Punjabi dhaba literally means a restaurant owned by a Punjabi from the Punjab region in either India or Pakistan. These are roadside restaurants or cafes found on highways and on the outskirts of cities, towns, and villages. Dhabas were initially started by enterprising Punjabis to cater to the needs of truckers, who were also initially mostly Punjabis, for wholesome, clean, and hot authentic Punjabi food at any hour of the day or night. They typically offer 24/7 service.
Dhaba roadside eateries are now a common feature on the Punjab's national and state highways. Earlier frequented only by truck drivers, today eating at a Dhaba—urban or roadside—is a trend. Thus, Punjabi Dhaba has become a part of the culture of the Punjabi people.
It is said that "The Dhaba moves wherever a Punjabi goes." The first Punjabi Dhaba was probably established soon after the linking of the cities of India by highways (national, state and village roads). Though no records can be cited as to the first Punjabi Dhaba, it can reasonably be assumed that such restaurants first flourished along the Grand Trunk Road which ran from Peshawar in the Punjab (now in Pakistan) through Amritsar and Delhi to Calcutta.
There is now a large network of the Punjabi emigrant community worldwide, and many Punjabis have opened Dhabas in far lands. One joke goes that even if one were to visit the Moon, one might find a Punjabi Dhaba..
Punjabi dhaba cuisine
Punjabi food served in Dhabas is wholesome and full of rustic flavour. Food is served on big brass thali (plates) and drinks – water, lassi, milk (of several varieties), or tea, as well as shorbas (soups) - are served in a 12-inch-long brass glass. Two types of food are served in the Punjabi Dhabas – the Non Vegetarian cuisine, which is the most popular, and the Vegetarian fare, which is termed Vaishno Dhabas where only vegetarian food is cooked in pure ghee or clarified white butter. Dal Makhni, a shining blackish lentil named Urad or Mah is a popular dish in the vegetarian type of dhaba.
The Tandoor also called ‘Tandooria’ or Bhatti is a barrel shaped clay or earthenware oven, which makes the Punjabi cuisine very special. It is not only a versatile kitchen appliance for making rotis and naans, but also a social institution. In rural Punjab, the community Tandoor, dug in the ground and either coal-fired or (more recently) electrically heated, is a meeting place, just like the village well, for the women folk, who bring the kneaded Atta (dough) and sometimes marinated meats to have them cooked while socializing. Until a few years ago, this phenomenon existed in urban neighbourhoods too. Even today, a few neighbourhoods in Delhi still have a community Tandoor.
Constituents of a Punjabi cuisine
Most Punjabi menus are made according to the season. The universal favourite is Chole-Bathure which is a year-round item and is available at every wayside dhaba; it originated in Northern India but is now found anywhere in India or other countries where the Indian Diaspora have migrated in large numbers. But, the pride of the Punjabi winter cuisine is Sarson-ka-Saag (curry made out of mustard leaves) served with blobs of white butter accompanied by Makke-di-Roti and Lassi (churned yogurt).
The various food articles that make up the delicious Punjab cuisine – Vegetarian and Non-Vegetarian – are the following.
- Wheat and maize, the staple food grains, all lentils, especially black gram and yellow gram, rajma (kidney beans), and chana are a part of Punjabi cuisine.
- Popular spices in Punjabi cuisine are coriander, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, red chili powder, turmeric, and mustard. One of the main crops of Punjab is mustard or sarson - its leaves are used to make Sarson-ka-Saag (curry made out of mustard leaves) while its seeds are used for tempering and also for making mustard oil, which is widely used as a cooking medium.
- Milk is synonymous with Punjab (the land of five rivers) and all milk products such as Dahi (Yogurt), Lassi (churned watery Yogurt tempered with either salt or sugar), Paneer (local Cottage Cheese), Cream, Butter and Ghee (Butter Oil). Butter is an important cooking medium apart from being consumed raw along with the food.
- Non-vegetarian food, especially chicken, is a favorite all over Punjab. Mutton and fish are also cooked.
- All types of vegetables
The delicious fares that are doled out in Punjabhi Dhabas using the above ingredients are innumerable.
The simple vegetarian meal served could be Paratha of different kinds depending on the type of vegetable stuffing one wishes to have – the Aloo Parathas (Potato parathas) which are mashed potatoes stuffed between flat bread made out of kneaded Atta (wheat flour) is the most popular. Parathas, with cooked mashed and spiced vegetables as stuffing such as Gobi (Cauliflower) are also popular for breakfast with yoghurt or curds or tea. Vegetarian meal – for lunch or dinner – consists of Chana (Horse gram) masala.(mixture), Channa Pindi, vegetables and lentils, Sarson Ka Saag, Palak Paneer, Barwan Karela and Subz Korma, Rajma (kidney beans) or Kadhi (curd curry).
Punjabi food without Dals would be incomplete and therefore Sukhi Dal, Dhuli Urad Dal, Dal Makhni, and Rajmah Masala complement every meal. The Dals are made of whole pulses like Black Gram, Green Gram and Bengal Gram. They are cooked on a slow fire, often simmered for hours till they turn creamy and then are flavoured with spices and rounded off with malai (cream) to get a rich finish.
Paneer (cottage cheese – a low fat item) dishes are a must in a vegetarian menu. Several delectable items are made out of the Paneer, the bland derivative of milk, innovatively cooked as the Kadai Paneer and Makhani Paneer. It is cooked with every kind of vegetable, the popular dishes of such variety are Palak Paneer or Saag Paneer (pureed creamed spinach with homemade cheese cubes), Mutter Paneer, etc.
Naan and Paratha (fried bread layered with cooked, mashed and spiced vegetables, fried on pan), rotis made of maize flour (Makke-di-Roti), Chappatis made out of the flour of maize and Rumali Rotis (multilayered bread) are typical Punjabi breads. Khasta Roti, Methi Paratha and Lasooni (Garlic) Nan are also popular.
The simplest of the Punjabi meal served in a Dhaba could be “Tandoorias” or Rotis or Phulkas with Dal and/or Raita (Raita is spiced yogurt with vegetables) and Muthi-Piaz (onions split open by smashing them with a fist).
But the universal favorite dish is the Chole-Bathure which is a round-the-year item.
The basic gravy used for vegetables and meat dishes is onion-tomato-garlic-ginger.
The popular starters are Chaats, Pani Puri, Sev Puri, among others and of course the Dahi Balle, Paneer Dhuandar, Subz Goolar Kebab, vegetarian Kathi Rolls, etc. Pakori chaat (spicy yogurt and tomato salad, studded with chunks of pakora fritters, Chicken Tikka, etc.), are the most popular dish
The soups or shorba are also on offer. The popular ones are Kale Chane aur Dhaniya Shorba for the Vegetarians.
Rice – a special occasion item
A predominantly wheat eating people, the Punjabis cook rice only on special occasions. Rice is rarely cooked plain or steamed and is always made with a flavouring of cumin or fried onions. Sada Chawal – plain rice is also an item served with other wheat based dishes. Vegetable Biryani (fried rice) is also a favorite dish.
In winter, rice is cooked with jaggery – ‘gurwala chawal'- or with green peas or as a delicacy called Rao ki kheer, which is rice cooked on a slow fire for hours together with sugar cane juice.
Most vegetarian items listed above are also ordered as part of the Non Vegetarian meal.
Authentic items are the Kadhai Murg, Tandoori Chicken, Tali Machali Amritsar, Rara Gosht, Chicken Tikka Masala, peppery tandoori chicken., Anda Paneer (egg curry), seek kebabs, butter chicken, vegetarian and non-vegetarian Kathi Rolls, etc.
Non vegetarian popular starters are Kebabs - Gosht Pudhina Sheek, Tangri and Macchi Hariyali Tikka, Chicken tikka, etc.
The popular soups are the Murg Yakhni shorba and the Chicken shorba
Most meat delicacies are usually eaten with a plain phulka or tandoori roti (without ghee or butter).
Sweets or desserts
Phirni, a sweet dish made of milk, rice flour and sugar and chilled in earthenware bowls, Gulab Jamuns and Burfi. The desserts also include fresh hot Jelebi with Vanilla ice cream, Rasamalai and Kesari Kheer.
The saffron-mixed buttermilk (lassi) of Amritsar, milk boiled with almonds, pistachio and dry-dates in winter and the same mix boiled into a thick liquid and then solidified in a banana shaped mould in the form of a Kulfi are also desert items of food. Panjiri, whole wheat flour fried in sugar and ghee, heavily laced with dry-fruits and herbal gums is in eaten in the winters to ward off cold.