Planning a road trip? Make pit stops for highway food shopping

On National Highway 275 at Hunsur in Karnataka, there are small sheds with towering mounds of bright red dried chillies. (Istockphoto)
On National Highway 275 at Hunsur in Karnataka, there are small sheds with towering mounds of bright red dried chillies. (Istockphoto)


Highways are such treasure troves for food and kitchen-related shopping. Choose from soapstone cooking vessels, flavoured salts and an array of rare regional finds on road trips

For most folks who enjoy a good road trip, the journey is often about how smooth the roads are, how scenic the route is and what new restaurant may have opened since they were last on the stretch. It is all this for me, but as someone who doesn’t drive, there is something more I have come to look forward to on every road trip – highway food shopping.

With Bengaluru as our home base, one of the shortest road trips we make is to Mysuru on National Highway (NH) 275. Along this stretch, at Mattikere in Channapatna is Organic Mandya – a store present on both sides of the highway, opposite each other. It brings together produce from a farmer collective in the region and at every visit has something new to offer – fresh seasonal vegetables, hand-churned butter, large blobs of which are immersed in cold water to keep them fresh, ghee, clay pots for cooking in every conceivable size and fresh spices–turmeric, long pepper, juices like lemon ginger and nannari (Indian Sarsaparilla), and a gamut of freshly milled flours.

Going forward from Mysuru to Coorg on the same highway, at Hunsur there are small sheds with towering mounds of bright red dried chillies. Stop at any of them and take your pick from Teja chillies which come in from Telangana and pack a solid punch. Choose from two kinds of Kashmiri chillies (which come from farms in North Karnataka) –one gives only colour, the other colour and some khara (heat) said the smiling lady manning the stall. At Koppa near Kushalnagar, look out for 1854 Coffee Collective and pick up some civet coffee which is ground to your choice of a pour-over, French press, filter or aero-press. You can also consider stopping at any of the scores of stores selling homemade wines, Coorg chocolates and honey.

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Bengaluru to Mangaluru and back, on NH75, is a stretch we often take. Close to Hassan bypass, on the side heading back to Bengaluru, are makeshift sheds where stone workers from nearby villages have plenty on display. The small-sized stone mills, mortar-pestles and the selection of soapstone chattis (vessels) are worth stopping for. Make sure that the chattis you buy are pre-seasoned, though the stoneworkers will give you detailed instructions on how to do it. As you drive through Saklespur, consider stopping at any of the Salish outlets to pick up fresh coffee, dried kiwis, apricots, apples and other fruits and every whole spice you would like in your masala dabba.

Bengaluru to Kochi, an approximately 10-hour drive on NH44 and NH544 through Krishnagiri, Salem, Coimbatore, Palakkad and to Kochi via Thrissur is another food shopping haven. Right from Salem, the highway is lined with bakeries every few kilometres. They have sweet parottas, puffs, cakes in different flavours like vanilla, honey and cream, coconut buns, freshly fried banana chips, cold-pressed coconut oils and fried snacks of every imaginable kind. And never pass up an opportunity to stop at a clay pot store and pick up some black or red pre-seasoned ones. No one makes them like in Kerala.

If you find yourself driving from the hills of Kodaikanal to Dindigul via Laws Ghat Road and NH 183, you will find the highway section lined with stalls of people selling fresh mountain produce like bright orange carrots with long green stems. Ask any stall owner for a chutney recipe for the stems and they will give you an easy one. Bonnet chillies in red and green can be bought in little netted bags. And the best of all is aged smoked garlic that come in bags of 500 grams and a kilogram. I bought a bag of 5 year-old smoked garlic (or at least so I was given to believe).

The longest road trip I have done is six days in Arunachal Pradesh on the Trans-Arunachal Highway (NH13), approximately 973 kilometres from Namsai to Basar. Across the journey from Namsai to Hayuliang, Kaho, Walong, Tezu and finally to Bomjir and then Basar, the highways had so much to offer. At Centre Point Market on NH15 (a part of the Trans-Arunachal highway), we bought black chillies that look just like the long green chilli, except they are jet black. Also in the shopping bag was a red dried Bird’s Eye chilli variant called Chakma and whole green oblong-shaped local lemons. From a row of plastic candy boxes, the shop-keeper also fished out large pickled lemons simply called nimbu. They are believed to have medicinal properties and you simply bite small bits of it. All along the route there was plenty to snack on and buy to take home–small sweet local oranges for example. At Bomjir we bought gud (local jaggery spiced with pepper, cut into small cubes) and a cloyingly sweet peda-like snack meant to be had with hot laal (red) chai that is available all over the state.

Highways are such treasure troves for food and food-related shopping. Along the NH48 Delhi-Jaipur highway keep an eye out for perforated red clay tavas with a nifty handle; perfect for getting your rotis to puff-up like they would on a direct flame. On NH109, from Mukteshwar to Almora in Uttarakhand stop at the community-driven Kilmora store and pick up a range of pisyu loon (traditional salts from Uttarakhand) in a multitude of flavours–garlic, ginger, chilli, coriander, seasonal herbs and more.

If highway food shopping has not been a part of your agenda, consider it now. It will only add a few hours to your overall trip time but will be completely worth it.

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.

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