A Guide to the Dhabas of Birmingham
Kulcha, paratha, chole bhatura and more. Words and photos by Gurpreet Jivan
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A Guide to the Dhabas of Birmingham by Gurpreet Jivan
Whenever I go home, my dad asks me what I want to eat. He’s not inquiring as much as implying that he has a hankering for the kinds of crispy golden treats that come wrapped in translucent brown paper bags, in the hope that I do too. He’s usually not wrong: it’s exactly what I’m craving when I’ve been away. When you’ve grown up Punjabi in the UK, dhaba food becomes the cornerstone of your desi experience: their quiet presence laid out on silver trays skirting the edges of reception hall tables; the sustenance they offer at the end of a shopping trip with your mum on Soho Road when you’re dizzy from hunger and sequins; the moment the door latches after you say bye to your guests and you can finally swipe a cold, overlooked samosa, enjoying it in one sweeping movement.
If you ask any Punjabi what their favourite dhaba is, they’ll tell you a story. They’ll tell you about the place they used to get samosas from before its abrupt closure; the place where they once ate pakoras, whose unremarkable quality saw it axed from the slate; and their new haunt, the one that now belongs to them. I recently asked my auntie how she would define a dhaba and she texted back: “It’s a place where you eat :)”. While its literal translation is “roadside food stall”, her logline captures the essence of what it means to the communities that dine there. In the absence of soft furnishings, ambient lighting and adjective-adorned menus, the only thing left is the food. This might be why dhaba food is marked by such intense scrutiny from aunties and uncles; food is never simply good. Instead, it is considered along numerous variables, like the thickness of the roti, the tartness of the imli, the ratio of potato to peas.
Dhabas exist outside of Western rules of dining, operating in countless forms: a brightly-lit sweet centre with long glass counters, reflecting an infinity mirror of brightly coloured stacks of mithai, all tinted the same butter-yellow; a pizza place challenging the very definition of pizza itself, where chunks of tandoori paneer have been strewn across as topping; on the end of a WhatsApp message for freshly prepared keralas, paneer bhurji and chawal placed at the foot of your door; tucked away inside newsagents, behind a line of Punjabi magazines and prints; in places not comfortable enough to spend hours in, but just long enough to catch the ghee while it’s swimming on top of the dhal.
Punjabi dhabas in Punjab and Punjabi dhabas in Birmingham have also evolved in response to a different set of community needs. In Punjab, they popped up after Partition in 1947 – appearing along highways as lay-bys for hungry truckers. With low overheads and slim margins, food that could be eaten quickly and without utensils came to shape Punjabi dhaba food. Here in the UK, in Greater London (Hounslow, Slough, Southall, Ilford) and the Midlands (Birmingham, Leicester, Coventry), they emerged in the 1970s, starting as sweet centres before expanding into savoury items, offering samosas, spring rolls and pakoras. They marked the end of a generation of grandmothers, mothers and aunties that would form production lines in their back gardens, bulk-frying over open campfires. Not all Punjabis were happy about this change, though; although it opened up some time for the women of the family, men like my grandad still wanted food hot enough to blister the roof of their mouths, often resulting in food already fried once being refried again at home.
Today’s landscape of dhabas is non-linear, adapting to first, second and third-generation British Punjabis and those in Punjab themselves. This means that when you consider what an investigation into dhabas should cover, the possibilities are dizzying. Personally, I think of a cardboard box piled high with samosas, softened with grease, food that is both vegetarian and brilliant, the pride placed on food that is simply good value for money and sacrilegious combinations of chocolate and barfi. As it happens, in 2023, you are just as likely to find a tandoori chicken pizza in Punjab as you are an aloo tikki noodle burger in Birmingham.
A note on Birmingham’s dhabas
Over the last 70 years, high streets in Birmingham have swelled with Caribbean, Jamaican, Kashmiri, Bangladeshi, Punjabi and Pakistani restaurants, an expression of the many ways in which these communities, who boldly left their homes to make another, have tethered their lives here. Punjabi dhabas are merely one of these expressions. They tend to be concentrated in North West Birmingham, where the borders of Handsworth, Smethwick, Oldbury and West Bromwich blur. But also, the city centre is bloated with Indian and North Indian restaurants chasing a narrow kind of authenticity, continuing to romanticise an idea of ‘exotic India’, a century-old colonial project which has continued to limit the multiplicities of South Asian identities.
The majority of the dhabas in this guide consider themselves to be ‘Punjabi’. But, as I came to realise when compiling this, Punjabi is a category that is flawed in its ability to capture all of the complexities that shape migrational patterns. This could have easily been a guide to Sikh restaurants because Sikhs make up a large percentage of people who have migrated to Birmingham from Punjab. But they don’t make up all of them; that would exclude Christians, Ravidassias, Hindus and those who have dropped any notion of religion altogether. Punjabi, based on ethnicity, would have included a great deal of restaurants from now-Pakistan that have opened here in Birmingham. There are huge overlaps and influences in the cuisine, but including them would conflate the ways in which Partition and migration changed the kinds of foods that are revered in differing diasporas. These restaurants are not all regionally from Punjab, they’re second- or even third-generation owned, becoming distinctly British-Punjabi. Still, this guide has settled on Punjabi dhabas, revealing its presumptions, but it also offers an invitation to meet and examine our ideas about British-Punjabi identity.