Stall number A- 130: ‘Indian Vegetarian’ – Every year, after Glühwein, ‘Masala Chai’/or spiced tea is the second favourite that keeps visitors warm at Zurich Hauptbahnhof’s Christkindlimarkt. Dhanraj Mali, the man behind the stall hails from Rajasthan. In an interview over a plate of ‘Rajma-chawal’ and ‘chai’, he tells Keerthana Nagarajan about his love for food, and his stall at various cultural festivals across Switzerland.
It’s that time of the year again! Zurich, like the rest of Europe, is at its festive best. The Zurich main station is buzzing with the famous Christkindlimarkt. Illuminated stalls of colourful gifts, knits, pashminas, handmade crafts, bags, teas, herbs, loaves of bread, cakes, chocolates and a variety of local Swiss and international cuisines have visitors flocking the station at all hours. At the centre, the famous Swarovski Christmas tree stands tall at 50 feet dazzling with crystals.
After exploring the market with its huge variety, (it’s no surprise that one trip is never enough for this Christmas market), I head to a stall, to enjoy some ‘desi’ Indian food – ‘Indian Vegetarian’. Its owner Dhanraj Mali greets me with a ‘Namaste’.
It’s nearly 8 pm, and Dhanraj and his team are busy dishing out a variety of Indian food. ‘Mattar Paneer’, ‘Palak Paneer’, ‘Shahi Paneer’, ‘Aloo Gobi’ , ‘Dal Makhani’, ‘Rajma’ are just a few typical dishes from the north of India that he is cooking up today. There are at least 4 to 6 visitors at any given time of the day. While checking with his customers if they would like more rice or more curry, he effortlessly switches between German, English, and Hindi.
When I ask him where he comes from, he replies with a smile “Do you know the Bramha temple in Pushkar, Rajasthan? That’s my town.”
Dhanraj moved to Switzerland 15 years ago with his Swiss wife. Once settled, he wanted to explore his love for Indian food and grow into his profession – cooking. Rather than opening a restaurant, Dhanraj decided that he would take his food across Switzerland.
“It’s been 12 years now, I have been cooking Indian food at Bern, Solothurn, Winterthur, Zurich. I have had my stall in most of the big culture festivals around Switzerland.”
Cooking at cultural festivals also means large quantities and a lot of planning and a very busy schedule. He confirms, “My day begins as early as 7 am and I continue till 12. For the whole month, this is my routine.”
How does he manage it? Dhanraj has two friends who take turns, helping out with cooking, taking orders and getting the dishes on the plate and making more cups of tea.
Except for the ‘samosas’ and the ‘chutneys’, all other dishes are freshly prepared at the stall. “I make fresh food each morning, and something new each day so that there’s a variety for the visitors. I feel very happy to feed so many people who feel satisfied when they taste my fresh food.”
Being a stall owner at festivals and markets means that Dhanraj has to wait for the next cultural event before setting up his stall again. “ I utilize this time planning, doing my paperwork and registering for the upcoming stalls for the future months,” he says.
Sipping on his specialty, the ‘Masala Chai’, I ask if his Swiss wife also likes Indian food? He laughs and says, “My wife can cook Indian food!. She enjoys it. But stalls need the food in very large quantities, so I take care of this business.”
He concludes, “Thank you, India” and gets back to the last few orders of the day.