“Ustaad, do parathay or ek doodh patti!” (Two parathas and one cup tea). That was the first voice I heard as I entered into the New Bismillah Afridi hotel and restaurant, located near my residence in North Karachi.
It was about 7:30am and almost all tables were occupied. The whole environment was bursting with the mesmerising smell of parathas being fried and sounds of eggs crackling in the same flat pan.
This dhaba (roadside tea hotel) is located on my way to the bus stop, from where I catch my university bus. During the four years I have attended university, I have repeatedly seen the usual breakfast routine with speedy service but somehow, never had enough time to chat with the servers.
What struck me every time I saw them was their tireless energy in those early hours of the day. Be it the server, the tea-maker or the paratha cook, every one looked so focused, smoothly carrying out their tedious daily tasks, efficiently running their dhaba.
The ubiquitous dhaba for the everyman
You will find dhabas in every nook and cranny of Karachi, and most of them are owned and managed by Pathans. The main clientele of such dhabas are menial workers, students and blue collar workers who visit these affordable eating places for breakfast or to spend some leisure time over a cup of tea after a hectic day. Here they can watch TV or enjoy some popular film music and sometimes old favourites. It is now a trend for young people to hang out at dhabas in the evening, savouring a variety of parathas and tea.
Some like a cup of tea in the open air, for others dhabas are like a second home
At a time when even the well-to-do feel the financial crunch, for the common man it is impossible to afford tea or a meal in a cafe or a fancy restaurant. Roadside dhabas also provide a decent meal at reasonable rates, although the quality of food is debatable. Nonetheless, dhabas in Karachi are rapidly expanding making it a lucrative enterprise in times when it is hard to set up a business.
With the rise in dhaba culture in Karachi, you see families eating hot parathas with a steaming daal fry or just sipping doodh patti or kahwa, late into the night. The food is freshly cooked and full of flavour.
Chai dhabas are popular in the subcontinent as people are attached to chai to refresh them as well as to enjoy the camaraderie of those who enjoy a simple, tasteful meal that is easy on the pocket, which is another reason why people frequent the same dhabas. Dhabas or chai khanas are an indication of a basic lifestyle that got lost in the commonplace undertakings of our materialistic culture.
Abdul Karim, waiting for his order with some friends, told me he has breakfast here on a daily basis. His family is in Charsadda, while he lives in Karachi with some friends. He usually has his meals at the dhaba which is like his second home. Alamgir Khan, the cashier said that a number of policemen, working class people and students visit every day for tea and samosas or to have a quick lunch.
Tariq says that it is the reasonable cost which keeps him from going to any other place for breakfast. A paratha is for Rs25, with an omelette priced at Rs40, and a delightful cup of tea for Rs20.
Dhabas or roadside restaurants are very much a part of every city and town in Pakistan. For many dhaba enthusiasts believe, there is no breakfast in the world that can match a garma-garam steaming cup of tea, the overwhelming smell of parathas being cooked, the omelette with fresh green chilli and the thick malai (cream) with sugar sprinkled on top for dipping the paratha.
Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 10th, 2016