A seven-layered kulcha? Swati Daftuar samples the Punjabi variant of the North Indian staple.

Amritsar is a small city, easily navigated by cycle and auto-rickshaws, and almost every worthy eatery is a hop and a skip away. To no one’s surprise, everything — even food — has gravitated towards Harmandir Sahib, better known as The Golden Temple. On your way out of the Temple, you won’t have to look hard for the kulchas. They seem to be a staple here, with almost every second shop sizzling with the sound of bread frying in oil and smelling a little like heaven.

In north India, you don’t have to look too far to have a decent and sometimes even excellent kulcha. But there is something that sets the Amritsari Kulcha apart, something that gives it that special name, declaring it the city’s own. A traditional Punjabi recipe, Chhola-Kulcha is a combination of Indian flatbread (Kulcha), served with chickpeas in a spicy gravy. Amritsari Kulcha contains less maida (white refined flour) and is cooked in a large open tandoor, unlike its namesakes in other parts of north India. The kulchas are stuffed with potatoes, onions, cottage cheese and spices.

Stuffing formula!

Gurdeep Singh, the friendly old man at the small stall where I had my first Amritsari Kulcha, informed me that the stuffing has to be prepared very carefully. “We need to make sure the mixture is just right; and the spices too. You can’t stuff too much or too little.” As he has been stuffing kulchas for over 15 years now, he has no problem getting it ‘just right’. He assured me that his kulchas were the best in the city, and while they were excellent, and certainly not a bad way to start the quest, I decided to visit some of the other names that had been thrown at me at the start of my short train ride from Delhi to Amritsar.

A short rickshaw ride away, on Maqbool Road, is the All India Famous Amritsari Kulcha stall, one of the most talked about Kulcha makers in Amritsar. It is a simple, unpretentious establishment, a functional shack with open seating on plastic chairs. Earlier called All India Fames, the stall opens early morning and is the city’s favourite breakfast joint. It has been around for over 60 years, and is run currently by two brothers, Dalbir and Samarjit Singh.

Interestingly enough, the place boasts of a menu with nothing but kulchas. They make a special seven-layered kulcha stuffed with potatoes, cauliflower and cottage cheese; serve it piping hot, crisp, thin and flaky with a generous dollop of homemade butter already melting, a bowl of hot, spicy and delicious chholey and green chillies and onions. A meal can’t get heartier than that, and you have the option of washing it down with a hot cup of sweet, strong tea or a tall glass of thick, frothy lassi. Fortunately, the otherwise kulcha-dominated menu allows for these digressions. Prices are low and a meal for two can be wrapped up in under Rs.100.

I took a much-needed break after this meal, and instead of eating more kulchas, decided to find out a little more about its origins and history. But digging deep pulled up no real threads. “It’s what we’ve always eaten,” offered a satisfied customer at All India Famous. The owners, while reminiscing about the origin of their dhaba, couldn’t really remember a time that the kulcha hadn’t been around. “Wheat is a staple here. So, it’s natural that we’d have many variations of the flatbread, naans, chapattis, parathas, kulchas.”

It was a similar story at all other dhabas and restaurants. It appears that somewhere along the line, the kulcha, in all its appetising glory, snuck into the kitchens of Punjab and made itself right at home, so much so that no one could really remember a time that it hadn’t been there.

It was much later that I visited my last kulcha dhaba of the day. After the meal at All India Fames, I expected anything else to pale in comparison, but the last kulcha I had, at Kulcha Land on Ranjit Avenue, managed to hold its own. Opened before 1947 in Lahore, the store moved to Amritsar post-independence and has been serving the famous delicacy for over 75 years. Currently run by the fifth generation of the founding family, you aren’t offered the menu. Instead, you’re offered, hot, fresh-off-the-griddle kulchas.

My entire day had been spent snacking on this very dish, but I couldn’t resist asking for a second helping.

A fortnightly feature on food and the places that made them famous.

HOW IT’S MADE

(Makes 4)

Ingredients

2 cups maida (All purpose flour)

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

3 tbsp oil

1/4 cup yogurt

1/4 cup warm milk

For the filling

1 cup boiled and mashed potatoes

1 finely chopped green chilli

1 finely chopped onion

1/2 tsp red chilli powder

1 tsp cumin powder

1/4 tsp chaat masala

1 tbsp finely chopped coriander leaves0

Method

Sieve the maida and then mix it with the baking soda, baking powder, oil, yogurt, sugar and salt in a bowl.

Add the warm milk and knead into soft dough. Make sure to add the milk gradually and not make the batter sticky.

Cover the dough with a damp cloth and keep aside for an hour.

For the Filling: Take mashed potatoes, chopped onions and green chillies, red chilly powder, cumin powder, chaat masala and coriander leaves in a bowl, mix everything and make four medium sized balls. Take out the dough, break off a medium sized ball, flatten it and place filling ball in the centre. Fold this ball again into a ball, with the filling at its centre, and dust the dough with flour. With a rolling pin, flatten this ball out into a thick disc.

Heat few drops of oil in a deep frying pan, and gently drop the flattened kulcha in the hot oil. Cook on both sides until the kulchas turns golden brown.

The kulchas are ready to serve.

RELATED NEWS

In search of Kakinada KhajaNovember 10, 2012

In search of Thoothukudi macaroonDecember 8, 2012