On the stretch of National Highway 1 which passes through Murthal in Haryana are over two dozen dhabas — both big and small. These popular rest stops started out catering to truckers, providing hearty, if simple, meals of parathas and dals, as well as cots on which their customers could rest. Since the 1980s, however, many have grown into restaurants that cater increasingly to customers who come from nearby Sonepat and even Delhi, just to sample the dhabas’ famous tandoor parathas with white butter.
At noon on a Tuesday, the parking lot of one of the more popular eateries, Pahalwan Dhaba, is already full. Inside, bowls of sirka pyaaz (onions in vinegar) are on each table, along with green chillies and pickles. Platters of parathas, dals and other dishes emerge from the kitchen in a steady stream.
In a room behind the kitchen, surrounded by sacks of potatoes and seasonal vegetables like cauliflower and radish, two young men seated on chairs pull out onions from sacks piled in one corner and chop them into a large plastic container. These, we are told, will be used as tempering for some dishes, while many more will be boiled and then ground to a paste. The onions are chopped fresh, based on the dishes being ordered at the restaurant.
Many years ago, when the price of onions had shot up dramatically, the dhaba had tried to cut back on the use of this staple in its kitchen. “Nothing tasted the same,” recalls Sudesh Sandhu who, along with her husband, owner Dayanand, runs the eatery. “Since then we decided that should the price of onions skyrocket again, we will still use as many as we usually do. Our customers come here for the taste, and if it eats into our profit for now, it’s okay. We can make it up when the price drops, which it is sure to,” she says.
Onions are currently selling for about Rs 90 per kg. On an average, Sandhu informs, Pahalwan Dhaba uses about 250-300 kilos of onions every day: this includes the onions used to make aloo-pyaaz and pyaaz parathas as well as the ones that are sliced and served raw as part of the salad or are preserved in vinegar. The bulk of the onions, however, go into the curries. Sandhu explains, “Our reputation is built on the taste of our food. And tomatoes and onions form the base of almost every curry that we serve here. If you reduce the proportion of onions in anything, the taste changes noticeably and that’s not something we’re willing to risk.”
Pahalwan Dhaba, which has been around for more than three decades, does enough business annually to be able to absorb the cost of not letting onion prices affect customer experience. Sandhu says that smaller or newer eateries in the area haven’t been able to do the same, with many substituting onions with daikon radish in the salads. One of these is the three-year-old Shiva Dhaba. While owner Pradeep Arya isn’t able to offer an estimate of the dhaba kitchen’s average per day onion usage, he says that in the past few weeks, the soaring prices have forced them to cut back by an estimated 30 to 35 per cent. “We’ve stopped serving free onions at the tables. We’re now charging Rs 40 per serving. Of course, we understand that customers expect it to be served for free along with the pickles and chillies, but at this point, the cost is simply not something that we can bear,” he says.