Harry S. Truman: “If you can’t stand the heat …” (Lunch at a dhaba on National Highway 48, near Jaipur)

Returning from Udaipur to Delhi via Jaipur (and maybe Agra, but that’s another story) the question of lunch comes up sometime around 11.30. Our driver, Ramesh, often at odds with his clients about what to see, asserts himself on the subject of where to eat.

“I find you dhaba” he says firmly. “Good dhaba, not too expensive.”

A dhaba. A roadside restaurant. In this case, a motorway eatery. Whilst some of these bear a passing resemblance to their cousins in the West (blandly comfortable with AC), others take the form of a truck-stop: an open-sided lean-to just a few yards from the howl of motorway traffic: something akin to a large shed on the hard shoulder of the M25.

We pull up at one of these. Two rows of charpoys – daybeds – on a dried earthen floor are variously occupied by napping truck drivers. A line of metal tables with rickety chairs is reserved for eating. Ramesh disappears into the kitchen to negotiate our preferences. Dal (for me), fried if possible. My friends roll their eyes:

“You and your blinkin’ dal”

they say (although their own choices are only slightly more adventurous: matar paneer and veggie korma).

The kitchen is a small, concrete side-area with an open hatch. The cook, a young man in a gleaming white vest, takes the order, delivered rapid fire by our driver, who now lights up a cigarette and peers knowledgeably into the depths of a chapatti kiln. Next to it, a second, raised kiln with something glowing hotly inside constitutes the oven. The cook whips out a pan. Cumin, turmeric and mustard seeds sizzle briefly in ghee. Two ladles of pre-soaked lentils and milk from a large bucket
join the spices for energetic simmering. Now and then, small chunks of chapatti dough are tweaked from a larger lump, slapped into shape and thrown into the inferno to bake.

 Small metal bowls of cauliflower, peas, chopped potatoes and cottage cheese are spirited onto the work area. Their contents disappear into neighbouring pots rotating over the heat, joined by a sprinkling of diced tomatoes and chopped coriander. Another five, maybe seven minutes – and already, the cook is beckoning to a couple of boys to come and serve.

Back at our table, three small bottles of pepsi are shedding droplets onto thin paper serviettes. An assortment of cutlery appears and the boys sidle up diffidently with our pyrex-plated lunch. Ramesh hovers offside, confidently.

It’s not even that we’re particularly hungry. It’s a little too warm to get really hungry. But this is possibly the best ‘restaurant’ food we eat in Rajasthan. Spices of detectable flavour, recognisable vegetables in smooth, creamy sauces–and not a whiff of gluten.

Proceeding onwards after a marsala chai our driver is a happy man.  Good food: check. Sloping across each other contentedly in the back of the car, we agree to take the detour via Agra and the Taj Mahal before returning to Delhi and our flight home. More marvels. But this was also – very – good.

Eve Lucas

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