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Gourmet Files

Breakfast at Murthal

VASUNDHARA CHAUHAN

Packing for car journeys isn’t what it used to be. But then, there are always the dhabas…

Crisp tandoori parathas, filled to bursting. Splitting open with the filling... Why doesn’t it taste the same at home?

Photo: R. Ravichandran

Simple but tasty: Typical dhaba fare.

There’s something about car journeys. The moment we exit the environs of the city I start thinking of the breakfast/lunch in the hamper. My mother used to pack standard menus: omelette sandwiches, or parathas, omelettes and sweet mango chutney for breakfast. Lunch was always parathas, kababs and mango pickle. She was the Field Marshal of organisation, so the accompaniments were always included. The pickles, the lassi, the mangoes or oranges — depending on the season — even SALAD! Paper napkins were a later indulgence, so linen napkins and water, enough glasses. Writing reminds me, for the first time in decades, of the neat maroon leather case into which shiny silver glasses fitted, nested one inside the other, like Russian dolls.

Quiet highways

The adults never drank tea other than at the crack of dawn or once in the evening, and as children we didn’t know what it tasted like. So none of that. Trips usually took us to Himachal or to either set of grandparents, both towards the further end of the Grand Trunk Road. Which in those days had long quiet stretches, so we’d park under a shady sheesham — no air-conditioning, remember — and have a picnic. And soon after the journey was resumed and we were entering the next township, my mother would spot, depending on the season, a vendor selling roast peanuts or corn on the cob and call out urgently just after we’d passed him. Daddy would sweetly, obligingly (and always safely), slow down to a halt and reverse up to the moongphali/bhutta-wala. And he never complained about the pink peanut skins scattered all over his car while Mama efficiently shelled small handfuls of peanuts or stripped off rows of roast corn to hand him while he drove. Oh well.

When my turn came to pack the picnic hamper for my children for journeys to their grandparents, I really tried. But the GT Road was no longer what it used to be — empty stretches were very rare, exiting the National Capital Region took so long that we were faint with hunger by the time we reached a quiet stretch, I couldn’t get my act together, whatever. Just about then a wonderful thing had happened to us: Murthal. About an hour north of Delhi, Murthal has nothing to commend itself bar its dhabas. I remember a time when there were four or five, called simply Pehelwan, National, Ahuja, Annapurna. Then, after a few years, came New Pehelwan, The Great Ahuja, The Grand National… you get the gist. But their repertoire remained the same: in variety and in quality.

No mistaking Murthal

I should start at the beginning. There you are, driving quietly — or raucously, as the kids have grown — with Cold Play or Pink Floyd. At any rate, unsuspectingly. You’ve crossed the turnoff to Sonepat. Rumblings in four stomachs have grown and are firmly established. You’ve woken up three hours earlier than usual so it’s way, way past the logical breakfast time. A dhaba appears. We’re driving fast so we can’t stop in time. Then another. Then a lull. We all ask each other “Was that Murthal?” But the fact that we need to ask means that it’s not. Because Murthal is now a continuous few miles of dhabas. Once the unbroken line starts you can take your pick — slow down, look out for shade to park in, check if there are enough parked trucks — proof that this is a good eating place. Before you’re out of your car a chhotu appears to take your order. So you ask him “tandoor garam hai?” order one of each and sit in the shade.

The dhabas themselves are small but they’ve appropriated yards of the no man’s land bordering the highway. Open “patios”, covered with awnings, some with fans strategically suspended over the dining tables. Laminated tables, hard wooden benches. Pickle from nearby Panipat already placed on the table in an oily, stained plastic jar. “Pachranga” — vile stuff, but it doesn’t matter — the parathas are so good you don’t need it. Then I take it upon myself to walk up the tandooriya manning the centre of operations to say that he must overfill each paratha, “Please double-double bharna, extra charge kar lena”. There are only three options on the menu: alu paratha, paneer paratha, onion paratha and mixed alu-paneer-onion paratha.

Nothing like it

And then what we’re waiting for appears. Large steel plates, each with one paratha, the same size as the plate. Large, crisp tandoori parathas, filled to bursting. Splitting open with the filling, which becomes as crisp as the outer layer of the paratha itself. Topped with a huge handful of white butter — obviously homemade because it’s so soft and sweet — which is melting and milky runnels are trickling all over that huge paratha before you’ve even started. And the filling. Why doesn’t it taste the same at home? Forget the Banned from Home Item, Butter. The filling is different. The potatoes, for one, haven’t been mashed to within an inch of their lives: they’re lumpy. Big plump lumps that burst through the atta layer and get caramelised. Really roughly chopped onions — which the evil children would spit out at home. And bright green chillies, barely chopped. The paneer too is probably homemade. Because it’s not evenly grated and it’s soft but chunky. And the bits peeping out of the cracks are gently crisped.

So we have one of each and argue weakly about another couple to share. And that’s it. There’s dahi, but a bit suspect. Of late they’ve expanded the menu to the usual kadhi, dal makhani, rajma, matar-paneer. But who wants that?

The author is a food writer based in Delhi. She is with the ASER Centre.

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