Fast food in India is an old concept long before MacDonald’s had dominated the world with its huge chain. The Indian version for fast food restaurants are called dhaba. Naturally, most of the dhabas in India are not connected to any chain what so ever and it is disorganized in almost all aspects you can think off. May be this is exactly what makes it so beautiful, colorful and delicious.
Dhabas in the cities
The changes India has been going through the last few years are definitely reflected in the whole concept of the dhabas especially those located in the big cities and metropolitans of India. The somewhat chaotic character of the Indian dhaba is gradually fading out and replaced by allegedly distinguished western style restaurants. The food is getting more and more expensive so the common people who are the core of the dhabas diners do not eat there anymore. It is no longer the original fast food Indian restaurant and the dishes that are being served are being developed to become more clever, fancy and sophisticated.
Dhabas in rural areas
It’s a whole different story when we move out of the cities into rural India. Dhabas are just all over the place; on highways, on side roads, dirt roads, inside villages, on the top of a mountain and on river banks. Dhabas are the fast food option for most Indians all over the country. It is a place for people to check if the roads are clear and traffic is running smoothly. It is a place where farmers sit together after a long day on the field talking about the weather and crops. Locals are meeting people from the outside listening to news about places that they have never heard before in some cases, but also news from the villages nearby.
The Indian Dhaba is an information junction, it is a place where stories are being told. I’m not sure if that was the initial idea of Macdonald’s. The Indian fast food concept is different in nature, people eat stories while hot dishes are being served in front of them.
The food in the dhabas change from place to place, state to state, region to region. Each dhaba serves different dishes based on the regions cooking style and ingredients. In some places the food is so basic simply because it is located for example far up in the mountains totally disconnected due to poor road maintenance or no roads at all. There you’d probably find food which is based on the local crops and of course rice. Rice is the main traditional food in India and is found everywhere whether it grows in a certain region or not. The Indian government subsidizes rice so it can be available all over India.
The magic of Indian dhaba
However, lack of resources has never been an obstacle for the dhaba owners. In some dhabas even in the most far flung destinations food can get to a masterful level. It is unbelievable what people can do when they possess tradition, deep knowledge and a long food heritage to make food out of the most basic ingredients. For many of the dhaba owners it is a family business. They continue to make recipes that have been perfected from generation to generation. I was lucky enough to have eaten in a place in Uttarkhand, a simple dish of Chaaval and Rajma (Rice with beans) that I’ll never forget. It was perfection! It was cold outside and I was sitting on the balcony waiting patiently for my ‘fast food’ order looking to the Nanda Devi (the highest mountain in India 7800m) where beautiful smoking clouds rose from its peak. It must have been the most beautiful settings befitting one of my best meals in India. To think that this unique culinary experience was made only from rice and beans….
TO BE CONTINUED…