A never-ending stretch of asphalt and the growl of an overloaded truck with a Haryana number plate and a witty saying to avert the evil eye fills up the mid morning air in March. Dappled with sun, infused with diesel fumes, this is an ordinary day on the NH1 in Haryana.
Yet, if you turn your head for a split second, right off this busy highway there is a sea of yellow filling up the once empty acres of brown earth. Bobbing their heads merrily in the light morning breeze, the mustard flowers are a herald of change. Right by these fields of yellow gold stands a colourful canopy with a few tables with cheap laminates.
Weaving his way through a sea of bright red plastic chairs is a little boy who cajoles every passerby with a wave. He tempts with his little plate of wonders. Piled high with fat, freshly baked parathas with big dollops of white butter or a spicy plate of rajma chawal or even a simple dal-sabzi-roti this is sin in a stainless steel thali.
White, brown and cream roundels of just-baked unleavened breads stuffed with generous helpings of fresh white radish, greens and white cauliflower florets, and a medley of leafy treats and little coin sized servings of spicy, orange pickle.
These are the predominant colours of spring for a truck driver or businessman doing the familiar circuit down the NH1.
Haryana in spring is like a mischievous bride who is somewhere in between puberty-inspired awkwardness and dazzling beauty. There is the proverbial spring in the step as visitors, locals, friends and foes bounce from one charpoy to the next...
Driving down the highway in Haryana, one learns to eagerly wait for these dhabas with their freshly made rustic fare served in without any fanfare under dusty umbrellas and fringed by acres of mustard. The whole scene could be a set piece out of a glorious Bollywood romance. A dhaba in Haryana is her gift to overworked truck drivers, young holidaymakers, enthusiastic Enfield biker gangs and adventurous city folk alike.
Interstate travellers on NH1 stop for a stretch, fresh air, potty breaks and the glorious parathas. One of the first pit stops for highway crawlers is Murthal. Barely 50 kms out of Delhi, this little town in the Sonipat district of Haryana has seen a fair bit of development due to its location right by the highway. Its claim to fame however is its beribboned and streamer festooned dhaba.
There is a dhaba nearly every 100m the moment one steps into the Murthal stretch and this particular culture has extracted the town from its anaemic existence and given it shot of pizzazz...akin to the tiny servings of red onion juliennes doused in red chilli powder and lime juice that transform a simple meal of dal-chawal.
Though primarily vegetarian, some of these eateries will serve tandoori chicken to go with layered parathas and dal tadka. Early to mid March is a lovely time to visit as the weather is perfect for a leisurely afternoon meal on a charpoy. Spring time veggies and greens just make the experience more enjoyable. Homemade butter comes as a side order with anything that you order here. Don't forget to order the spicy bathua raita (a Haryanvi specialty made with curd, bathua saag or pigweed and dried spices) that will send oodles of pleasure to every nerve fibre on your tongue.
Further along the NH1, many cheerful establishments just pop up on either side of the road and sometimes pass by in a blur of colour as your speedometer registers a 100kmph and the milestone reads Panipat - 1 km. Tinny sounds from the radio play herald and a string of light bulbs twinkle like a minor constellation. These are the sights and sounds that welcome you to Panipat. The dhaba land of Panipat is distinguished by a new sign. Pachranga is to Panipat nearly what the first, second and third battles of the selfsame Panipat are to the annals of Indian history.
This local pickle manufacturer has built its brand for nearly a century and has carried rich aroma of its pickles and chutneys to every corner of India and abroad. A special seasonal favourite is the carrot, cauliflower and turnip pickle that is matured in the sun through the winter months and is ready for the first taste with the end of the cold season. From the ubiquitous mango, lime and chilli to the more exotic lotus stem pickle, Pachranga pickles are available at nearly every grocery shop and dhaba in Haryana. Those merely passing through can buy bottles of this divine concoction at the numerous makeshift tents and roadside stalls. Bring a bottle of Pachranga pickle home and watch your end-of-the-day, five-minute meal transform into a tingling feast for the taste buds.
Continue driving down the long snaking artery through Haryana's heart and you will reach the town of Karnal.
Famous for its dairy research centres (yes they actually study milk and its varied produce), the undisputed cereal queen or Basmati rice and Liberty Shoes (remember its cute, retro-pop advertising?), this town is recommended for your sweet tooth.
From ghee-soaked and piping hot jalebis to the much lauded rewri and gajjak. These peculiar too-sweet molasses and sesame seed concoction are oddballs in my sweetmeat heaven. Yet, they seem to be incredibly popular around these parts.
Big piles of these sweets dominate every glass-fronted, fly-encrusted sweet shop in this town.
Around Basant Panchami or the spring festival, there is a new entrant on the scene.
Like the Coldplay song, like a surly teen's jaundiced vision, every thing is yellow around this time, around these parts. Mithe chawal (a traditional delicacy prepared with rice, dried fruits, nuts and saffron) is a confection in yellow, eaten by people dressed in yellow sitting by fields aglow in yellow.
As the NH1 passes through the age old district of Kurukshetra, the pre Cable TV, Sunday morning 9 o clock ritual comes to mind. Doordarsan gave us Ravi Chopra's magnum opus called Mahabharata and as you drive through the forlorn streets of Kurukshetra, fuelled by an empty stomach and hyperactive imagination, you can feel yourself ducking magical arrows with multicoloured sparks. And shocking a placid cow with your acrobatics.
Notable because of its Mahabharata connection, Kurukshetra is a religious hub and a picturesque rural retreat. Jyotisar which is a short detour off the NH1 is a lovely spot where Krishna delivered the Bhagwad Gita. This is also a good pitstop if your hungry stomach is playing tricks on your mind. Their simple and hearty Makki di Roti and Sarson da Saag will not disappoint in all its buttery effusion.
Now just before the highway enters Punjab, the land of five rivers and Fish Amritsari and the real Tandoori Chicken, a largish industrial town materializes from the fug. Ambala, a genteel town with rough edges is part colonial, part Punjabi, part Haryanvi and all chaos and colour. This major railroad junction and army/air force base is a repository of different types of cuisine and celebrations. The spring breeze tied to a kite string flies from roof to roof spreading warmth and joy in every passerby's heart.
Moving up from the heart towards the gullet that is, one must take a detour off the NH1 into the Halwai bazaar or sweetmaker's market. One of the interesting things about halwais are that they are versatile and try their hand at delicious savoury treats like pakoras, kachoris and the lovely chaats glutting you with multiple sensory experiences till you are ready to swoon.
This particular bazaar is a collection of halwai shops, reeking of the pungent aromas of spicy dipping sauces, the oily perfume of onion fritters and the gently tantalizing whiff of sweet ghee and molasses. You cannot return without having dipped your chops into the golgappas with seven types of flavoured water and bhalla chaat (a sweet and sour symphony in curd, mint, tamarind and lentil dumplings.
Strangely bereft of meat, this road trip can wind up or down at the meat lover's Mecca - Puran Singh ka Mashhoor Dhaba. Strangely enough the success of the original spawned many clones and all of them mushroomed around the same spot.
Arm your nose with a Holmesian instinct and walk around from one Puran Singh Dhaba to the next, sampling its tender mutton curry till you find your personal favourite.
With this last stop, the NH1 enters Punjab. Our well-sated trucker has eaten his fill. He has stopped for a customary pee in the mustard fields, he has heard his old battered CD of Dilwalein Dulhaniyan Le Jayenge on loop and revelled in the clean spring air.
Now its time to return to the highway again.