October 31, 2009

Waiting for dal-fry

Lunch on the road through MP one sunny day is at the Jai Ambe Dhaba ("Bhojan ki uttam vyavastha", which I shall loosely translate as "The best prepared grub this side of the Nile"). This establishment is just short of Ashapur, a town on the Agni river. Actually, I stop because I'm driving, I'm getting cramped and sleepy, I need a break, our second driver is herself asleep in the back, and this is a conveniently shady spot.

This is not one of those noisome slapdash places that spring up beside the highway and know the attraction of the word "dhaba" to city-folks who think drinking chai at one is how you get in touch with the real India. This is just three string-cots and two grubby tables set beside the road, with a wood-fired tandoor beside them. As I stretch my legs, the boss-man of Jai Ambe, a hefty moustachioed gent named Vinod Jaiswal, urges me to roust the family and have some of his food: "You won't forget it!" he says.

It's temptation enough. We ask for chai, to be followed by dal-fry and rotis. The too-sweet chai comes soon enough, but long minutes go by with no sign of the food. Turns out they need to fire up the tandoor. Conscious of the few hundred km that stretch in front of us, we're a little worried by the delay, but Jaiswal assures us it will be worth the wait. And some of his customers assure us we'll reach tonight. So we stop worrying and wait. Meanwhile, Jaiswal tells us that he is here serving travellers till 3am every night.

When the food is served to us on those grubby tables, Jaiswal is right. It is the best dal-fry I have ever had, even better than Pandharkawda a few years ago. Piping hot, spicy and full of a variety of tastes. The rotis are warm and aromatic as good rotis must be.

All in all, it reminds me of the time some college chums and I biked to the Sariska tiger reserve from our Rajasthan college. One day stretching into the night, we hadn't had anything to eat for reasons I can't recall now. So as it got later and later, we were ravenous-er and ravenous-er, and were searching desperately for something, anything, to eat. Then we happened on a man squatting beside the road, cooking dal and rotis for himself. We persuaded him to feed us too -- how he agreed to do that for several hungry college kids, I have no idea -- and that fabulous but simple meal under a blanket of twinkling stars is my most vivid memory from that trip.

So if you're approaching Ashapur from the west, keep a watch for Jai Ambe Dhaba on the left. Stop, stretch out on Jaiswal's cot and order his dal-fry. I don't know what the real India is, but you won't forget the stuff. I haven't.

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