In the mood for some ‘disco chai’? Here is how the dhaba’s in Karachi do it!

Published: January 18, 2014
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Dhaba – a roadside restaurant of sorts – originates from the Indian Punjabi culture. PHOTO: AFP

Dhaba – a roadside restaurant of sorts – originates from the Indian Punjabi culture. It typically consists of a structure made from mud and wooden planks with charpais and the occasional hookah strewn around. 

A dhaba's tea is always adored among the local Pakistanis. PHOTO: MAANSAL STUDIOS

A dhaba’s tea is always adored among the local Pakistanis. PHOTO: MAANSAL STUDIOS/ FILE

Desi food and ethnic props give these rickety restaurants their rustic environment. Dhabas are a reminder of a simple way of life that has been lost in the mundane affairs of our materialistic society. The dhaba culture has been prevalent throughout Pakistan, particularly in Karachi. And I have seen a shift in the function and status of dhabas from being an after-work hangout for menial workers to the trendy recreational spot that they have become in recent years.

Dhabas in Karachi are now frequented and enjoyed by the rich and poor alike.

Tea is usually consumed at breakfast, during lunch breaks at the workplace, and in the evening at home. PHOTO: JALAL QURESHI/ EXPRESS

Tea is usually consumed at breakfast, during lunch breaks at the workplace, and in the evening at home. PHOTO: JALAL QURESHI/ EXPRESS

Just an eating-out place?

Although most dhabas attract their clientele with their finger-licking desi cuisine, these cafes have become more than just eating-out places over the last few years. Their patrons frequent them due to their pleasant and homely ambience, delicious food and aromatic chai. People of all ages, social standing and gender have something in particular that they enjoy at the dhaba of their choice. Older people enjoy the comfort and old-school charm while the youth take pleasure in the hookah and chai.

For some, a dhaba serves as a place to unwind after a long day’s drudgery while for others it is a place for fun and frolic.

Hanging out at a dhaba. PHOTO: MAANSAL STUDIOS

Hanging out at a dhaba. PHOTO: MAANSAL STUDIOS/ FILE

Breakfast, lunch or tea?

I have always found it interesting how the time of the day affects the kind of patrons to be found at a dhaba. On a Sunday morning, you may see groups of families and friends enjoying fresh halwa puri for breakfast at a dhaba. On any given afternoon, flocks of students may stop by at a dhaba for tea or an inexpensive and quick lunch while working people may prefer to drink doodh patti at the dhaba closest to their office – instead of drinking the dull, watery tea served in most offices.

And of course, nothing beats hot, aromatic chai with a layered paratha dripping with desi makhan (desi butter) on a chilly, winter evening.

A Dhaba's tea is always adored among the local Pakistanis. PHOTO: MAANSAL STUDIOS

A Dhaba’s tea is always adored among the local Pakistanis. PHOTO: MAANSAL STUDIOS/ FILE

Foreigner? You would love our dhaba food!

This craze for dhabas is not just limited to our locals. Even one of my cousins who lives in London, prefers to go to a dhaba rather than an expensive restaurant. Even the best restaurants here have little value for those living abroad and they would rather visit a place unique to our culture.

What better place to visit than a dhaba for that true ‘taste’ of Karachi?

So, one morning we took him to one for some halwa puri for breakfast.

While lounging on the charpai and licking his fingers, he said,

“This is so much better than eating at a five-star restaurant. Would I be able to enjoy myself as thoroughly in a restaurant, with their table etiquettes and fastidious rules? Here I not only enjoy my food, I can even express my enjoyment in the most uninhibited way possible. This is my culture. This is home.”

He even took pictures of the food and the local decorations to share with his friends back in London.

And to end the meal on an appreciative note, he even burped.

Tea is liked extensively among Karachi citizens. PHOTO: MAANSAL STUDIOS

Tea is liked extensively among Karachi citizens. PHOTO: MAANSAL STUDIOS/ FILE

What’s on the menu?

All kinds of local dishes can be found at dhabas including doodhpatibaqarkhanibun kabablassicholaykarhaidaalbiryaniparathasfried eggsamosakachorisarson ka saag and makai ki roti.

You name it and they have it – hot and fresh.

But for typical Karachites, strong and aromatic chai and crispy parathas remain the most favourite items at dhabas.

Is your wallet a tad empty?

One of the things that attracts people to these roadside cafes is that the food is not only delicious, it is also cheap.

Preparation for Lassi. Source: Chai Master Facebook page

At a time when even basic necessities are ‘upping the ante’ in Pakistan, a scrumptious desi meal at such reasonable prices is no less than a blessing in a pricey city like Karachi.

Dhabas (local tea shops) across the country give an insight to the local culture. PHOTO: MAANSAL STUDIOS

Dhabas (local tea shops) across the country give an insight to the local culture. PHOTO: MAANSAL STUDIOS/ FILE

Which dhabas have you visited in Karachi?

Although there are thousands of dhabas across Karachi, the exact number is unknown since they are not registered by the government. Every area has a dhaba – sometimes more than one – of its own. The famous dhabas across Karachi include the Delawala Dhaba in Clifton, Chai Dhaba in Defence, Fakhir Hotel in Bahadurabad, Dhamthal in Federal B Area, Mehran Hotel and New Quetta Hotel in North Nazimabad and Chowrangi wala Hotel in Gulistane Johar.

Dhabas can even be found in university campuses and the Karachi University has its own Sufi Ka Dhaba and Majeed Hotel.

Brewing tea at a Dhaba in Karachi. PHOTO: MAANSAL STUDIOS

Brewing tea at a Dhaba in Karachi. PHOTO: MAANSAL STUDIOS/ FILE

There is literally a dhaba in almost every corner of Karachi. Their sheer number is testament to their popularity among the locals.

In addition, these cafes provide employment to the thousands of people who move to Karachi in search of a better future. From chefs and tandoors to bus-boys and servers, these dhabas take young men from all over the country into their fold to give them a decent wage and food to eat.

Tea is considered rejuvenating among most Pakistanis. PHOTO: ZAFAR ASLAM/ EXPRESS

Tea is considered rejuvenating among most Pakistanis. PHOTO: ZAFAR ASLAM/ EXPRESS

Do you know the ‘cool’ dhabas in Karachi?

And then, there are the trendy, upscale dhabas – the likes of Chai Master and Baba Ka Dhaba. In addition to selling regular dhaba cuisine, Chai Master also serves ‘disco chai’, coffee and Nutella parathas. They even boast a Facebook page.

Source: Chai Master Facebook page

Baba Ka Dhaba serves chai as its specialty and offers hygienic desi breakfast, lunch and dinner at reasonable prices.

Chai Master’s Disco Chai. Source: Chai Master Facebook page

The presence of these rustic restaurants has a very strong influence on the people of Karachi. They allow people to step out of their fast-paced life and cherish life’s pleasant and lovable moments while they sip on a cup of steaming doodh patti.

However, as with pretty much everything in Karachi, security at dhabas remains questionable since they are more vulnerable to attacks due to their open and exposed setting.

Our security officials should ensure safety at such places that attract thousands every day for food, recreation and employment – or else we may see this colourful trend of Karachi also dwindle away in the coming years.

Sara Alam

Sara Alam

A former intern at the Dawn Newspaper Network, she is currently the Junior Editor of Rock Paper Scissor Magazine. She is a readaholic and loves to write.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Miss Syed

    What a refreshing Article about the simple pleasures of life. Pakistanis are SO materialistic and kind of ridiculous in this regard. It might sound funny, but I have seen people looking down upon US “The Chai looog” You don’t take Coffee ??. there comes the sarcasm lurking in their statement.
    Every simple thing about life has been degraded… People these days worship the vain desires of this materialistic life. Every thing is about being BIGGER, BETTER, RICHER.
    I am a complete chai gal… Need some doodh patti, right now.Recommend

  • ali

    Loved your piece!Recommend

  • ovais

    Dhaba culture is not going to dwindle, Karachi has had huge investment in this regard and thus there is no chance whatsoever. But karachi has lost alot of Irani Dhabas and now mostly are Pathan or QuettasRecommend

  • Dhaba ka khaba

    The Caption should have been ” The dudhpatti chai of the commoners caught the fancy of .a burger” . and by the way you mentioned “hygenic” parathas …ehhh? there is no such thing you would ever found in a dhaba .The “ghee” they use are extracted from such a varied sources , your imagination wont even reach that zenith .
    I had been eating all my life these ,trust me ,i know .Recommend

  • M

    How can you miss out Quetta Alamgir Hotel near Alamgir Welfare Trust. Those guys have the best chaye paratha! Their lachay daar paratha is probably the best in Karachi.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Now that was interesting………..but you must let us know where these places are, otherwise its quite pointless..Recommend

  • IAbdussamad

    Glorifying the dhaba! What next? An ode to Qinchi?

    Seriously, the food they serve in these places is nasty! It’s guaranteed to give you an upset stomach. Locals get sick from it. Foreigners will end up spending their vacations at Aga Khan hospital. Stay away!Recommend

  • Parvez

    When I ead this about 30 minutes ago there were two pictures and a small write up…………now it a great write up and lovely pictures. Possibly my laptop needs a good cup of dood-patti-chai.Recommend

  • Wasi-adeel

    One of my favorite topics to talk around. However, my perspective is always towards their business tactics and how they own their customers.
    I spent a lot of time in these ‘dhabbas’ observing their acts, customer handling etc.
    Applause for Sara, for such a brief and detail work on it.Recommend

  • k

    Good solid info. Have written down names for future reference.
    Will eat at a dhaba, anytime. Cheap,delicious food.Recommend

  • nausheen

    good job ! you have described our dhabba culture amazingly well!!..btw i didnt knew about nutella parhatas..i really want to try them :PRecommend

  • Dania

    I love the food at dhabas..Got some really good amount of info from this article..Will surely visit the dhaba’s which are mentioned here, in the article :)Recommend

  • Ali Ahmed

    good jobRecommend

  • Jia

    Agree with you.. even our sundays start with a breakfast of halwa puri :)Recommend

  • https://www.facebook.com/shail.arora.589 Shail Arora

    Parantha is the ‘national’ breakfast of Punjab and as we say in Punjabi – “Chakk parantha cha de naal”.Recommend

  • Anum Fatima

    This is absolutely true. Our feelings for dhaba have been beautifully expressed here. We enjoy it specially in Karachi University with friends when our heart crave for delicious biryanii and lassi. It is cheap and outclass. It simply tastes great, a place that gives a wonderful cultural plus desi feeling. Keep it up!Recommend

  • Wajahat masroor

    I loved to eat at dhabas specially when we friends together. Occasionaly we went to have tea there. Recommend

  • Junaid Alam

    Dhabas are perhaps one of the best places to unwind these days.. Love the doodh patti they serve.. It is most certainly is one of the beauties of Karachi…Recommend

  • Gautam

    Sara, good writing. BUT IF you are a real fan of Karachi dhaba food, you need to create Youtube clips of the most memorable dishes of each dhaba, making sure that the techniques and ustads are given due prominence. That is called recording cultural history. I am an Indian who keenly follows the “street” food of Pakistan, and have catalogued the Lahore, Peshawar and Karachi clips available, and also by the types of dishes, e.g. karahi/ chicken,, karahi/lamb, and so forth. I think you are on the right track but still in the shahgird category, beti! lol! Your profile says you love to write, but you must love to also, and be a mamuli person as well, even a bekaar-type who carries home dripping meaty stuff in plastic bags, 1 order Rs.140, extra roghni! Are you prepared to have such “horrible” food touch such cultured lips or run off to explore the karhai found only at this or that naka-bandi?

    Some really nice but extremely fashionable, high-society ladies have tried to create programs to the very best of their abilities about dhaba food on Pakistan TV. A very encouraging start, but more realism and engagement with the dhaba cooks and owners need to prevail and more genuine camaraderie and absence of class barriers. Will you be the one beginning to take steps in this direction? It is really an important issue, to not treat cooks as “servant class”, but as genuine masters in their own right, and offer them the recognition that our societies fail to offer to their high levels of skills, their tenacity, courage and so many other qualities often missing elsewhere.,

    I strongly believe that Pakistan food TV has exceptional strengths that is sorely underexploited. It can help project Pakistan’s image across the world in a very attractive light and earn a lot of interest and goodwill, provided people genuinely put their heart into this medium, which already is overflowing with talent. There is need to cater to different languages and audiences and ask others what they would like to see, and what they find objectionable. It is difficult to overestimate the value of soft power, and the language of food and culture and I hope that “strategic experts” pay more attention to such areas than to clowns like Zaid Hamid spouting anger, nonsense and ill-informed hatred drawing contempt and loathing from the world. Spend the value of 1 fighter jet promoting the food of Pakistan to the world in an intelligent manner. Trust me, done right, it will return its worth a billion times over,Recommend

  • aa

    where is baba ka dhabaRecommend

  • Anwaar

    You forgot CAFE PAYALA my friend .. :)Recommend

  • ptr

    come on’ you must be lactose intolerant or something like that ‘Recommend

  • https://www.facebook.com/shail.arora.589 Shail Arora

    Wow!! This post is bigger than the blog itself :)Recommend

  • AJ

    nothing can beat the “dhaaba ki chae” …in those tiny cups in which the chae never gets cold…best option for winters… :PRecommend

  • IAbdussamad

    I am not referring to the tea. That’s usually safe because boiling the water kills all the germs. But the food! That’s unsafe.Recommend

  • Dante

    Thank GOD someone publishes a refreshing read that praises things worthy of praise in Pakistan.

    Tea is customary for me, after every lunch and dinner. Coffee is over-rated.Recommend

  • http://eatoye.pk/karachi Online food delivery in Karachi

    Karachi is the best city for offering quality food at cheaper prices and even it is liked by all class for refreshment!Recommend