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A Sattvic Nomad

Thela, dhaba, chai shack...it's these dots on the map that give you the real Gastronomical Survey of India

A Sattvic Nomad
T. Narayan
A Sattvic Nomad
For many years after I published Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India I was mistaken as the author of a cookbook. This was particularly unlikely given that I am a vegetarian, and have yet to taste the splendours of butter chicken in either Ludhiana or any other place. In retrospect, however, the people identifying me as a connoisseur of small-town cuisine weren't so off the mark. One of the greatest pleasures of those months I spent travelling across India came from discovering, in unexpected places, food that was both cheap and delicious.

This food wasn't to be found in the new restaurants with tinted glass windows and massive posters of blonde women on white horses riding into luridly coloured sunsets. Eateries such as these were proliferating rapidly in the mid-'90s. If the decor, unctuously inept waiters, and over-ambitious, comically misspelt menus weren't sufficient warning, then the tablecloth and napkins, which the exertions of several dhobis had failed to rid of their multiple oil stains, didn't fail to herald the greasy malai kofta and vegetable jalfrezi.

'Fast-food' joints offering inventive interpretations of burgers and pizzas were also becoming more ubiquitous. Even humble dhabas had begun to overreach, offering finger bowls and paper napkins in place of the hearty post-meal splash at the hand-pump. I didn't much care to eat amid clouds of diesel exhaust; and the rajma chawal at the dhabas was usually overrated. I was more attracted to the open-fronted halwai and chai shops and thelas in busy bazaars, which tended to specialise in one or two things: samosas, dhokla, anda bhujiya, bun omelette, kachori sabji, jalebi dahi, idli sambar, pav bhaji, etc.

These eating places did not invest much in appearances. They looked out on half-open drains, and the flies faced no tougher resistance than a rolled-up newspaper. Calendars of Shiv-ji and Parvati-ji happily ensconced on Mount Kailash, or Vishnu-ji lounging on his sea-bed, usually served as wall decoration. As for service, boys in grimy banians banged the chipped cutlery down on the planks of wood that served as a table; their grubby fingers were often wrapped as much inside as outside the glass of steaming chai.

I had first discovered the virtues of these unfussy places during my years in Allahabad and Benares in the '80s. Near the university in Allahabad were several student dives; one of them, literally a hole in the wall, served what still seems the best tadka dal I have tasted. Scorching summer evenings in Allahabad were relieved by the expectation of lassi, which roadside vendors, cheerfully hectic amid clay pots of dahi, churned into a creamy lather, more impressive than any I later saw in Punjab or Haryana, and scented, charmingly modestly, with chiraunji.

Around the corner from my room in Assi Ghat in Benares was a chai shop specialising in anda bhujiya. A short walk to the north, on Kedar Ghat, was a halwai shop facing the river; a few thin slices of paneer floated in the subji with the kachori, a minor but always thrilling touch of luxury.

Fastidious vegetarians of course thrive in pilgrim towns like Allahabad and Benares. However, I never felt short of choice while travelling through other parts of India. The smallest town had its reasonably clean Vaishnav Bhojnalaya. A shack in rural Tamil Nadu once produced the softest idlis and tastiest sambar I've ever had.

It was while travelling through Pakistan and Afghanistan that I first knew the acute loneliness of the vegetarian in a world full of dedicated carnivores. Though restaurant menus in China and other parts of East Asia seem friendlier to vegetarians—vegetable and tofu cooked in a variety of ways and listed at length—the dishes still seemed tainted, in my paranoid imagination at least, by being cooked with pork stock. In Mongolia, whose national staple, blobs of mutton in watery gravy, makes you wonder how the Mongols had managed to conquer the world, I subsisted on stale bread and cheese for five days. Tibetan towns outside Lhasa seem over-dependent on Yak flesh; vendors in the blank countryside offer only dusty yak cheese on a string.

Things are better in the West, where restaurants cater to the growing population of ideologically motivated vegetarians. It is possible to have a meal approximating ghar-ka-khana in the Indian canteens in Tooting and Queens. However, most local restaurants, especially those of France and Germany, still do not accommodate vegetarians. (I am one of those dal-chawal loyalists who do not consider pasta, pizza, and sandwiches as real food, and are not wholly convinced by soups and salads either.) The trendier chefs in Europe and America boast of their ability to meet all manner of dietary demands. But, often staring at my plate in a nouvelle cuisine New York or London restaurant at an absurdly tiny and criminally expensive portion, which is more pleasing to contemplate than to eat—I have longed for some pav bhaji to miraculously materialise before me—a feeling I have also had while munching forlornly on processed cheddar cheese in the Central Asian steppes, or trying to sniff out the cooking base of fried tofu in Yunnan.

Returning to Delhi from these prolonged spells of asceticism abroad, I head early in the morning to Sagar in Defence Colony Market, where, after a happily brief wait, I fall upon a plate of upma. (In Bombay I make a similarly blissful pilgrimage to Swati Snacks, which, like Sagar, is a big-city repository of small-town eats.) But, after a day or two of this greedy replenishing, I am ready to move on to other pleasures elsewhere in India. Though easily approximated in Delhi, the many joys of small-town gastronomy are available in their ideal form only in particular places, the gobhi ka parantha in Sonepat, the kachori in that particular gali in Benares. I know I will get to only some of them every year. Still, it is heartening to think that they exist, and even flourish, these oases of culinary diversity in our increasingly homogeneous world.

(Pankaj Mishra is the author of The Romantics: A Novel and three books of non-fiction. A revised edition of Butter Chicken in Ludhiana is being published this month by Picador.)
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