Punjab's greatest gift to the world

Is the dhaba, where the meals will challenge your digestive system but warm your heart

Chicken tikka masala, July 29, 2009

The famous chicken tikka masala © AFP

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Chandigarh is a concept-based modern city, the capital of two north Indian states, Haryana and Punjab. History's a bit hard to come by here, so you won't find little anecdotes dating back to Sir Whatzisname's favourite delicacy or how Lady C lent her name to a sweet. What you will find, however, are the urban version of Punjab's greatest gift to the world, the dhaba. They were born as roadside shacks along highways, pitstops for hungry truck-drivers and travellers. Over time, though, they have moved into cities in and around Punjab - and some of the best are right here in Chandigarh.

A caveat before you step in: Dhabas are basic eateries, with rudimentary hygiene, simple seating, boisterous atmospheres, plenty of warmth and some of the hottest, freshest food you'll find in India. Don't expect five-star service or air-conditioning or even alcohol. No dhaba serves bad food, but do watch out for generous quantities of oil in the dishes. (A simple trick is to tilt the plate and drain out any fat that floats on the surface. You'll attract a few strange looks, but your tummy will thank you for it.) And don't miss the fennel seeds-and-sugar combination that ends every dhaba meal: The digestive will help the food go down easier.

Vegetarian dishes at most of these dhabas cost less than Rs100; non-vegetarian dishes will be priced over Rs 200. The dhabas are generally open between 12.30pm and 3.30 pm for lunch and from 7 pm to 11 pm (and in some cases till midnight) for dinner.

Chandigarh

Pehalwan da Dhaba, Sector 15 Rehri Market Arguably the favourite haunt of students studying in the nearby colleges and in Panjab University, especially for its non-vegetarian food, the dhaba's dodgy cleanliness standards are more than made up for by the congenial attitude of the owner, Ramji, and his staff. It's 10-15 minutes away from Mountview, Shivalik View, Parkview and the Taj.

Must-have Any of the wide range of chicken dishes.

Tehal Singh's Chicken and Singh's Chicken, Sector 22 Despite being located close to each other, the dhabas have their distinct identities and clienteles. Be prepared to wait for a table: Both have a large seating capacity, but are frequently packed at peak lunch or dinner hour. Both maintain good standards of hygiene.

Must-have Almost any of the chicken dishes.

Pal Dhaba, Sector 28 The expansive space of the dhaba ensures you a seat here, but the hygiene factor may be found wanting. On the other hand, while the mostly male clientele may make women feel slightly awkward at other dhabas, that is not the case here: Pal Dhaba is popular among locals for "family outings". Also, unusually, its vegetarian food range is as much in demand as its meat dishes.

Must-have The mutton curry is legendary. The masala chicken, too, is highly recommended.

Nukkar Dhaba, Sector 32 A vegetarian's delight, this place offers limited seating. So arrive early.

Must-have Try the shahi paneer, a gravy dish of Indian cottage cheese.

Swarn Dhaba, Sector 30 If there's only one dhaba meal that your stomach can, well, stomach, let this be it. Both the vegetable and the meat dishes are exceptional. And they use spices in a temperate manner, at least in comparison to most dhabas. It's a stone's throw from Hometel and Hotel White Palace.

Must-have The mutton curry, said to be the best in town. Be warned, however, that there's usually a run on the dish, so arrive early to avoid being disappointed.

Mohali

Haveli, Phase 5 Your typical dhaba this is not, but the gentrified rusticity - mud walls, music, utensil displays, wall paintings - may be just what you're looking for if the hurly-burly of the roadside eatery puts you off. The hygiene standards are among the best in its class.

Must-have Almost everything on the menu is delicious, be it non-vegetarian or vegetarian ones.

Khalsa Dhaba, Phase 5 and Katani Dhaba, Phase 3BII are popular for their vegetarian menus.

Must-have Dal makhani or matter paneer with tandoori paranthas.

The two are some distance from the PCA Stadium. Hire a cycle-rickshaw, auto-rickshaw or cab.

Along the highway

Dhabas were first set up to serve travellers on the highways. Traditionalists say that's where the best of them are still to be found. If you have a set of wheels and can head out of the city, you won't go wrong by stopping by at these places.

NATIONAL HIGHWAY 21 (ZIRAKPUR-PATIALA ROAD)
If you are heading out to explore Punjab, Grand Lassi Shop, 25km from Chandigarh, is the ideal stop for breakfast. Must-have The stuffed tandoori paranthas coupled with channa (chick peas), butter and dahi (homemade yogurt) are heavenly!

NATIONAL HIGHWAY 1

Puran Singh Da Dhaba is one of the oldest and the most famous dhabas around the city. It's situated right next to the Ambala bus stand. Don't get taken in by the many other eateries by the same name in the vicinity though: The real one has a framed photo of the legendary Puran Singh.

A man bakes Indian bread in a clay oven, June 20, 2008

Eat the rich curries with Indian bread © AFP

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Must-have Chicken curry and keema kebab.

Further ahead on NH1, but still within a 50km radius of Chandigarh, stop at Bhagwan Da Dhaba (now a motel) in Rajpura, the vegetarian Multani Da Desi Ghee Da Dhaba in Sirhind and Lucky Dhaba in Zirakpur and Derabassi.

NATIONAL HIGHWAY 22

If you are planning to drive uphill to Kasauli or further to Shimla, one hour away from Chandigarh you'll find a thriving conglomeration of eateries at Dharampur. We recommend only two:

Giani Da Dhaba has a large, clean and well-kept room that serves as the eating hall. It's always busy but finding a seat is not a time-consuming affair.

Must-have A must try for vegetarians are the kadhi-chawal (rice with a curry of gram-flour dumplings in spiced yoghurt) and paneer dishes. Non-vegetarians can't go wrong with the lemon chicken, tandoori chicken and butter chicken.

Shan-e-Himachal, also known as Colonel Da Dhaba, is run by a retired army officer. Though smaller than Giani's Dhaba, the food is comparable in both taste and quality.

Must-have The tandoori fare, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, especially the tikkas.

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