It was Saturday night, around 10 pm and I was experiencing Karachi’s most recent food fad: the upscale dhaba which serves an assortment of teas as well as well as traditional and non-traditional food items. As I made my way through the throng of people to get to a table I couldn’t help but marvel at the sight. Fashionable women were disembarking from shiny SUVs that were unceremoniously handed over to eager valet drivers. Their consorts were groomed for a party and sporting the kind of kitsch bling you see in gangster rap videos.
There were quite a few families also and between them, the nouveau riche and the ‘boyz’ out on the town, it seemed like a stroganoff of there and almost-there cool. All of them were fighting for wobbly plastic chairs and tables that looked like discards from a sun-drenched patio set on a pebbly plot. Customers were champing on fabulously over-priced food and I wondered if they were aware of the things that made this scene possible.
The patrons can start by thanking Maniram Dewan who started the first commercial plantations of tea in India back in early 19th century. Although herbal and medicinal teas had been mentioned in the Ramayan and go back thousands of years, the kind of Assamese tea we drink today was mass produced by Maniram and then popularised through a 1920s advertising campaign by the Indian Tea Board. The growing popularity of tea led to chai-wallahs similar to the ones in other countries such as England, China, Nepal, Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Central Asian Republics. In post-independent Karachi, Irani cafes, tea shops and chai-wallahs catered to different sectors of population and carried on the culture of tea houses.
Yuppie-ising the chai-paratha experience
However, the now ubiquitous dhaba is a very different type of tea place and has a history of its own. The credit for this unique eating joint goes to the truck drivers who plied their trade along the Grand Trunk Road in pre-partition days. Driving from Peshawar to Calcutta would be hard work and they needed quick, hot food. To meet their needs a string of food places sprung up.
Since the drivers were mostly Sikhs the food was hardy Punjabi fare such as aloo parathas, daal makhni and lassi. The etymology of dhaba is unclear though some say it is derived from the word dabba or tiffin-box. By definition it was a simple establishment that catered to the working classes. Either way, by the 20th century these highway pit stops or dhabas were a firm fixture, the most famous one Kesar da Dhaba built in 1916 in Sheikhupura and moved to the walled city of Amritsar after partition. After 1947, truckers in Pakistan still ate on the highway but instead of daal makhni and other Punjabi dishes they moved to food preferred by their main clientele, Pakhtuns, who now dominated the intercity transport industry.
The same people had a big impact on the tea places in Karachi. After Partition it had a host of tea restaurants but what we would consider a dhaba-like place came with the coming of Pakhtuns after Gen Ayub Khan’s coup in 1958. These entrepreneurial people set up tea places in the city which primarily served plain parathas, eggs and doodh patti. Thus, the familiar anda-paratha dhaba aka “Quetta” hotels, a cousin of the original Punjabi dhaba, was born and stayed true to its 1960s roots until it moved up the social ladder a few years back.
It started back in the 1990s with Café Clifton. Being in an affluent part of the city it had a clientele who were aware of the charms of hot flaky parathas and fragrant doodh patti but would rather sit in the comfort of their cars than mix with regular working class patrons. Smelling a profit, the Café broadened its range and started offering costlier items which did equally well. Then a few years back a counter-culture revolution of sorts took place. Chai dhabas had generally been a male preserve but now females starting frequenting them in an effort of reclaiming public spaces for their gender. Female activism and gastronomic adventures opened up new vistas for entrepreneurs, many of them fairly young, who opened fancy tea places and called them dhabas. Regarding their popularity Aized Suharwardy, co-founder of Chai Wala said, “We are a nation of chai drinkers. It makes sense that chai cafes would be just as popular, if not more, as all the coffee cafes we have in the city.”
Upward mobility of food is a fairly common thing. Restaurants around the world have glamourised simple food items like burgers or sandwiches by using expensive ingredients or simply exoticising them for a new audience. While it’s an accepted strategy, not everyone is convinced, including artist Haider Ali. “By offering slick variations of parathas and tea and pricing them to cater to a particular class they yuppie-ised (sic) the wholesome dhaba experience,” he says. This is simple appropriation of the common man’s food sexed up for the elite, a bit like film boards and truck art which have become recognised art forms but don’t bring any benefits to the people who have actually made them.”
But isn’t that what laissez-faire economics is all about? The market dictates what gets sold and at what price. If people are happy coughing up hard cash for food generally available at a fifth of the price there, then why shouldn’t a smart entrepreneur relieve them of their money? Besides there are variations of traditional dhaba food — parathas stuffed with cheese or chocolate that create a new experience.
For some the prices are perfectly justified. “It’s an affordable luxury,” said Mansoor Ahmed who runs his own security business and is a frequent goer. “I wouldn’t have gone to the traditional dhaba with my family and if the prices here create a family-friendly environment so be it. Besides, it’s an affordable luxury and people from affluent backgrounds can get a sense of ‘slumming it’ by having chai-paratha in a public setting.” In other words, are the people going to dhabas doing what whites did in the US during its segregation days when they would visit black neighbourhoods such as Harlem to experience African American culture?
The answer could be that or all of the reasons above. The simple truth is for most elite Karachiites, a bill of 700 rupees for a couple of parathas and a lemonade won’t raise eyebrows. In fact, an entrepreneur should take advantage of this situation and offer parathas fried in truffle oil and served with Kobe beef, foie gras and Beluga caviar to make a bundle. After all, a famous hotel successfully advertised a 1,550 rupee breakfast of “Flaky layered wheat bread fried in fresh farm clarified butter and stuffed with delicately seasoned, mashed potatoes. Served with lightly spiced yogurt.” Or as most of us would call it: aloo ka paratha aur raita.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 25th, 2016