Reminiscence: Road Trips and Tea Stops

Its extremely rare that I actually travel when I get a holiday.

Yes, I go to Kerala every time I get a few free days, but I don’t really travel, because all my time is happily spent at my Ammama’s (my maternal grandmom’s) bungalow, doing what I like with no intent whatsoever to step outside.

So the last trip I took was a little out of the ordinary, since the family for once decided to head to Munnar, a hill station in the state for a couple of days, instead of taxing my poor Ammama and making her cook us inhuman amounts of food for every meal. And so, the 7 of us set out an early December morning in a big car, packed with things for the three day adventure that was to follow, and our first stop two hours into the drive was at a “Thattu Kada”.

India isn’t a small country, so the methods of travelling and the food available vastly differ depending on the place you’re at, but what stays constant with road trips across the country are the frequent boards on the sides of the many national highways of hole in the wall places serving hot food to anyone who wants to drop in. They’re called “Dhabas” in Punjab and “Thattu Kadas” in Kerala, and I’m sure they have a bunch of other endearments everywhere else.

These stores are generally open from the crack of dawn and serve food well into the night. The menu is limited to a couple of dishes at every meal and are frequented by the following stereotypes:

  • Bearded bachelors on Royal Enfield bikes, travelling to “discover some sense of self” but got hungry mid-discovery;
  • Truck and Tempo drivers who depend on these meals to sustain the long hours required to travel interstate to transport good on the daily; and
  • Families like ours, with fidgety kids and creaky grandparents who need a walk and a breath of fresh air every few hours.

And so we walked in to this place on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border and decided to sit down on the old plastic chairs for a hot breakfast before heading further.

The items on offer were lentil vadas, idlis and dosas, with a bunch of chutneys, and we all placed our orders. If you walk past the modest seating area, you end up at an open space behind the building where the food is prepared in large utensils.

What caught my attention more than the bubbling pot of sambhar was the cast iron slab on which the steaming hot dosas were being made. Most South Indians use a cast iron pan or skillet at home, but Thattu Kadas like these have a slab set in stone, under which they use woodchips and coal to make a fire. The fire heats the slab evenly and the slab maintains the heat even when the fire dies out in a few hours.

What you end up with are hot dosas, crisp an browned on the outside, but soft and perfectly cooked in the fluffy bits.

These dosas and their freshly fried vadas were served with a plain coconut chutney tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves (white), a spicy chutney made with raw shallots, salt and dried red chillies (red) and a hot sambhar (yellow), all served on banana leaves, because duh. South India.

I’m not going so far to say it was the best breakfast we’ve had. At some point we did have to salt the sambhar and tell the old man making it that his seasoning skills could do with some improvement, but it’s hot, filling food for anyone who’s tired of being stuck in a vehicle for hours on end. And being able to sit in an open place and admire the existence of this little-food serving wonder in the middle of nowhere does lead to some interesting conversations between bites.
So whether its a buttery daal makhani and rotis at a Dhaba or crisp dosas and chutney at a Thattu Kada, the tea stop culture is an integral part of the Indian road-tripping experience.

And it is definitely an experience worth chucking the bottled water and germaphobia for every now and then, if you decide to head out for a few hours on the road. Its not swanky but the simplicity does have its particular brand of charm- not something you’re likely to find anywhere else.


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