From Kulchas to Chaamps To Aam Papad: Eating My Way Through Amritsar
This article was first published in Huffpost. Here is the link – https://tinyurl.com/y9c9cgx5
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. Read about day 1 here.
On the second day of our food expedition, we woke up to the aroma of deep fried imarti. It was the day of Baisakhi, which marks the start of the Sikh New Year along with the formation of the Khalsa Panth. And sweets are a hallmark of the celebration.
Pooris for breakfast
Breakfast meant sampling wares from two Amritsar mainstays, starting with Kanhaiya Lal on Lawrence Road, where we sampled a fried poori made of maida and atta (in a 70:30 proportion) stuffed with a little dal pitthi. The poori is served with sweet and tangy aloo lounji, chane ki sabzi, another savoury aloo sabzi and carrot pickles. I also tried another interesting dish called satpura—a puffed pastry (with seven layers) filled with dal ki pitthi, and served with lounji and chane. Incidentally, a similar dish called the Japani samosa is available in Old Delhi’s Manohar Dhaba. The difference is that this “samosa” is filled with mashed potatoes and served with chane and lauki achaar.
Amritsar changed my conception of the ‘nutri kulcha’ and showed me what the Delhi version was missing.
We then moved on to Kanha Sweets that serves pooris that are quite similar to Kanhaiya Lal’s—the only thing missing is the savoury aloo sabzi. Kanha Sweets also sell aam pickle, stuffed matthi and besan matthi (this last is a boon for those with a gluten allergy).
A note on aam papad
Among the most enticing of all the places I visited was Lubhaya Ram, famous for aam papad. They have two outlets—the first one is a proper shop with jars and packed boxes of aam papad and the other one is a cart, right next to the DAV girls’ college.
The owner of the shop, a big-time foodie has all the information on the best eating joints in Amritsar. The way he makes the aam papad platter is a sight to see—small pieces of all the different varieties of aam papad and anar goli are placed on a plate and then given a squeeze of lemon. Next comes a sprinkling of a 12-spice mix, white salt and black salt. The taste is simply out of the world—sweet and tangy at the same time. You can see why Amritsar needs this tasty digestive bit in a corner after you have sampled the heavy deliciousness of Kanhaiya Lal.
The breadbasket of India
Amritsar is sometimes called the Breadbasket of India. I tried kulcha at three places in the city—Ashok Kulche Wala at Ranjit Avenue, All India Famous Kulcha Wala at Chungi, and Kulwant Kulcha Wala near Golden Temple.
But first let me explain how an Amritsari kulcha is unique.
The first rule is that each layer of the dough is spread with ghee. The second is that the kulcha is always stuffed with spices ranging from pomegranate seeds to raw coriander seeds. The layered dough is filled with a mixture of aloo or paneer, or anything else and then put in the tandoor, where it gets crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. A generous helping of butter is applied over the kulchas, which are devoured with chana, spring onion and amchur chutney. The chutney is a mix of tamarind, green mangoes, spring onion and spices. Out of the three kulcha places.
The uniqueness of the chicken at Beera is in the softness rather than the crispiness that’s sought after elsewhere in north India.
I found Ashok’s to be the best kulcha in terms of authenticity and taste.
At Ashok, for the mix kulcha, mashed potatoes are combined with cauliflower mix, paneer mix, coriander seeds, fenugreek leaves, black pepper and other spices. Then are added yogurt, ghee, red chilies and salt. This combination is stuffed in the kulcha, which is placed in the oven to cook. Once it emerges, it is slathered with butter and is ready to be savoured.
At All India Famous Kulcha, the pre-made mixture is simply stuffed in the dough and cooked in the tandoor. While all India and Kulwant served crisper kulchas, Ashok’s spices elevated the dish. Ashok has been in business for 36 years. The shop is open from 9 am to 2:30 pm.
Next on our agenda was the bija kulcha (the word bija in Punjabi means wet). Iqbal our food guide in the city took us to a place called Pappi di Hatti. The yeast kulchas (bo kulchas) are dipped in chickpeas topped with chopped onion, juliennes of ginger, green chutney, and amla pickles. The kulcha soaks the gravy of chickpeas and becomes soft and flavourful. The wooden containers in which the chickpeas are kept are 15 years old.
Being a Delhiite, I have tasted cuisines from all over India in this multicultural city. Thus, I’d already sampled a “nutri kulcha” at Shalimar Bagh in Delhi when I decided to see how Amritsar’s version compared. Amritsar changed my conception of the dish and showed me what the Delhi version was missing. In Delhi, it was a normal kulcha with butter and soya granules mixed with spices. Here in Amritsar, the nutri was tawa-fried with capsicum and onions in spinach gravy. A fried piece of paneer was crushed over the nutri and the entire concoction was served with butter. It tasted heavenly. I had nutri also with bhaturas, a unique and delish combination.
Desi hot dog
Having tried the famed chaat in Varanasi, Lucknow and Delhi, I was not that excited to try the chaat in Amritsar. However, Brijwasi is everyone’s favourite go-to go chaat place. The family that migrated from Mathura still serves chaat and other dishes without onion and garlic. They have an interesting desi-style hot dog—the footlong bun is fried in vanaspati and then smeared with methi chutney or saunth on one side and green chutney on the other. A single piece of crushed tikki makes the filling. Interestingly at Brijwasi, they don’t add sweet or green chutney on the papri or bhalle unless expressly asked to do so.
Since I was there on the day of Baisakhi, the harvest festival of Punjab, even the long queues at the gates of the Golden Temple couldn’t deter me from seeking the blessings for an auspicious year.
The roti-making machine is said to make 6000-9000 rotis in an hour. Men and women put ghee over the rotis to keep them soft.
Another big draw is the langar, an important part of Sikh tradition, where anyone can walk in and eat the simple and soulful food. It is a community kitchen where the followers sit in a row and are fed by volunteers who come in to do “seva”. As you enter, on the left hand side is the roti-making machine which they say makes 6000-9000 rotis in an hour. Men and women put ghee over the rotis to keep them soft. On the right hand side is the dishwashing unit—volunteers washing the soiled plates and spoons. At the rear is the main cooking area, where the food is cooked. I have never seen such a big cauldron in my life. There is no chef—the food is cooked by volunteers and sewadars. And what comes out is delicious dal that one can taste nowhere else. On special occasions, kheer and halwa is made for the followers. This institution is responsible for feeding hundred of homeless people in the city.
Chaamps and chicken
Now, one of the food explorers in our group was a vegetarian. So, before moving to the popular Beera Chicken, we stopped at Hathi Gate at Lovely Chaamp. The chaamps, made up of maida and soya are given different shapes, marinated in different spices and then grilled over charcoal. The spices are similar to those that are used in meat preparation. The most interesting out of all the soya champs was the completely veg fish champ—a fish-shaped patty made of soya and spices that are used in making Amritsari champ. (In Delhi, we have our own versions for vegetarians—deep-fried kurkure champs and Afghani ones with white creamy sauce). I loved the way creativity is inculcated in food. The Amritsari folks do not compromise on the taste and meaty texture even in vegetarian food.
Next up was Beera Chicken on Majeetha Road, where several customers ordered their food from inside their car and ate there too—Delhi-style! The shop has a sitting section too, though. Balbir, the owner, manages the restaurant, while his son takes care of the grill counter.
The chicken is first marinated in secret spices, half cooked and finally grilled straight over a griddle. One can also ask for tandoori chicken—the same chicken is cooked in a clay tandoor.
The uniqueness of the chicken is in the softness rather than the crispiness that’s sought after elsewhere in north India. It tasted heavenly. The other recommended dish at Beera is keema naan. Minced mutton is stuffed in the dough and cooked inside the tandoor. Loads of delicious butter is spread over it. While I am usually a little more careful about my butter consumption, in Punjab you gotta do as the Punjabis do. The naan is served with chutney, onions and a mutton curry that is so delicious that I slurped it straight from the bowl.
We ended our second day with Prakash which was a big disappointment. I tried magaj (brain curry), chaamp and mutton tikka. Apart from the champ (minced meat deep-fried in ghee) the other two dishes were nothing to write home about. When we visited the shop construction for a bar section was in full swing. Maybe it was just a bad day for them or maybe they have moved away from their roots—who knows?
Unable to eat a morsel more, we ended the night with digestive tablets, hoping for a grand day three to end our food expedition on a high note.