The highway of food

Features Issue 148 Mar, 2014
Text by Looza Mahaju

Our highways are littered with tiny eateries catering to travelers of all walks of life. But, more often than not, they tend to be places that are best avoided. Here, an experienced traveler lets you on a few of his favorite roadside joints.

Our highways resemble life in the most uncanny ways. They are riddled with potholes, sprinkled with temptations (should I follow the wake of the traffic or risk driving on the sidewalks?), strewn with tribulations (too many to mention), mashed with murky lanes that run like a river come monsoon, awash with faulty signals and whatnot. And any journey, be it on the great marathon that everybody participates in or the ones that you voluntarily signup for, runs on food, glorious food.

But let’s not get carried away - especially by the “food, glorious food” bit. A seasoned traveler is well aware of a simple truth that everyone ends up learning about while on the road, sometimes the hard way. The fact that the chance of stumbling into a really good eatery when traveling is indirectly proportional to your growling stomach. That is, if you are hungry enough to eat a hyperbole, the chances of you doing so in a really shady place are extremely high. But fret not, we are here to give you a few places that can satisfy your appetite for good food and drink (not the ones that get you in trouble, mind you; I’m talking about the healthy ones. And though I must admit that I have read a story about how a glass of beer contains more calcium and vitamins than an average glass of milk, I digress).

Between my wife and I, we have collectively traveled to more than 35 districts. Work takes us places, sometimes via air, mostly by road. And if you travel as much as we do, you tend to appreciate a few simple things: a good place to stretch your cramped legs, a nice loo – generally a decent place that you won’t mind referring to your folks and friends, and a nice pair of headphones to kill the noise while you get some well-earned sleep. You also quickly learn that not all fancy looking stops in the highway are worth their salt.

Often, the guidebooks hark about a golden secret to finding great places to eat in any city - “Eat where the locals eat,” they always say. I, on the other hand, have deduced that the best places for a meal are the ones the locals avoid like a plague. It’s THE golden rule, I believe. Etch it on the back of your hand while traveling and your stomach will always be grateful.

That being said, I am assuming that when you are traveling, you at least have a say in stopping wherever you like. If you are plying the local routes with micros that scream, screech and basically glide on the road, then I’m afraid I cannot help you. But, do a careful study of the items on offer before you decide to wolf down anything, and I do mean anything. Before you queue up to order, scan the place, watch the eaters. Do they look cheery? Do they look like they’re happy eating what they have just paid for? Before I start sounding like a chatty aunt, I’ll name you some places that I have grown to love.

The eateries
If you are exiting the Kathmandu Khaldo following the traffic on the Prithvi Highway, then keep your eyes open for a place selling lassi that is nearly a meal in itself. It is tucked away in a nondescript pasal, just before you reach Mahadevbesi. A small sign betrays the shop, without which it could pass off as a regular kirana pasal. It specializes in one thing only: lassi. A glass of this pure magic will set you up till Mugling or, should you ask for seconds, till Narayangadh. The owners used to run a small time kirana pasal until they discovered that their lassi was outselling the other merchandise.

If you are heading north from Kathmandu and traveling on the Arniko Highway, stop at the first blue tin roofed shop as you pass Keraghari. The organic coffee brewed here will put many popular cafés in the city to shame. The owner initially used to work in a saw mill, until an accident ruined his chances of holding a job requiring both hands. As a differently abled person, he was ostracized by the community.

Ousted by the society he grew up in, he decided to open a small coffee/lassi place in the only piece of land he owned. It didn’t matter that this plot was on a steep incline and that any prospect of farming was virtually nil. He started small and invested in the only things he knew how to do well: make lassi and coffee. And, by selling these drinks, he has more or less started an organic coffee growing craze in his village.

The idea for the drinking stall came to him after ball-parking the number of thirsty travelers traversing up and down the main highway. He had been to Kathmandu and had seen the craze  for coffee in what is generally a very tea loving valley. It was a risk he was willing to take; one that has paid itself in full.

Here, they serve the lassi in a tall glass. Just picture a flute (not the musical instrument) and throw in a bit more character. Remove its stem, add a little volume and top it with the creamiest lassi you’ll ever taste. The coffee is equally good, if not better. Retaining the warmth of the valley it grows in, it has a fruity, full-bodied aroma that makes it the ultimate drinking experience. The caffeine that rushes through your system is unmatchable. But if you do go there, prepare to wait.

If you are traveling to Pokhara, I suggest you try not to be too adventurous after crossing the Mugling bridge. I have eaten many a flopped meal in the most fancy looking places that cater to intercity tourist buses that ply the Pokhara-Kathmandu route. One time, a certain eatery (for lack of a better word) tried to convince a Frenchman that a pathetic piece of sour patty wrapped in moldy bread was an ‘amburger. Gullibility is not a virtue among the French it seems, for the guy eyeballed the plate for less than a second before walking away. I am inclined to believe that the “eatery” people might have repurposed it as pakodas to some hapless tourists down on their luck.

Pokhara onwards, especially if you are traveling to the Mid-Western districts, there are some pretty decent local places you can check out. If you are following the Kali Gandaki to Parbat, Baglung or Myagdi stop at the little shops near the river to tas te the local fish that are fresh off the hook. They are vastly unlike the ones you get in Malekhu, which I feel are overrated and expensive.

Adventure time
If life’s a journey, then it runs on food. And like any journey, it has its unique share of potholes. What keeps the traveler going is the promise of good food at the start and at the end. They probably also won’t mind the prospects of having a good lunch while they are at it. And good food might come from anywhere.

One of the lessons you learn when you start traveling is to refrain from scoffing at places that don’t look appealing. Conversely, a fancy place might be just that - a whiff of hot air, inflated bills and sloppy service. Come to think about it, it resembles life quite a bit, eh?