Why an Amritsari is automatically a connoisseur of great food

More than any other Indian city, Amritsar takes eating out with great seriousness. Its residents grow up amidst amazing cuisine and learn to appreciate its deep joys.

 |  11-minute read |   14-12-2018
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Growing up inside the walled city of Amritsar, good food was always just around the corner. 

One of my earliest memories is about my Sunday morning walks down to the corner of our block to Saadh, our neighborhood kulche-wala. My mother would load a steel container with homemade ghee and I would take it to Saadh. Our doorbell would ring a half-hour later and Saadh would personally deliver freshly baked Amritsari kulchas, richly slathered with ghee that would stain their newspaper wrapping. The steel container would come back filled with chhole – exquisitely spiced and mixed with the tangy chutney. 

Amritsar is rightly famous for its chhole kulche. (Photo: India Today)Amritsar is rightly famous for its chhole kulche. (Photo: Instagram/shazanhusain19)

We moved houses in the 90s and Saadh slowly faded from memory. 

Years later, I went to college near my old home and my new classmates would often rave about kulchas from an old man nearby — who turned out to be Saadh. We often bunked classes and rode our scooters straight to him — and to me, the kulchas still tasted of childhood. Saadh still garnished them with roasted spices, whole pepper and coriander seeds, in what was his unique touch. Before finishing college and moving to Mumbai for my first job, I made it a point to eat breakfast only at Saadh for several consecutive weeks. 

Another memory growing up was about ordering shahi paneer, my favorite childhood dish, from a popular vegetarian eatery, Kesar da Dhaba, near home. Many evenings, one of my sisters or I would phone my father to pick up shahi paneer and the mah di dal (black dal) on his way from work. Sometimes, I rode my bicycle and got those dishes; they were unlike anything we ate at home or outside. After years of traveling around India and eating at several highly acclaimed restaurants, I still haven’t tasted a better dal. 

Mah Di Daal, or ‘kaali daal’, is one of Punjab’s most delicious offerings.Mah Di Daal, or ‘kaali daal’, is one of Punjab’s most delicious offerings. (Photo: YouTube)

Time passed and the popularity of our neighborhood dhaba grew. 

A few years ago, I read that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain ate there and changed his views about vegetarian food. “If this is what vegetarianism meant in most of the places that practice it in the West, I’d be at least half as much less of a dick about the subject,” he said. Kesar da Dhaba was finally on the world stage. 

Bourdain broke his carnivorous vows at an Amritsari institution and I was happy for him. However, if I were given the task of persuading a hardcore meat lover about the virtues of vegetarian cuisine, I’d bet on the Amritsari stuffed kulcha — what our city is perhaps best known for. Our destination, however, wouldn’t be Purani Chungi, where Bourdain ate, but Bansa’s kulcha shop nearby, run by master baker Raju kulche-wala.

The outstanding vegetarian food of Amritsar converted Anthony Bourdain, a hardcore non-vegetarian, to a believer. (Photo: YouTube screengrab)The outstanding vegetarian food of Amritsar converted Anthony Bourdain, a hardcore non-vegetarian, to a believer. (Photo: YouTube screengrab)

Amritsar is dotted with stuffed kulcha-walas in most street corners; however, their product quality is about as homogenous as the Indian gene pool. A majority of them pass off stuffed paranthas as kulchas — soft as glue and poorly spiced. 

Not our Raju, though. He bakes perhaps the most lusciously crisp kulchas to be found anywhere in the city, flaky like an oven-fresh Parisian croissant, with a stuffing that is delicately, yet meticulously spiced. The sides of chhole and chutney appear deceptively simple — but make no mistake, even they are exceptional. 

According to the science of cooking, the Maillard reaction explains the richly layered flavors of a perfectly baked bread. Like a gifted artist, Raju has mastered the Maillard reaction, though it is not easy to command. Even Raju will dish out a less than perfect kulcha on odd days. But the risk is well worth taking, unlike the kulchas at Purani Chungi that were last edible in the 90s. Vikas Khanna, a local boy and the celebrity chef who escorted Bourdain to the Chungi, should have known better. 

That Amritsaris have superlative taste in food and take their eating out way too seriously is something of an aphorism. We never fail to tell our foreign guests that the best food in Amritsar is to be found outside one’s home, not inside. As luck would have it, Bourdain missed out on another kulcha that Amritsaris eat a lot; not the stuffed one, but one that is an old-school leavened bread. This doosra kulcha is curiously absent from most tourist and culinary guides to Amritsar, even though most North Indians know it as the better half of matar kulcha. 

Even today, this kulcha is mass-produced in small bakeries with wood-fired ovens in the old city. Partly because of the wood smoke that permeates it, and the rest possibly because of a mysterious type of yeast used, this Amritsari kulcha has a taste and texture that is remarkably unique, and distinctly different from the cheap imitations one gets in Delhi or any other place. In my reckoning, its closest relative in taste is the famed Bombay pao. According to author Lizzie Collingham, the Portuguese first baked the pao in Goa, using local toddy to ferment the dough. Punjabis love their liquor too — and one can only wonder what goes inside the Amritsari kulchas for leavening. 

As versatile as a pao, the Amritsari kulcha is the perfect mate for dry dishes and luscious curries.As versatile as a pao, the Amritsari kulcha is the perfect mate for dry dishes and luscious curries. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Digjot Singh)

The Amritsari kulcha is also as versatile as a pao — happily mating with dry and curried dishes, meat chaamp, fried fish, chicken or mutton tikka, pakode or fritters, chhole or mutton curry. My father would often tell us of his frequent scooter rides to Prakash’s in the 70s for a plate of ‘meat curry’ with kulchas. Prakash’s stall was an institution in those days — perhaps the most popular eating-out destination in Amritsar. He would set up his meat curry stall five days a week; mind you, there was no other dish on the menu. He started at 11:30 in the morning — and was routinely sold out by 1 PM. Years later, his descendents set up a new restaurant in an outer neighborhood that still carries their father’s name. The place still gets a fair share of customers, perhaps driven by nostalgia, though the food is no longer anything to write about. 

Like most locals as well as tourists who have visited and eaten in Amritsar, I’ve often wondered what it is about the local eateries that make them truly one of a kind. To an extent, there is the obvious Punjabi cultural influence on eating well and generally having a good time; as a friend once remarked about Punjabi food, “Everything tastes so good because everything is swimming in butter”. Those with a keen eye would notice that when served in a katori, the famous dal of Kesar da Dhaba is actually ghee and dal in equal parts — neither mixed, nor stirred. 

This magic ingredient makes food taste better. So much better!This magic ingredient makes food taste better. So much better! (Photo: YouTube)

In school, we were taught an old Punjabi saying that goes, ‘Khaada peeta lahe da, baaki Ahmed Shahe da’. Loosely translated, it means what we eat and drink is ours and done with — the rest belongs to Ahmed Shah (or any foreign invader). Perhaps this explains Amritsar’s enduring obsession with what we eat, but this doesn’t explain why Ludhiana and Jalandhar, older and much bigger cities than Amritsar, have not really earned a similar name for good food. 

Another theory holds that cities or towns that attract a great number of tourists or traders — essentially non-residents — end up becoming culinary landmarks. Take Lucknow, Varanasi, Kolkata, Mumbai or Calicut — nearly all cities with larger-than-life culinary reputations can neatly fit into the theory. Amritsar though is still an exception; its eateries are not actually packed with tourists or visitors from outside; it is mostly locals thronging them. 

How does one then define the cause and effect relationship — did Amritsari eateries became so good because locals loved eating out, or do locals love eating out because a meal outside is just so good? 

I have two possible explanations to offer.

At one level, it could be the competitiveness of local chefs and restaurant owners, inspired by legends like Prakash — the meat curry seller — and Kanhaiya Lal, the man whose descendants now run the famous Kanha Sweets on Lawrence Road, best known for its heavenly puri chhole at breakfast. Punjabis are, after all, known to be competitive; looking up to someone who draws big crowds to his eatery and has made a name for himself would have surely inspired the generations that followed. 

The other explanation is more intimate in nature. For many Amritsari chefs, cooking is a performance art and like all great artists, they are driven by the pursuit of perfection in their creation. This hypothesis perhaps explains why some of Amritsar’s best eateries are one-man or one-family operation — the owner is the main cook and his place can barely accommodate 6-10 customers in one go. Fortunately for the locals in the know, several of these places are yet to be discovered by tourists and tour guides. 

Mohan Singh da Dhaba in the walled city serves easily the most delectable mutton tikkas and chicken curry ever made on this planet. Mohan Singh is in his 70s — and yet he cooks every dish himself, on order, occasionally assisted only by his son. His tiny dhaba can accommodate 10-12 people at max and does not even have a tandoor; rotis or naans are brought in from a ‘saanjha chulha’ nearby.

Chicken curry for the soul. Chicken curry for the soul.  (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Peppergarlickitchen)

The food is exceptional not only because it is tastier than anything else, but also, for some inexplicable reason, it never makes one feel heavy, no matter how much one has eaten. There is one more thing; you can actually taste the quality of the meat and the spices. 

The Michelin star system awards a restaurant on the basis of how much driving trouble you should take to go and eat there; a single star means that a casual diversion is necessary; a three-starred restaurant deserves a special cross-country road trip just to eat there. If Michelin were to offer its stars in India; Mohan Singh da Dhaba would be a worthy three-stars. 

My father once took me to meet his friend, who owned a movie theatre. Adarsh was one of the popular movie theatre in the ‘90s, benefiting from its proximity to the high streets of Amritsar, Lawrence Road and Mall Road. My father’s friend let me sit and watch Universal Soldier. The show ended late in the evening and my father arrived to pick me up, and to conduct our family’s main business at Adarsh — getting mutton chaamp packed for home from the popular cart parked inside the theatre’s gate.

The Amritsari meat chaamp, a mutilation of mutton chop, is not the real thing that we get in England or New Zealand. It is rather a patty made with spiced, minced goat meat and affixed to a flat bone, which is then shallow fried on a tawa in ghee and served with a slightly roasted kulcha and a side of chutney-pyaaz. When made well, it can be a heavenly snack or a complete meal by itself. 

The chaamp at Adarsh exploded in popularity through the 80s and 90s; for years, it was impossible to get your hands on it if you didn’t make it before 8 PM. The otherwise anonymous cart owner earned the moniker Adarsh Chaampwalla. His family now runs a bigger and popular eatery in his name.

But over and above and in-between its many restaurants, dhabas and food stalls, what is pervasive over Amritsar is the smell of a fired-up tandoor, wafting across the city’s streets, much like the smells of freshly baked croissants in Parisian bakeries meandering around that city. Walking through Nungambakkam in Chennai or Indiranagar in Bangalore or Andheri in Mumbai, nothing else reminds me of home now and makes me long to get back as much as the smell of a lit-up tandoor.

The fragrance of baking items in a tandoor begins the Amritsari love for food. (Photo: Twitter/VIAcaucasus)The fragrance of baking items in a tandoor begins the Amritsari love for food. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

My father would tell me stories of his frequent travels across India, particularly down south — of how he would travel several kilometers each evening to the one authentic Punjabi restaurant for dal sabzi and tandoori roti back in the ’70s. Earlier, I used to wonder why he didn’t explore the local cuisines. Of late though, I have realised that it is impossibly hard to compromise on food if you are born and brought up in Amritsar. You are automatically a connoisseur — with your taste buds slaked in a warm tandoor.

Also read: Keep your inner goddess alive with red chilli


Rishi Seth Rishi Seth @sethrishi

Founder and CEO of Evoc, a PR and digital marketing firm.

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