Rooting for tandoori roti

Rooting for tandoori roti

My story goes back several decades to the post-Partition years. Falling on bad times, thousands of Hindu refugees were forced to flee to India from Pakistan. Having lost their means of livelihood and displaced from their homes, the fortunate ones managed to survive the traumatic journey to India, while hundreds succumbed to the gory communal violence which erupted on a large scale, causing inhuman misery to a large number of people. Today’s generation is totally oblivious of the harrowing time faced by these refugees then.

Faced with uncertainty and a bleak future, these refugees, penniless and homeless, with nothing left to call their own, except their grit and determination to survive, began the daunting task of rehabilitating themselves in a chaotic and turmoil-ridden new and strange environment.

Starting from scratch, one such enterprising couple dug up an underground tandoor on a vacant plot of land close to our house to eke out a living. A temporary, makeshift shelter provided a roof over their heads. Thus began a small startup venture of making tandoori rotis at a princely rate of six rotis for one anna!

Housewives, in particular, welcomed this convenient facility to escape the arduous task of preparing numerous rotis at home for a large and hungry family in the sweltering heat of a North Indian summer. They thronged this facility, especially on weekends and holidays. Their young children pitched in by carrying kneaded atta and ghee to the tandoor, and returning with ready-to-eat tandoori rotis garnished with pure ghee.

I was barely eight years old when I was allotted the daily task of carrying kneaded atta to the tandoor. Though decades have passed, the whole process of a live demonstration of rotis being cooked in the tandoor is still firmly etched in my mind. A ball of kneaded atta, flattened on the palms of the hands, was pasted on the inner wall of the red-hot tandoor. Once ready, the rotis were popped out one by one in quick succession with the help of a thin, long hooked steel rod.

Young as I was, it was a fascinating experience to watch the skillful dexterity with which the rotis were churned out one by one. A few years later, the enterprising couple expanded their business by placing a few wooden benches where customers could relish a simple meal consisting of dal, subzi and tandoori roti at a nominal cost.

This was the beginning of the dhaba culture in the North. As tandoori cuisine gained popularity, several people cashed in on the opportunity by setting up dhaba food joints. It has become common nowadays for foodies to travel 30 or 40 km for a meal at their favourite dhaba located enroute to cities like Agra or Jaipur.

Fresh, hot, crispy tandoori rotis are a perfect accompaniment for a delectable North Indian meal, be it with butter chicken, malai paneer or even with the simple dal makhan, topped with a spicy raw onion salad.