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Of the Seven Families Dhaba, and what comes after February 6, 2013

Posted by newsthatstaysnews in Uncategorized.



A guy woke you up on the bus out of Hyderabad, told you you were in a rest stop, there wouldn’t be another, you might as well use the restroom.   You objected, he countered, you sleepily complied.  Only half-stirred, you saw everything sharply in the bright restaurant lights, too clear and too harsh for the convincing illusion of movement.  You had had nothing but flatbread all day, so your stomach woke just a shade faster than the rest of you, and you asked for a naan.

What arrived, instead, was a tray of something hot described to you only as curry, a round metal dish maybe a meter around and thinly spread with still-toasty rice, and a spoon.  A dhaba, you recalled then, is really just a word for a roadside Punjabi restaurant.  You delighted.

ThaliThe bright noonday sun finds you walking back from the train station in Aurangabad.  It’s hot, so you duck into a tall building with a sign for a restaurant.  The staff tells you they’re praying, and you should come back in ten minutes.  The hotel staff tells you the chairs you’re sitting on belong to them.  The janitor tells you the stairwell you’re now sitting in needs to be cleaned . You walk back in to an empty restaurant, and sit down.  A round metal dish appears, with chapati, and a series of metal dishes the size and shape of the plastic end caps on metal furniture.  Men emerge from the kitchen bringing new names, and new colors.  The names stay only long enough for you to contemplate their novelty.  The little cups of sauce last just a moment longer.

There is a progression of colors, around the circle.  There is a mint chutney, a spicy pickle, a sweet and sour and deeper red tomato sauce, a mashed yam with the color of an unpeeled banana , and an unaccountable freshness.  Counterclockwise, a thimble-sized cake of salty canary-yellow flaky crust, like a spanakopita without spinach, or a baklava without sugar.  If you proceed to eat in this direction, you next encounter fried greens in an oily sauce of a Yukon Gold sort of hue.  There follows a green and yellow lamp of sweet corn, a tin of some beige and featureless local pongal, and a small bowl of eggshell-colored paneer in a russet oily sauce with the texture of duckweed.  Past a little dish of aloo in some sort of reddish gravy, waits a small heap of green peas, in a hot and buttery-textured yellow sauce.

A chapati is a small pocketed round bread, like a cheap, hard grocery-store pita in shape, though not in springiness.  If yours has been nimble, you may rest at this last sauce, though a little stack of cucumber, tomato and onion wait patiently beside it, like firewood on a wet november day.  If you have been slow, you may find you’ve been provided with fried Okra (lady fingers, for some reason), or with another dark green sauce of potatoes and peas.  If you’ve been very slow, but ask nicely, a small bowl of steamed rice may arrive to boost your efforts.  If you choose to dawdle longer, a roti may make its appearance as well.

How long have you spent here?  No other customers serve to measure your stay.  The busboys, bringing fresh surprises, seem not to have repeated themselves.   The dish was too great in circumference to be eaten in less than a minute, regardless of haste.  The individual flavors have lasted only three or four bites, seven or eight, perhaps, if they’ve been replenished.  The sun is still high in the sky.  The local Congress party has, just now, not yet begun throwing fireworks, or shouting in unison, much less drumming.  The two and a half dollars you’ll have to fish out of your pockets, once your hands are clean, provide little in the way of a guidepost.  The bottle of water you’re going to want soon is still sitting in a refrigerator.  Already, you find it hard to explain why the yam was so refreshing.  You get up to wash your hands.

On rising in Mumbai, your friends will give you to eat.  You should be warned that this will not so much break your fast as shatter it.  You will begin with cake mix.  You will not be clever enough to already know that microwaved cake mix does not rise, however much baking powder it bears, but hardens in place, into a biscuit.  Your ignorance will be dispelled.  You will be so pleased with the whole affair that you will eat the biscuit, drenched as it is in chocolate sauce.  A biscuit, however, even one as big around as a twenty-foot river birch, will of course require tea.  You will try, predictably and futilely, to turn it down, then to invite your hosts to join you.  They will instead bring you ordinary biscuits, as tea require biscuits, and a plum cake to make you think you might at last successfully refuse something (it’ll instead go in your bag for later).  You will sit, you will talk, you will wait, you will beg off, as you don’t know what the hotel checkout time is, and your things have been left unattended in an empty room.  You will learn that you must at the very least stay for breakfast, and that tea and biscuits are not breakfast.  Distracted, you will engage the little broken strands of vermicelli with peas and carrots which they will bring you in small glass bowls.  This is a feint.  When you emerge victorious, you will converse, like a well-mannered and curious person, heart warm at that moment, mind open.  Only when you regroup, and reconsider your logistics, will you learn that you cannot leave without breakfast, and this has not been breakfast.  The ultra-sheer dosa you have tasted from the flat, black sheet of heated iron on the street are impossible to make in a home.  What you will taste instead will be a little thicker, more the consistency of an appam, almost like a pancake.  It will be wonderful.  You will be pleased.  You will be out four dollars in late check-out fees and a dirty look from the concierge.



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