undercooked.”

Another advantage is that in the absence of non-vegetarian food and eggs, Tandoori paranthas go very well with liquor which is served in plenty. All the dhabas in the area are pure vegetarian. The tale behind their being vegetarian is equally charming. It is said that some 60 years ago, a Naga Sadhu appeared here, some say he blessed the people, others say he cursed the place that any commercial establishment selling non-vegetarian food, including eggs, 10 km on either side of the spot he sat would be ruined. Those who heeded his words seemed to have succeeded. Could there be any truth in this? “We have seen countless establishments that opened dhabas, suffer losses and close down in three to six months.”

The paranthas offered include aloo pyaz, mixed vegetables, gobi, paneer, mooli, and cost Rs.35 onwards each. The next stop is at Sukhdev. It is more on the lines of a restaurant than the humble dhaba with sweet corn and other items on sale. Started in 1956, it is very popular given the number of cars parked around it. Then there is Phelwan Dhaba, Ahuja, Jhilmil… The various kinds of paranthas offered are the same everywhere. On a scale of 20, the quality of paranthas everywhere is between 17-19. Sukhdev’s did not have hari mirch in it, but the dough was slightly more. At Gulshan’s, the green chillies are a problem, though they make paranthas without chillies too. And, at Jhilmil, the paranthas cracked. We lost our heart to the first alu pyaaz parantha, probably because we were hungry after travelling a good two hours.

How it's made

Approximately each parantha takes 80 to 90 gm of flour. The flour used is a mix of the chakki ka atta and that of the flour mill. The dough made by mixing the two is slightly loose when kneaded unlike how it’s done for rotis. Finely chopped vegetable, a fair amount of green chillies, salt and coriander leaves are added for the filling. Potato is boiled and mashed to which raw onions are added. This roasts deliciously in the hot coal tandoor to impart its particular flavour. Around 20 gm of white butter is placed on it and voila it is ready to be served.