Dhaba to delight

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THE RIGHT MIX Some restaurants have the ambience of traditional dhabas
THE RIGHT MIX Some restaurants have the ambience of traditional dhabas

From the roadside to star hotels, the dhaba concept has come a long way

Well, who has not eaten food in a dhaba? Surely most of the food lovers have experimented with dhaba food some time or the other. In the decade of 1980-1990, if someone had to describe a dhaba, the explanation would have gone something like this:An open area with some makeshift thatch, a hand pump, a couple of open-air charcoal bhattis with aluminium vessels on them and an aroma of freshly done tadka... charpoys, shabbily dressed `Chhotu' running to cater to maximum people, wooden tables in desperate need of maintenance, steel glasses, an open air dishwashing area - semi-hygienic conditions prevailing - and lots of trucks parked around.Nevertheless, a very happening place!The decade surely was a very happening time for the roadside restaurants. Scattered all over the country, mainly on the highways, most of the dhabas were doing brisk business. The reputation of freshly cooked food was such that not only the truck drivers but a lot of other people too would flock to such places, and they did not mind coming out of the city to taste the food.

Impressive concept

So impressive was the concept and business that many reputed hotels made it a point to open up a dhaba-theme restaurant or at least come up with a food promotion of dhaba cuisine.It was all done in style. The dhaba concept remained in terms of décor and style of cooking, but some unwanted elements were removed. Hygiene and food safety became the top priorities. That was the beginning for the roadside dhabas to experience the change long due.What the trend actually did to the real roadside dhabas was that it set a benchmark and inspired them to improve their standards. The dhabas closer to the cities proved to be the first ones to upgrade their services, as they were the ones who felt the benchmark stress first.Today, the hand pumps have disappeared, having been replaced with water-coolers and water filters. At times, bottled water is made available. It shall not come as a surprise to see RO water being served in some of the better dhabas. Fans came in first, only to be replaced by desert coolers, and some dhabas even have air-conditioned cabins now. Charcoal bhattis have been replaced with the latest gas operated equipment, and sure enough there are food grade stainless steel cooking pans! A well-dressed chef in his professional uniform is not so uncommon a sight now. The `Chhotus' have graduated to nicely dressed waiters with a pen and paper in hand to take your order. And printed menus are handed over instead of `Chhotu' reeling out the dishes in a single breath. Tables and chairs don't always make that tweaking sound any more!The good part is that, despite all these pleasant changes, the soul of a dhaba has not changed. The food is still cooked very fresh and the aroma of fresh tadka in the air can still be found. On top of that when you visit a dhaba, you still feel that you are entering a dhaba! It seems personal, hospitable and identifiable.Now time to try out a recipe, which almost every dhaba actually has on its menu.Karahi paneer is a well-known Punjabi dish that has made its way across the country. Maybe it has something to do with our intrepid truckers, but it is made in almost every dhaba. Though recipes may vary from one dhaba to another, in general, this is what they all do:

Karahi paneer

Ingredients250 gms paneer
4 onions
1-2 teaspoon zeera (cumin)
1 tbsp chopped garlic
4 cloves
4 tomatoes
3 capsicums
1-inch piece ginger
1 tsp red chilli powder
2 bay leaves
4 tbsp clarified butter
salt to taste
1 heaped tbsp fresh chopped green coriander
1 piece cinnamon
Little orange colourMethodClean paneer and cut in to cubes of approximately half inches. Cut capsicum into rough cubes as well.Grind together tomato, red chilli powder, orange colour, onion, ginger and salt.Pound cinnamon and cloves roughly in a pounder.Heat butter in a pan and add zeera, cook till brown. Add cloves, bay leaf and cinnamon. Add chopped garlic and cook till golden brown and quite fragrant. Then add tomato, chilly onion and ginger paste. Cook on medium flame till ghee starts separating.Add chopped capsicum and paneer pieces. Add salt. Reduce the flame and cook till the capsicum is well done.Add freshly chopped green coriander. Remove from the fire. Serve hot. RAKESH KUMAR

(The author is executive chef, Crowne Plaza. He can be emailed at:

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