In one corner of my house stands a pot-bellied little utensil. It is a container for ghee, and was once a faithful companion of mine. I tip my non-existent hat to it whenever I spot it, for it gave me immense pleasure when a strike broke out in my hostel in the western Uttar Pradesh college where I studied many years ago.
Those were chaotic days. Our mess secretary had been sacked for lining his pocket with college funds. And since the kitchen was no longer operational, we all had to go to a small little eatery for our meals.
And that was my true introduction to what is known as a bhojanalaya. A bhojanalaya is not a restaurant, but a basic eatery which serves only thalis. You go there not to woo your partner or for a business meeting or to chit-chat with friends — but just to eat. The bhojanalaya I frequented had small lockers — with locks and keys — where you could store your ghee. My pot of ghee went in there, and I would put some ghee in a small katori and give it to the cook — and my dal would be tempered with that and a pinch of cumin seeds.
Nostalgia apart, I feel the absence of a bhojanalaya in my life. There are a few, mostly in Old Delhi, where you still get basic, vegetarian thalis, but these nondescript and modest eateries have largely been wiped out by time.
Yet, there was a time when bhojanalayas took care of the city’s migrants, especially those who came from Rajasthan. When New Delhi was being set up, people migrated here for work and businesses. Shops were set up in parts of Old Delhi. Most of the shopkeepers were vegetarians who did not touch onions or garlic. So, along with the migrants, eateries called basas — literally homes — took root, offering simple, home-like food. The bhojanalaya, to an extent, is like a basa. Most of these small eateries do not use onions or garlic in their food either.
The menu is simple. There is a bowl of dal — mostly arhar, but occasionally moong or masoor. In one of my favourite bhojanalayas — called Annapura, in Chandni Chowk — the dal is often a mix of arhar and moong, so that it is neither runny nor overly thick. It is cooked with just a few spices, mainly cumin seeds and asafoetida, and topped with fresh coriander leaves.
In most places, the thali consists of, apart from the dal, two seasonal vegetable dishes — bottle gourd or bitter gourd, potatoes, cauliflower and so on. Most thalis come with a bowl of raita, some chutney, salad, a rice pudding and papad. Occasionally, you may get a dish of paneer in a tomato base or, when in season, with spinach leaves. In Adarsh Bhojanalaya, another of my favourite places in Old Delhi, you can ask — and pay a bit more — for a bowl of ghee. It is tempered with some cumin seeds, and brought back to your table, and you can drizzle it over your dal, vegetable and rotis. And, yes, the breads in some bhojanalayas are of various kinds — soft tawa rotis, flaky paranthas, crisp missi roti and more.
So, how is a bhojanalaya different from other such eateries? For one, the menu is fixed, and there is no epic-like variety to choose from. The food is cooked with just a few spices, and not overwhelmed with cream or tomato puree that is the order of the day in most vegetarian restaurants now. The décor is simple, and the rooms have basic tables and chairs. And in most places, you can have as many rotis as you wish to. Some special thalis have refills for the dal and vegetables, too. The rates are low. In my college-day bhojanalaya, a meal came for 65 paise. Now, a thali is mostly for Rs 180-200.
I enjoy the food in these eateries because these remind me of wholesome, home-cooked fare. And it’s nice to know that there are still some places which haven’t succumbed to the demands of time. Take the case of dhabas. I feel sad when I see the new dhabas — with menu cards that are as thick as telephone directories — and liveried staff of the kind you’d see in palaces. I miss the old roadside dhabas, which only offered you a dal, simmering away in a cauldron, a couple of vegetable dishes, and crisp tandoori rotis. The bhojanalayas that remain have cocked a snook at time.
I last went to a bhojanalaya when a friend was visiting us from Kolkata. She had eaten everything that her food-loving hometown had to offer — from chops and cutlets to mutton kosha and prawns in coconut milk, to pantras (flaky rolls) and chicken jhalfrezi — and was completely floored by the simple fare at the New Soni Bhojanalaya in a little lane off Church Mission Road, Delhi. Every now and then, when we sit together and bite into something grandly exotic, she sighs. That was some dal we had in Delhi, she says.
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