‘This is Your Dhaba’

 

dhaba c

Just like that, the sludge and grime, black pools and diesel air are gone. City ends, country begins and we ride right into it on an un-aircontioned “luxury bus” with Hindi movies playing on a flat screen. The Assam we see through the window is not the India we endured for two weeks previous. Just before reaching Kohora, on the edge of Kaziranga National Park, we pass wild buffalo grazing in a watery plain. They sport horns like Rocky Mountain sheep, but their bodies say water buffalo.

By the time we reach Kohora, the sun has set. It’s hard to get bearings when arriving in a new place after dark — but no worries. Our contact, a Nepali man named Keshab, is expecting us. He has arranged everything, and before we know it, he’s shuttling us off in a van to our guesthouse up the road. Along the way, he points to a small building with warm light inside. “This is your dhaba.”

dhaba a

And so it is: the Pelican Dhaba cum Restaurant. Now, I’m not going to make any lewd comments regarding the preponderance of a particular word that Indians love to use when a simple “and” would suffice. But this alternate word appears on signs everywhere — restaurants and bars, pan shops and bakeries, museums and souvenir shops. Make of it what you will. The Pelican, a homey little place with concrete walls and airy windows is the single spot we eat every meal in Kohora. We usually shop around, sample the offerings. But this time Pelican it is, morning and night. It’s convenient. It’s friendly. It’s clean. And the food is superb.

dhaba e

It’s local food, reflecting the amalgam of cultures in this neck of land where India meets Southeast Asia. The dhaba does a wonderful chicken biryani for breakfast (11 a.m., post-wildlife viewing). Everything on the plate is smothered in turmeric; hands, lips and teeth turn bright yellow. They also offer stunning bamboo curries, light without coconut or much oil; the sort that tell me I am at the edge of this land populated with hill people whose roots run all the way south to Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. The curry is served with chicken or fish, and plenty of roasted cumin. It’s sour and tangy, thick with small slices of bamboo and its succulent juice.

dhaba d

The Assamese thali comes with dal and eight forms of vegetable, including a subtle pulverized spinach-like leaf, which is simple and pleasing and reminds me of food in the Kelabit Highlands of Borneo.

And then, the pickle. Our dhaba has a very special chile and mustard-oil pickle – nothing more, nothing less – which is sweet and smoky, and just the faintest touch is enough to set a plate ablaze.

dhaba b

 

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