The moveable feast: Hearty dining at Dhaba


If the Baigan Ka Bhartha is good in a dhaba anywhere in the world, then it is axiomatic that the rest of the food is brilliant. The Bhartha is skinned, mashed, spiced brinjals that has to be just right. And the dish was musky with laid back spices quickened with chillie at the newly opened Dhaba nearby the green Mandala that separates Maitighar from Thapathali, in the grounds of the old Tian Rui Chinese restaurant. In the west, the Bhartha is called “Poor man’s caviar” and has different spices.

Opened four months ago, the simply done octagonal restaurant is packed most nights — the vegetarian food as much of a draw as the non-veg. Tandoori Gobi and Tandoori Shimla Mirch and stuffed potatoes are as inviting as the Rogan Josh, the meat dish from Kashmir of which says the great food writer Camellia Punjabi, “The hallmark of the dish as cooked in Kashmir is the liberal use of the true Kashmiri red chilli, which has a mild flavour but gives a bright red colour.”

The owner of Dhaba, soft-spoken Sharad Satyal said, “We add ghee to give the dish extra body.”

A taste made of onions, cloves and cardamom pervades.

“Dhaba is about adjacent palates, and Nepal and Punjab have somewhat similar food roots that have developed over the centuries,” said Satyal, who trained at the Oberoi School Of Management in Delhi and retired recently from the hotel.

Puskar Koirala, the personable manager of the restaurant, brought on the gorgeous tasting, strangely name Chicken 65 from Hyderabad, which is a delicious mix of malt vinegar, royal cumin and fenugreek or methi. It makes a wonderful snack with drinks as does the dal and meat mixed Shami Kebabs of which the great chef Madhur Jaffrey says they should be shallow fried and are traditionally spicy hamburger like patties made from finely minced meat. At Dhaba, the Shami has a taste of cardamom and is lighter and tastier than usual.

“We use meat from the leg from lamb or chicken because it is best for the food we cook,” said the young chef Dilip Buddhathoki who conjures miracles.

The Boti Kebab which Madhur Jaffrey declares as “Excellent nibbling fare” has a marinade of mixed spices, yoghurt and javitri, the flower from the mace family. “The kebab is brushed with butter in the tandoor to seal in the juices,” said Sharad as we bit into the Boti and flavours burst in our mouth.

But the Seekh Kebabs were the most unusual in town. Minced meat mixed with cumin or jeera, home-made chilli powder and few other secrets, the skewered kebabs have a charcoal grilled taste and are easily the juiciest, plumpest, best Seekh kebabs around.

My friend Tapan Boss remarked on the greenness of the peas in the Keema Matar, which is a comfort food of which Madhur Jaffrey says, “I associate the dish with very pleasurable family picnics which we had.” The peas were greener than envy. The mince and the peas bespeak ginger, chilli, coriander and cumin. Bliss.

The Kadhai Chicken originated in Peshawar. No water is used in the kadhai or dish, only thick tomato based spices or masalas finished with fenugreek. It is dry-cooked, as hot as you want, and flavoursome with fenugreek, methi and coriander, dhania.

Notice the little touches like the earthenware containers for the tea, the biryani pots and delicious gulab jamun ‘cups’. “We are still evolving,” says Satyal, “I want more dishes and the traditional rope beds of Punjab are on order as is the front of a bus!”

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Dhaba is about

adjacent palates, and Nepal and Punjab have somewhat similar food roots that have

developed over the centuries