Following the holocaust that took place after the partition of Punjab in 1947, millions of displaced Punjabis scattered throughout India and the world. Many established restaurants that showcased their favourite dishes and the exotic tandoor lured many Indians from their homes. Thus Punjabi food – with Mughlai touches – came to represent Indian cuisine the world over.
Restaurants – or ‘hotels’ – and their signage will identify them as either ‘veg’, ‘pure veg’ or ‘non-veg’. Pure veg indicates that no eggs are used and that there is no risk of the food being contaminated with meat. Most mid-range restaurants serve one of two basic genres; South Indian (which means the vegetarian food of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka) and North Indian (which comprises Punjabi/Mughlai food). You’ll also find the cuisines of neighbouring regions and states.
Beside restaurants, there are lots of other places that you can duck into for a tasty, healthy snack. Look out for bakeries, sweet shops and juice stores in affluent city districts and the ubiquitous milk shop, which sells a wide range of dairy goodies.
Literally ‘wayside eateries’, dhabas are actually more a way of life. These hospitable shacks are an oasis to the millions of truck drivers, bus passengers and sundry travellers going anywhere by road. A beaming chef-cum-restaurant-owner stands behind a simple counter with a row of shining brass dekchis (large vessels) to welcome dusty travellers. After being given a jug of cold water to drink and splash over your face, flop down on any of the charpoys (rope beds) that line the front of the restaurant. A plank across the charpoy serves as a table and you eat your hot food in a semi-reclining position, table manners being the last thing on your mind. This rough-and-ready but extremely tasty food has become a genre on its own known as ‘dhaba food’. The original dhabas dot the North Indian landscape but you’ll find versions of them throughout the country.
These restaurants have been set up by a particular community from Udupi in Karnataka. Udupi Restaurants bustle with life and young boys busily clear away shining stainless steel utensils before you can even finish your meal. The menu consists of the classic South Indian tiffin (snack) items like idlis and dosas, and the set thali meal. This food is also available in the regular restaurants or Lunch Homes all over the south.
Each town and city has its own most famous and venerable coffee house, where students and intellectuals are said to hang out although, in truth, the clientele is just a mish-mash of people who drink coffee. Coffee houses are usually big dim halls where you can languish over filtered South India coffee, juices of varying quality, or a snack or two while you mull over your plans. Strangely enough, even though the South Indians drink much more coffee than their northern brethren, coffee houses are more a feature of the north.
Not to be confused with burger joints and pizzerias, restaurants in the south advertising fast food are some of India’s best. They serve the whole gamut of tiffin items and often have separate sweet counters. In the north these are usually sweets and snacks shops. The normal procedure is to pay for your meal first and take your receipt to the serving area. Limited seating is usually available but it’s called fast food because you get served quickly, eat in a hurry and skedaddle.
This article first appeared in www.lonelypanet.com in August 2012.