Punjabi food, like its culture, is very hard to ignore especially in Amritsar, the golden heart of the land of butter and celebration. The flavours are just like its people, loud and in your face but in a very good way. We went on a food adventure spanning over three days in the land of the gurus and stuffed our faces with the most beautiful, delicious and rich dishes we could find on the streets of Amritsar.
Last time when I visited Amritsar, I made it a point to make Kesar da dhaba my first food stop. Let me tell you, I have been exploring street food since my school days—so much so that I made a profession out of it—but the excitement entering this old gem that was established in 1916 gave me an adrenaline rush like no other joint ever has.
The one thing I learnt is that even though many food joints will look modern from the outside but the cuisine is still Amritsari at heart.
As you enter, the table and benches are lined up; there is another sitting area opposite the road where air coolers offer some respite from the heat. The dhaba has seen the ownership of four generations of the same family and a huge kitchen has developed over time with a separate section for frying and boiling of the kali dal, the one thing that made the legacy of this place what it is today. The original brass degh used by the first owners is still in use to boil the kali dal. The dal is boiled for 12 hours intermittently and stirred by the cook to check the consistency. Once the dal is boiled, it is passed on to next section where it is given tadka in ghee with onion and spices.
I ordered the parantha thali (₹245 ) which comes with two ghee-laden lachcha paranthas, kali dal with ghee floating over it, chole and raita with big pieces of boondi, onion and pickles. It's not a dish that I would recommend to the faint hearted—like everything else in Amritsar. You should bring an appetite to rival the years of culinary habits that developed to feed the warriors of India.
Our next stop on our food adventure was next to hathi gate—Hansraj Ji Ke Poori Chane. While walking past Hathi Gate (the holy city of Amritsar is surrounded by 12 gates) I saw a few people gorging on poori and chole on the seat of a motorbike. Intrigued, we got to know about the 60-year-old shop that's famed for its poori and chane; a plate comes for ₹20 and unlike UP it's not just a breakfast dish but an all-day one.
You should bring an appetite to rival the years of culinary habits that developed to feed the warriors of India.
Next, we stopped at Giani Punjabi Lassi. A lassi shop that has been in existence since 1927, it has pictures of film actors and the wrestler Khali devouring the big steel glass of lassi. Dhurandar Singh, the owner of the shop claimed that Khali had six glasses of his makhan-topped lassi. Being a lassi fan, I have tasted lassi across different places in India from Varanasi to Mathura (lassi connoisseuring is the next big thing after wine). The one we tried at Giani's was a unique peda lassi. Four-six pedas are crushed in a brass container that has been in use since 1927. It is then with the help of a wooden blender churned to separate butter from the peda and the leftover water is used to make lassi with fresh yoghurt. Once the lassi is made, the butter is added back to the lassi. It was a different experience, and perfectly. symbolic of the land of butter and ghee. A glass of lassi is yours for ₹75 and the shop is opposite Regency Cinema.
My food guide, Gur Iqbal, a final year student of Khalsa College took us to the telephone exchange where street food carts are lined up selling tawa dishes. We stopped at Bau Paneer Bhurji Shop (also known as Tara Chand Paneer Bhurji). The place has only two dishes on the menu—paneer bhurji and sandwich. Paneer bhurji is a scrambled paneer fried in butter with spices. Firstly, 70-80 gm of butter is added in a pan; into this go chopped onions, tomato, ginger. Now, the secret thick red paste, a mix of chick pea flour, red chillies and garlic is mixed and finally a big slice of paneer is crushed into the mixture. What comes out is a delicious, buttery paneer bhurji to be devoured with a slice of white bread and chutney.
Another dish, a revelation of sorts, was the sandwich. It comprises a slice of bread deep-fried in Amul yellow butter. Over this, channe is spread and with it slices of paneer, onions, tomato which is then fried in butter. It was again as if eating just butter. It was also served with green coriander chutney. I met this one person who claimed to have been eating the same bhurji for the last 25 years and no the flavours had never changed.
Day 1 of our journey ended in the land of butter and celebration, making us ache not with heartburn but a taste for more.
Finally we reached at King Kulfa cart owned by Prakash at Katra Jaimal Singh. Kulfa can best be described as a layered dessert. It has phirni-rabri kulfi-gond qateera (gond qateera itself has no taste, but is popular among Amritsaris in summer because of its cooling properties) faluda and is topped with rabri, sugar syrup and kewra. It's sweet no doubt about it but it is one of those things that you cannot miss on a food pilgrimage in the land of milk and makkhan.
Walking down further we reached Katra Ahluwalia, also famously known as Jalebi-wala chowk, because of Guru Ram Das Jalebi. The shop is famous for hot and crisp syrupy jalebis and soft gulab jamuns. What makes it special is the small pieces of jalebi fried in ghee and dipped in sugar syrup.
As the evening progressed, it was time to sate the carnivore in me. We reached the legendary Makhan Fish Shop, which started life as a roadside cart in 1962 but is now a full-fledged air-conditioned restaurant with a beer bar next to it. We ordered a plate of fried fish—a simple but truly delectable dish which was first coated in a batter made of chickpea flour with Ajwain and deep fried in mustard oil. The one thing I learnt is that even though many food joints will look modern from the outside but the cuisine is still Amritsari at heart. I also tried mutton tikka with bo wale kulcha (bo in Punjabi means smelly). But don't worry, it's not really smelly. Kiran who runs an Instagram micro blog by the name "wakhrapunjab" informed me that it was the taste of yeast in it that gave it its name. It really went well with succulent pieces of mutton.
I got to know from the rickshaw puller about another Makhan Fish Shop on Lawrence Road. I went there as well the same evening so that the taste could be compared. The shop started a couple of years back after the current owner returned from abroad. The fish was double fried with a thick batter of chickpeas. At the other shop in Majitha Road, it was lightly flavoured and smelt-in-the-mouth soft. I was not that impressed with the Lawrence Road shop. It might be because he saw us clicking pictures that he over-fried it. Next time, I will make it a point to visit without the camera.
And that is how Day 1 of our journey ended in the land of butter and celebration, making us ache not with heartburn but a taste for more.