There are certain words in Hindi that just don’t lend themselves to translation in English. Take for instance, the term ‘adda’. Roughly translated, it means a hangout zone. However, ‘hangout’ doesn’t quite capture the zing of an ‘adda’ which is basically a place to chill with friends. To elaborate, it’s an informal, friendly joint where there is no dress code, where you don’t have to mind your Ps or Qs or Zs; where you can scream, rave, rant, laugh out loud and just be yourself sans any pretention or protocol.
In the nearly three years that I have been in Dubai I have not missed too many things about India except an ‘adda’. The glass-sheathed, glittering lah-di-dah cafes and fine dines do not quite substitute the warm insouciance of tiny desi eateries. While certain areas like Karama and Deira, populated by a large number of South Asians do boast of hole-in-the-wall joints serving desi food the desi way, I wasn’t quite impressed with any of them. The gloss, in my opinion, took away from the fun. That is, until I visited Raju Omlet Centre in Karama.
It was a name that brought back many memories. Of a childhood in a small town in Western India, Vadodara (or Baroda). Of hours spent whiling away with friends and colleagues. Or devouring egg delicacies with hot chai over hotter gossip. But exactly what or who was Raju whose eponymous, misspelt ‘Omlet’ evoked such nostalgia? Now, that’s an interesting story by itself.
For a Baroda resident, Raju Omlet is what Karim’s is to a Dilliwalah. Or Kayani’s Bakery to a Puneiite or Gaylord to a Mumbaikar - iconic restaurants that go on to assume epic reputations because of good food and even better memories! The legend of Raju Omlet is no different. Rajesh Rana aka Rajubhai came to Baroda and started a small handcart in 1982 selling only egg items on the menu. Such was the flavour and taste of his dishes that he began to attract more and more patrons. The kiosk then graduated to becoming a small shop in 1995 before turning into a full-fledged eatery a few years later. Now, it’s a small restaurant with a cashier’s counter outside, a few seats inside and branches in another part of the city. The menu hasn’t changed much in all these years either. It just has eggs in varied forms – scrambled, boiled, shredded or half-boiled. Dipped in Amul butter, simmering in masala, served with toasted, coated-in-butter pav, these dishes taste heavenly. Be it the spicy Chilli Omlet or the robust Masala Half-fry, every dish is lip-smacking and very reasonably priced. I am sure there are several eggs-only restaurants in India and talented chefs make drool-worthy creations with this very versatile ingredient but Rajubhai’s eggs were special. No one knew what the magic was but a meal at Raju Omlet was gastronomic nirvana, never mind the calories! Rajubhai himself was a genial guy who regularly won awards in the ‘Roadside dhaba’ category at various Food Awards. In a nutshell, Rajubhai was like those glorified street-vendors and entrepreneurs whose rags-to-riches food tales never fail to bring a smile to your face.
For me and my friends (as with many others from Baroda), Raju Omlet was a go-to place when hunger pangs struck. In college, we would bunk lectures to enjoy an omelette-pav. When I joined Times of India as a correspondent, my journo colleagues and I would spend hours deliberating over a news report or discussing story ideas polishing off a Crush Bhurji.
Eventually I moved from small-town Baroda to big-bad Mumbai which had its own set of charming legendary restaurants. Raju Omlet gave way to Prithvi Theatre, Yazdani Bakery, Gaylord, Brittania etc. And then I shifted to Dubai where life in a pretty plastic bubble left very little room for earthy, rooted memories.
However, Raju Omlet brought back a whiff of the past recently. As it turned out, an enterprising Dubai-based Indian businessman Rajiv Mehrish had travelled to Baroda on business and stumbled upon this joint. A hardcore vegetarian, he was coaxed to try one egg dish by Rajubhai. He was hooked not only to the food, but also to the concept and immediately decided that this would be his new venture – a spanking new eggs-only eatery in Dubai! That’s how Rajubhai’s legend travelled from Baroda to one of the swankiest cities in the world, known for restaurants by Michelin-star chefs and seven-star hotels.
The fact that an integral place of my childhood and teens had made its way to Dubai was enough for me to head there at the first opportunity. I went with a couple of foodie friends one of whom was from Baroda and hence shared my emotions about this joint.
The Dubai space was tiny but lively with funny Ande ka Fundas (quotes) on the wall, kitschy kettles, lamps and petromax artifacts and wooden chairs and tables. The menu too was delightfully original. The Crush Omlet with shavings of egg white was delicious as was the Boiled Eggs with Masala with its tadka of chilli powder. The Boil Tikka Rice was better than any fried rice I had ever had while a steaming cutting mint tea felt just ideal to end a wonderful meal. Over the course of the evening, there were lots of stories shared, lots of laughter and animated discussions on the virtues of the humble egg. Suddenly, we felt we weren’t in Dubai, one of the hippest, most fashionable cities of the world. We went back several years, reliving the days when an anda dinner and booze with Hindi songs defined an ideal evening out. When hanging out didn’t mean meeting at clubs or pubs (Baroda was and still is under prohibition!) or shopping aimlessly in malls. Instead, all that mattered was the company of friends and yummy street food. Whoever said food was the biggest reference point for memories was damn right!
Of course, the Dubai version of Raju Omlet still cannot compare to the India outlet. It is squeaky clean and it isn’t quite the same minus the slangs, songs and noise that were the additional toppings back home. But for sheer nostalgia this is the address for me. More importantly, I am just happy that Dubai has found an ‘adda’ for me. Now, if it only could get old pals together – currently in different parts of the world – for an evening of pure egg-stasy as well!