16 Jan 2024

Amritsar: Nectar of Culinary Curations

Did you know that in Amritsar, even in upscale homes the ladies don’t always cook dinner? It’s brought in from the popular street foods centres scattered around the city. That’s because the city has such a solid tradition of fresh, clean, nutritious, and delicious food, cooked home-style, even in the humblest eateries, that it's quite the done thing.

A culinary journey in Amritsar is one of the most joyful experiences in the winter days. So, ditch the guilt and travel on to explore a tradition long considered a sacred ritual, rather than a utilitarian activity of keeping ones belly full to assuage the hunger pangs. Eating for Punjabis is a sacred trust which is an acknowledgment of the blessings of the divine and, their land, often described as the proverbial ‘land of milk and honey.’

The five-star culture of cities like Delhi, a huge nucleus for the Punjabi community, never rubbed off too hard on Amritsar. And this is richly evident in the historic city’s everyday food habits.

Punjabis are quite the contrary. They can be arrogant; but a thick seam of humility is also an intrinsic part of their being. This comes from the basic tenets of their faith. In the eyes of the Sikh religion, all men are equal. This is symbolized by the four doors of the venerable Golden Temple which are open to all, regardless of race, caste, or creed. It’s no surprise then to find a big industrialist doing kar seva (community service), tending the shoes of the faithful, or doling out food at the community kitchen at the shrine, alongside a small-time shop owner or raddi seller. And so, arriving in your swanky Mercedes, to eat the famous kulchas of the street vendor at Maqbool Road, before they run out, is no uncommon occurrence in this city, a long legend for its fabulous street food offerings. If you are too late you should head for Kulcha Land at Ranjeet Avenue also well-reputed for the authentic Amritsari Kulcha which is crusty and flaky.

Milk and grain are intrinsic to Punjabi cooking as is their love of chicken, fish, and fresh greens from their cultivated fields. The lifeline for these survivors from the Partition was the string of dhabas, pop-up eateries, that catered to the endless stream of rudderless displaced Punjabis from both sides of the newly formed border between India and Pakistan. Integral to the operations of the dhabas was the tandoor, the clay oven that churned out comfort food like fresh rotis, parathas, and if lucky, even ma di dal and chicken, to the line of refugees.

Staples like sarson da saag with makki di roti, succulent tandoori chicken, and the much-celebrated Punjabi butter chicken, washed down with a couple of Patiala Pegs of Single Malt are the way to go local here.

Non-veggie foodies have rich pickings at the street vendors— Amritsar fish fry, Beera style roast chicken, Mutton Chaap, Tawa Kalegi Masala, Bhatti ka murg, and lots more.

For the vegetarian palate there’s karahi paneer, dal makhani (with dollops of creamy white home-made butter) baingan ka bharta, paneer bhurjee, and Amritsari aloo vadiyan. The iconic sarson ka saag and makki di roti, popular at Kesar Da Dhaba at Chowk Passian, is a laborious treat cooked on a clay cooker or chulha. For traditional Amritsari puri-channa and chhola-bhatura head for Novelty or Kanha, both in the Lawrence Road market area.

Punjab has long been reputed for its rich and creamy milk, with a range of dairy by-products such as yogurt, ghee, cream, and paneer, which add their special heft to even everyday meals coming out of the Punjabi kitchen.

Sweeten your palate with gajjar ka halwa cooked in lashings of creamy milk, ghee, and khoya with lots of dry fruits. You can also opt for the slow-cooked rabri, a rare treat of thickened creamy layers of sweet milk with a scattering of threads of exotic saffron almonds and pistachios.

Laxmi Narayan Bhog Bhandar near the Durgiana Temple is the place to go for another Amritsari winter staple, gur ka halwa, a rich offering of semolina and jaggery steeped in the rich nuances of ghee, sundry dry fruits and nuts.

An unmissable Amritsari sweet experience is ‘ kulfa’— a zesty confluence of kulfi, phirni, rabri, falooda noodles, ice, and syrup. Even in the winter, this delicious dessert is an irresistible allurement for foodies on a roll.

At tea time, watching the vendor create those artistic golden jalebis will mesmerize your eyes and make your taste buds drool at the iconic Gurdasram Jalebiwala in Katra Ahluwalia near the Golden Temple. Team these delectable syrup-rich babies with delicious Punjab-pure pista milk and you are in heaven for sure. The creamy milk, patiently cooked for two hours, sold all over town from sunset onwards and traditionally served in kulhars (terracotta tumblers) is spiced up with cardamom, cinnamon, strings of saffron, and even rose petals.

Pick up heartwarming pinnis for the family on your way home from any one of these reputed shops— Amar Chand & Sons in Guru Bazaar, Goenka Sweets in Katra Ahluwalia, Sohan Di Hatti in Nimak Mandi Chowk, and Kanhaiya Sweets in Chowk Phullan Wala. Pinnis and Panjiris are popular staple for winter home cooking to warm the cockles of your heart and great for your immunity. Slow-cooked in ghee a combo of flour, sugar, and dry fruits is watched over carefully by doting mums, as it works its magic gently in a wok ( karahi) over a low flame. This mixture can be formed into balls (pinni) or served in powder form (panjiri).

We are familiar with rice pudding made the English way and the Indian way (kheer). Now try it Punjab winter days-style as roh di kheer, cooked, strangely enough, with sugarcane juice! If you have been at a langar sitting in the Golden Temple, you probably got your first sampling here. A long-held tradition in Punjab it’s a specialty serving (cold or hot) in the Lohri Festival which heralds the ending of the winter season.

A few iconic Hot Spots for your culinary odyssey— Ahuja Milk Bhandar; Beera Chicken House; Makhan Fish And Chicken Corner; Surjit Food Plaza; Kanhaiya Lal Harbhajan Singh da Dhaba; A-One Kulfa; Kanha Sweets; Novelty Sweets; Ruby’s Restaurant; Ahuja Sweets; Brother’s Dhaba; Harbans Lal Kulche Wala; Darshan Lal Kulche Waala; Bharawan Da Dhaba.

The eat streets of Amritsar offer visitors a rollercoaster ride of many delights. Fresh, nutritious, and delicious, the food here remains true to its age-old traditions. Every family has its favourite haunt. With each visit to the city, you can create your own, especially curated list of must-visit spots that really hit the spot.

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