'Take me home, country chicken.' Dehati chicken and alu bhujiya on the highways of Jhakhand.

Alu padwal bhujia, dehati chicken, dal rice and, salad. Panchawati Dhaba

Country Roads (with apologies to John Denver)

I have realised that I have not told you about one of my most memorable eating experiences from last year and that I need to address this immediately. This is from when I went to Jamshedpur from Mumbai last November. Jamshedpur does not have an airport. One option is to fly to Kolkata from Mumbai and then take a train. The organisers of my trip suggested  a different route. So I flew to Ranchi from Mumbai and then went by road to Jamshedpur and returned down the same road on my way back. This post is about where I ate on the trip. And what I ate!

I asked for suggestions on my social media channels, while at the Mumbai airport, on where to eat on the way from Ranchi to Jamshedpur. The journey by road takes about 3.5 to 4 hours. Many told me to go the Ma Hotel and have the 'dehati chicken.' I did have the dish on my way, though not at Ma Hotel. We had it at the Panchawati dhaba/hotel at Bundu, as our driver said that this fell on our way unlike Ma.

I did stop at Ma Hotel on the way back from Jamshedpur to Ranchi. Had another country chicken there. Both were mind blowing, though the preparations were different. On both trips I was accompanied by fellow travellers to and from the Samvaad Tribal Conclave. In both cases, I introduced my travel-mates to not only the dehati chicken, but also to the vegetable stir fried dish called 'bhujiya' in Jharkhand and Bihar. Both of which I had first learnt of thanks to social media posts and from blog posts from those who belong this part of the country.

And country chicken

The stop on the way from Ranchi, at a place called Panchawati Hotel, was truly memorable. I had reached Ranchi two hours after scheduled, well after lunch time, as there was a flight delay at Mumbai. I met a couple in the flight who were going to the Samvaad and we set off in the same car. The road was pretty smooth at the beginning though it got bumpy later. I always find these highway drives, rare as they are for me, to be quite refreshing. Akin to a spa treatment for the mind and one's eyes.

We heaved a collective of relief when we reached Panchawati, 45 minutes after we set off, as we were all rather hungry by then. My travel companions had decided to give the meal planning duties to me. Especially after they heard of the various travel tips that I had received after I had tweeted at the Mumbai airport and had posted on Instagram too.

Panchawati Dhaba, Bundu. On the way from Ranchi Jamshedpur

Panchawati Hotel

The dhaba offered options of both indoors (including AC) and outdoors seating. It was November and the air was crisp and cooler than in Mumbai. We took the opportunity to sit outdoors on the plastic tables set there. Could not imagine doing this in Mumbai heat. Plus it did look a bit grimy and sullen inside. A young waiter attached himself to us, took our orders, got our refills and later clicked a picture of us too. As efficient as service can get.

The thing to do at such place, I was told by travelling companions, is to order a dal rice thali and then any side dish that one wants with it. Onions, chillies, cucumbers and pickles come as accompaniments.

The lady with us was vegetarian and I suggested that we try the Bihari/ Jharkhandi dish called bhujia, instead of the faceless tava paneer and kadai paneer that the dhaaba offered otherwise.

Alu padwal bhujiya

We tried the alu padwal bhujia first and later alu bhindi. The potato in each was sliced in thin finger chip shapes. Along with this was fried the padwal (pointed gourd) in one case and bhindi (okra) in another. Both in mustard oil, turmeric, salt, onions and finely chopped green chillies. The food tasted fresh and wholesome. The mustard oil and green chillies used rejuvenated one with their pungency and sting.

Alu bhindi bhujiya

Then came the dehati (country) chicken and what a revelation it was! The country chicken served was smaller than the poultry chicken that we are used to. The texture of the meat and the colour was different too. There was a purple tone to the cooked meat versus the flaccid white of the poultry/ broiler chicken that we get. The meat was firm and yet juicy and very tender too. It had a distinctive bite unlike that of the poultry. This was chicken with great character. Not the forgettable stuff we encounter back home!

It was cooked in a thick, onion based gravy with a prominent mustard oil kick which smacked of the cooking traditions of the east of India. We paired this with thick rotis made fresh off the tava. I could not have felt more home with each bite that I took. The bhujiyas reminded me of dishes from my mother's Bengali kitchen too.

The road did get a bit bumpier after the meal, but who cared? We were well fed and happy! The meal set the tone for the rest of the lovely trip. A trip which I have written about earlier here.

Panchawati Dehati Chicken

Chai on the way back to Ranchi

We took the same route while returning. This time I had a retired mathematician with me in the car. He had gone to conduct a session on tribal astronomy at Samvaad. An idea that I found most fascinating.

He wanted to have tea and our driver promised him a great stop after we left the city, but did not stop for more an hour. 'Just five minutes more,' he kept saying. By which time our genial professor was getting rather angsty. This is because his sugar had begun to drop as I learnt later. The driver finally got us to a tea shop by the highway. It was past 1 pm by then.

The marvellous tea served there, made with milk from a perennially boiling kadai (wok) of milk, was rather ambrosia like. It energised us and the prof said that it was worth the wait. He decided to have a samosa too and so did I. It was served with ghoogni or white peas and I learnt that the combination is not uncommon here. The samosa was quite phenomenal. Crisp outer coating with a well flavoured potato stuffing inside. This was gourmet stuff and the few local school kids who had come in then knew this.

Ma Hotel

A short drive later came Ma Hotel which, as I had said earlier, came highly recommended to me when I had set off from Mumbai. It is located at Tamar on the highway. Unlike Panchawati, this did not have a prominent outdoor seating. We sat inside and that was a bit smelly. I found out that this was a temporary arrangement. That they were building a larger premises at the back and that would be swankier. I used the washrooms in the new building. It was cleaner and way better than that at Panchawati.

I later spoke to a a gentleman named Vicky who was sitting at the counter at the Ma Hotel. He spoke to me in English and said that he had been running the place for 20 years. He told me that all the food here is slow cooked on coal fire, using local recipes and produce, mustard oil and spices that are ground fresh everyday. This showed in the quality of the food. I must stress that my stomach did behave very well after each of the dhaaba meals and the tea stop too.

We had a brilliant meal at Ma Hotel too. Prof was a vegetarian Gujarati and a vegetarian. He was about to order a jeera alu, a dish that he said he orders across India as he finds to be a safe bet. I convinced him to try an alu bhujia instead and he fell in love with the thinly sliced potatoes, which was deep fried in mustard oil with a hint of chilli powder and turmeric till they had a slight crispness to them. This went beautifully with hot rotis and dal. He kept thanking me through the rest of our trip for suggesting this.

Alu bhujiya, dehati chicken, roti. Ma Hotel

I ordered a half dehati chicken (4 pieces against 8 in the full). The preparation was very different from that at Panchawati. Here the curry or gravy was runny and not thick, though it did still have the characteristic mustard oil hit. The focus therefore was entirely on the chicken here. The size, texture and taste of which was similar to that at Panchawati and just as life defining.

That is when the penny dropped. 'Dehati chicken' refers to the type of bird and not the preparation. The latter can vary a from kitchen to kitchen.

What is for sure though, is that if you want to know what living in a big city robs you of, you need to travel to Jharkhand and have the dehati chicken there! And the alu bhujiya too!

When I became friends with a Math prof. A subjected the tormented me through my student life. 'That's because it is taught wrong," said the prof!

PS: Big thanks to my travel mates who were kind enough to pay for both the meals (I offered to share) and shoot my videos too. I think the meals ranged from Rs 750 (Panchawati) to Rs 450 (Ma Hotel) with driver costs. I would also like to thank my hospitality sponsors, TATA steel.

Do check this video that we shot while on the road and please subscribe to my channel.

You might find these stories from the trip of interest too:

1. What is the Samvaad Tribal Conclave all about
2. Eating in Jamshedpur