Highway Cravings: Terrano Food Trails

Highway Cravings: Terrano Food Trails

I have a theory — that the dhaba is dead. You know, the real dhaba — the one with the colourful lights, found on the side of dusty highways filled with truckers resting their tired bones on wooden khats, sipping some warm chai (or cold lassi, depending on the weather, of course), with bollywood’s latest “superhit” item song blaring somewhere in the distance. Now I’ve done my fair share of driving and when I think back, all I can recall are sterile restaurants and hotels speckled along the highways where the dhabas used to be. Gaurav, on the other hand, disagrees. He says that there are plenty, provided you look hard enough. Challenge accepted.

Parsi da Dhaba doesn’t count as a true-blue dhaba

With  the Auto Expo around the corner, we were going to be driving the long, arduous 1500km from Mumbai to Delhi and well, we weren’t going to get a better opportunity to put our theories to the test. Apart from Gaurav and I, we had our design genius Aslam, and newly recruited colleague Anand Krishnan along for the ride. And since there were now four, and Aslam insisted on carrying his desktop computer all the way to Delhi, we needed an SUV up to the task. We needed something spacious and comfortable, and completely at home, covering ground on long, straight highways – and the Nissan Terrano it was. Time to hunt down some dhabas then.

We began from Pune early in the morning –we weren’t interested in any of the eateries the Mumbai-Pune expressway had to offer – the food courts along the way are the complete antithesis of the original dhaba so we were going to give them a pass. Plus we wanted to be in and out of Mumbai before all hell broke loose on its streets. The hunt really began once we were out of Mumbai. Cross the bridge to Vasai and bang on the right you are greeted with a large signboard with Kinara Dhaba stamped on it in bold.

“Aha!”, says Gaurav

Umbadiyu is a seasonal Gujarati veggie dish cooked in a clay pot placed in the ground.

But hold your horses. It was nothing more than a restaurant and had simply donned the dhaba title. There was nothing dhaba-ish about it. So onward we went, hurtling down NH8 in the Terrano covering ground at a rather decent pace, but there were no dhabas in sight. And as the sun rose higher and our tummies grew hungrier, we concluded that there were no true-blue dhabas here, at least on this stretch of the highway and decided to halt at one of our regular haunts. So a filling breakfast of kheema and akuri at Parsi da Dhaba had to suffice for the moment. Again, though this place had ‘dhaba’ in its name, it is essentially a properly established restaurant and these pseudo-dhabas weren’t what we were looking for.

Now Gaurav is as voracious a driver as any of us at the office and insisted on taking over at the wheel. That meant I was relegated to the backseat. But I wasn’t complaining. The large boot had swallowed all our luggage (including Aslam’s computer) without any of it overflowing into the backseat. And what a comfortable backseat it was – leather upholstery, centre armrest with cup holders, rear AC vents, the works! If I had one complaint, it was the positioning of the window switch – it lies right where you would rest your elbow and you end up lowering the window unintentionally. Not a big issue though – lock the rear window controls and voila! Problem solved.

Dhaba food can be a bit spicy

Somewhere halfway into Gujarat, in the Valsad district, Gaurav screeched the car to a halt at the side of the road. Dhaba? Not really, but it’s the closest we’ve come to one yet. This little ramshackle hut had only one dish on the menu — something called umbadiyu. Vegetables including yam, beans, and brinjal are chopped and marinated in a ginger and chilly paste, and are stuffed into a clay pot lined with aromatic leaves. The pot is placed in the ground and covered in hay and dung, and is cooked here. The end product is a spicy, aromatic (and not very visually appealing) dish of vegetables infused with a distinct smokey flavour. I quite liked it. Turns out this dish is seasonal as the vegetables are brought straight from the fields. In the off-season, the vendors have to resort to selling chai to survive.

We continued north on NH8, keeping our eyes open for one proper dhaba, but saw nothing. The truckers were more than happy to stop at the many restaurants that lined the highway and it seemed like my little theory was turning out to be true. But Gaurav didn’t seem too fazed, yet. We still had more than a 1000km to go, he reminded me. The easiest way to get to Udaipur (which was where we would be halting for the night) is to get off NH8 at Vadodara, drive past Godhra and join NH8 right before the Rajasthan border. It was late afternoon when we passed Godhra and we still hadn’t chanced upon another dhaba but Gaurav was adamant we don’t stop until we see one.

Our night halt was at Udaipur

The rest of us were convinced we weren’t going to get anything to eat until dinnertime, but then we actually saw what looked like a proper dhaba approach! It had khats, it had truckers, all that was lacking was an old television… but it would suffice. We were still somewhere in Gujarat but this place was called Rajasthani Dal Baati Dhaba and (surprise, surprise) all they had to offer was some spicy dal baati! But that wasn’t going to be a problem – we were famished. Dal baati is a typical Rajasthani dish made of baked balls of wheat flour served with a thick dal and plenty of ghee. Sounds tasty? Well, eating it while lounging on one of the khats by the roadside made the experience even more sublime.

Now I was back in the drivers seat and Gaurav was sitting smugly beside me. By the time it was dark, we were back on NH8 and Udaipur was closing in. Just before the Rajasthan border, we were bombarded by another bunch of tea shops and dhabas along the side of the road. One quick tea break later, we were back on the road. The last hundred kilometres to Udaipur had the potential to be absolutely brilliant, the roads were wide and had sweeping turns, but they were ruined by the swarm of trucks travelling north alongside us. And the roads weren’t particularly smooth, they seemed to have melted away and gotten uneven and bumpy. Oh, well.

Daal baati is a Rajasthani dish of wheat balls and pulses; generous serving of ghee is optional

Now the dhabas were getting more and more frequent and it was getting late. We stopped at a Punjabi dhaba about 25km from Udaipur. Butter chicken was what we asked for but this place turned out to be vegetarian, and we ended up eating some regular old paneer and potato dishes. With butter laden rotis, of course. That was it for day one – with nearly nine hundred kilometres done and dusted, we only had the journey to Delhi to look forward to now.

We set off before sunrise and were greeted with fabulous roads. Now this was my first time driving through Rajasthan. All the way to Udaipur, I kept telling Gaurav how great the roads in Gujarat were, and all he kept telling me was to wait till we hit Rajasthan. And he sure was right. The road between Udaipur and Ajmer blew everything we crossed in Gujarat out of the water. The road snaked alongside the Aravallis, and the Terrano was more than comfortable blasting through. Even with the car loaded up and with four people inside, the torquey 1.5-litre diesel motor tugged us along without a hitch. I was driving the car um… spiritedly, and not once did it feel out of its element being thrown around corners. And even once we ran out of this sublime six-laned road and returned to bumpier dual carriageways, the Terrano held its own. Aslam was terrified that the hard disk of his PC would conk out because of shocks from the road, but the Terrano’s suspension seemed to absorb everything thrown at it.

Mumbai to Delhi was an absolute breeze in the Terrano

We managed to find dhabas rather easily for both breakfast and lunch. Both, surprisingly, serving up Punjabi fare and both vegetarian, might I add. We looked long and hard for some place that would serve us Rajasthan’s famous laal maas but to no avail (Note to reader: If you do know of any such place along the Jaipur-Delhi highway, do write in. We’ll be more than happy to give them a try next time round). Breakfast consisted of a whole lot of paranthas and butter, while for lunch we tried some makkai ki roti along with our vegetables. With lassi to wash it all down, of course.

We reached Delhi early in the evening but it took all of three hours to get across the city and in to Noida during rush hour! And at the end of it all, Gaurav got out of the car with a triumphant look on his face and I, well, I graciously accepted defeat. The Terrano had been a terrific companion for the journey; we made it through the 1500km journey with ease and even Aslam’s computer was still functioning perfectly. Oh, and if you haven’t concluded yet, the dhaba is still very much alive. L

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