- 2020 Volume 15
In Hindi, a “dhaaba” is a roadside restaurant.
Positioned on the side of highways and sullied streets, dhaabas use distinct, chillied aromas to attract hordes of customers. Once inside, blackened rings of smoke waft out of primitive ovens called “tandoors,” and steel plates sit upon long wooden planks that make up the tables.
Here, the ambiance plays a different role. As opposed to the extravagance inherent in candle-lit dining and wine glasses that clink with every movement, dhaabas embrace the basics. They embody the aromatic memory of my mother’s cooking combined with a pinch of garlic, nutmeg, and personality.
If I tried to explain the meaning of a “dhaaba,” I would betray the unspoken yet widely understood personal and cultural implications of the word, so I rely on lengthy anecdotes.
In my family, “dhaaba” began with my parents.
Every Sunday morning, I woke up to simmering, brown flatbreads on the stove. I would skip brushing my teeth until after breakfast, as I had no desire to contaminate the flavors with lingering toothpaste. I always noticed my dad secretly tasting the food before any of us had the chance, and I looked forward to his animated smile.
Every Sunday morning, before I began to eat, I would wait until my dad muttered, “ye Archana ka dhaaba ka kamaal hai” as he compared my mother’s exquisite cooking to a “dhaaba.” His appreciative sighs became a part of my routine.
This routine produced a tangible nostalgia. For my parents, the word allows them to reminisce about running out of musty high school classrooms in search of the nearest eatery, while drenched from the sweltering sun. For me, the word conjures memories of heartfelt family dinners. I remember the moment my sister and I first recited my dad’s dhaaba-mantra with him. His smile widened.
My dad smiles whenever I long for my mother’s “dhaaba” while eating hardened PB&Js that engulf my tastebuds with artificial jelly. He smiles whenever his best friends converse through appreciative nods as their mouths are too stuffed with my mother’s “dhaaba” to speak. He smiles whenever my sister and I assemble more food on our plates than we can eat.
My dad’s joy is contagious, and only a “dhaaba” can produce this type of joy.
Whether this happiness stems from devouring coconut chicken curries after dance practice or enjoying garlic-infused lentils with my friends around the dining table, my mother’s “dhaaba” always manages to enliven the conversation. In the process, the “dhaaba” maintains my relationships with my friends and family.
To me, a “dhaaba” represents more than a disheveled building on the street. A “dhaaba” allows my parents to reflect on their old memories, while also forming new ones with me. It produces genuine happiness within my community and also reinforces my relationships with my sister, my friends, and my culture. This process cannot be simplified into one definition.
So, on the surface, “dhaaba” is a roadside restaurant.
But, underneath the surface, “dhaaba” is a modern representation of my nostalgia for and pride in my Indian culture. “Dhaaba” cannot be translated because this simplifaction would neglect my appreciation of my community.
Finally, I could go on about how “dhaaba” is the only word qualified to describe my mother’s cooking, but I’ll leave you hungry for now.
Photo by Garrett Glasgow