I was savouring an aloo-paratha in the restaurant Panchagaon - Proudly Desi when a loud tinkling of bells distracted me. Looking beyond my plate, I noticed a mini procession of three well-dressed servers; the one in the front assiduously ringing a bell, the second carrying a huge platter with a massive paratha and the third assisting him.
On asking, I discovered it was the Sarpanch Paratha—a ginormous paratha shared by four to six people. The massive paratha matched the restaurant's grand interiors. “Nothing is by accident here, everything is intentional” says TP Shibu the CEO of Panchgaon. It is located at NH 8, the Delhi-Jaipur Highway, some five kilometres from Manesar. When they were planning the menu, they intended to be ‘different’ from other popular highway pit-stops dotting NH8. “We decided to go with one unique dish in each section of the menu and the Sarpanch Paratha in the paratha segment became a runaway hit,” he says and adds they opened the restaurant in February 2021 just before the second wave hit India and then reopened in July that year after the lockdown had eased a bit.
The 20-inch paratha has now become the star dish on the menu. It contains one kilogram wheat flour stuffed with a kilogram of vegetable, paneer, cheese, nuts, khoya and is served with an assortment of accompaniments like sabzis, curds, pickles, chutneys, butter and sweet dishes. It isn’t India’s biggest paratha, but it’s certainly unique. Also, there’s a fetching challenge – anyone who can eat a whole Sarpanch Paratha by themselves within an hour with a glass of lassi wins a whopping prize of Rs. 21,000. Earlier, the prize was ₹11,000 but when they realised there were no takers, the stakes were raised to Rs. 21,000. “No one,” a server informs me grinning, “has won the challenge so far.”
The planning part was easy but the execution proved to be trickier than they had imagined. From kneading, rolling and transferring the massive paratha to a skillet, flipping it and serving without the whole thing coming apart was a task that needed a lot of brain-racking. “We finally arrived at the solution of cooking it like a pizza in a wood-fired oven,” says Shibu. This worked well for a while but the team hadn’t anticipated the massive popularity the paratha would come to enjoy.
“We thought two to four parathas would be served in a day, but we hadn’t imagined that there would be more than a dozen orders during one meal time,” he says. They serve around forty paranthas every day. “People come especially for the Sarpanch Paratha from as far as Ghaziabad, driving around two hours and are obviously piqued when we run out of orders,” informs Shibu. To overcome the slow-cooking wood-fired ovens, they got huge customized skillets and flippers and had to train chefs.
One paratha costs ₹ 1275, and if six people share, the cost per person is around ₹ 200 which is a pocket-friendly affair. This explains why the paratha accounts for about 18% of their income.
“We were taken aback by the huge popularity of what we had introduced like a gimmick,” Shibu says. As if to prove his point, I witnessed the paratha-procession five times within one hour. "And this," he informs us about the bells and pageantry "is something some people have actually complained about.” While I can't imagine what people may have against this rather interesting custom, I did feel a paratha that rich can perhaps be enjoyed better with simple accompaniments like curds, butter and pickles rather than the heavy curries and dal.
Food is not merely about what one eats, but also what one feels. As I observed happy groups gather around the Sarpanch Paratha, it made me wonder whether it owes its popularity to bringing back the almost forgotten joys of communal meals.