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Dhabas of Amritsar

After a kulcha, crunchy with oodles of butter on the outside, attack the gulab jamun instead. Then, try a kebab ... . GUNVANTHI BALARAM on the ...

Amritsar's USP-- most places have a wide-ranging clientele, from ministers to rickshaw-wallahs.

IN the holy city of Amritsar, nobody can go hungry. For pilgrims and the poor, there's the divine langar at the Golden Temple. For tourists and the locals, there's the ubiquitous dhaba — that hole-in-the-wall eatery that dishes up the most flavoursome and fragrant of food at the humblest of prices.

Tasty, fresh and clean

Let not its dingy climes lead you astray: the dhaba is the best place to eat at in Amritsar. The food is not just hot and tasty, it's invariably also fresh and clean. Now we know why the Amritsaris quite often prefer to send out for food rather than cook in their own kitchens.

Many certainly desist from cooking breakfast, as Sarabjit Singh, Amritsar's former divisional commissioner and author of Operation Black Thunder, will confirm. For the best morning bread is baked on the streets. They just step out and grab a kulcha at the friendly neighbourhood dhaba/kulchewala and wash it down with a glass of frothy lassi or masala chai.

I noticed this everywhere while strolling with the amiable retired bureaucrat through the congested bazaars around the Golden Temple — from where, incidentally, he fished out many a terrorist a couple of decades ago. "When I was a boy, many families would leave a basket with a 10 paisa or char-anna coin in it, out on the doorstep," Singh said, as I peered into a roadside tandoor with kulchas stuck all over its stomach, "and the kulchewala would come around every morning and deposit the required amount of kulche-chole in it." The kids would then "pounce on the fragrant kulche like hungry puppies".

The "Amritsari kulcha" is worth devouring, certainly — it's this plump, yet just that flaky maida roti soft with potato and onion spiced with pepper, chilly, jeera and anardana on the inside and crunchy with oodles of butter on the outside. Eaten only at breakfast or brunch, it is served with gravied chole (the small chana) and a chutney of tamarind, jaggery and onion, or of tamarind, mint, onion and green chilly. It's a kulcha that cannot be found anywhere else in the Punjab, not even some miles down the road in Ludhiana. I didn't know any better, but Kiranjot Kaur, the young ex-secretary of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (who, along with conservationist Gurmeet Rai, has initiated measures to have the Golden Temple listed as a World Heritage Site) informed me that the best breakfast places are "All India Fames" (lately corrected to Famous, alas) "Kulcha-Chola Dhaba" on Maqbool Road, "Kanha's" on Lawrence Road and "Kanahya's" at Phullonwala Chowk.

"Don't go away without trying the puri-alu and gur-halwa, it's our traditional Sunday brunch," Kiranjot said emphatically after I had interviewed her about more material matters at the Golden Temple.

I wasn't about to disobey her.

At Kanahya's, the puris (of wheat) were light and fluffy; the potatoes, in a sauce of jaggery and tamarind, tangy. The famous kulcha-chole dished up by the brothers Dalbir and Samarjit Singh for 10 rupees also lived up to its reputation. Those who bring desi ghee from home for their kulcha get a discount of three rupees, I was told. I didn't see anyone carrying their own homemade ghee, though. When I announced I would prefer mine without butter, the guy fishing them out of the tandoor ignored the request. "Why, having heart trouble?" he asked disdainfully, lashing on the butter.

Ah well. This is the land of milk and ghee, I'd been warned. "When you get to my hometown, forget all that low-fat rubbish," my Amritsar-raised, Delhi-based artist-friend Nitasha Jaini had warned me before I boarded the Frontier Mail. "Remember Amritsar is the land of the Sardars, and that the glow on their chubby cheeks comes not with wheatgerm and soya, but with lassi and asli ghee." Never mind that Amritsar has the highest incidence of heart disease in the Punjab.

Nitasha had also instructed me to eat everything I possibly could in the pilgrim town. "Not just Amritsari kulcha and Amritsari fish, but also pakoris, kachauris, jalebis, phirni, kulfi, ma-ki-dal, the prasad at the Harmandir Sahib, the works."

Buttery, spicy and hot

Playing glutton was easy.

I munched on kachauris on the 30-minute ride to the Wagah border. Crisp and spicy. The shouts of "Hindustan Zindabad" were still ringing in my ears when I returned for the stuffed parathas and the ma-ki-dal at the "1917 Bharawan ka Dhaba" near the Town Hall. The mooli paratha is guaranteed to satisfy, but the dal's too buttery. I sampled more of the same at a pokey little shop in Jalianwala Bagh. That was better: more spicy, less buttery. And cheap at Rs. 5 a bowl. The elderly widower Jagjit Singh Ahluwalia keeps the dal on the boil all afternoon long, stirring it now and then. When somebody asks for it, he dishes up some, seasons it with butter, and hands it out: dark, hot, delicious. Perfect with dry tandoori roti and a juicy green chilly.

Skipping its famous thali, I sampled the mithai at the "1916 Kesar ka Dhaba", tucked away in the intestine of an old bazaar. The rasmalai— marble-sized golis in mellow malai — and gajjar ka halwa were divine. So was the phirni — silvery and feather light on the tongue. I saw an NRI Sardar (accent loud and clear) cheerfully having helpings of all three. The dhaba was plunged in gloom, though; there had been a death in the owner's family. A young son had died, the boy serving the sweets said sadly.

In Amritsar, there's manna from the halwaii. The town, like Kolkata (Calcutta), has a mithai shop every 100 yards. And a jalebiwala in-between. The Amritsaris' lust for jalebis has to be seen to be believed. They munch on them from dawn to midnight — at the 90-year-old "Gurudas Ram Jalebiwala" in the Katra Ahluwalia area, for sure. If they feel like a change, they attack the gulab jamuns instead. I was high enough on the rasmalai and phirni, so I opted to save the jalebi-and-jamun trip for another time.

For the non-vegetarian

Moroever, I had a meaty day on the morrow: for starters, a kheema naan at Pal dhaba near the Durgiana temple, then mutton curry and plain kulchas at "Parkash ka Dhaba", the popular old "meat dhaba" near the Golden Temple, and finally Amritsari fish at "Makhan Dhaba" on Lawrence Road.

"Parkash" is shabby in space and slurpy in clientele — the Punjabis, from the rickshaw-wala to the Esteem-wala, are great noisy chompers — but the quality of the food and the chanting of the Granthsahib in the Harmandir Sahib in the background quite make up for that.

Its mutton is cooked tender in a homemade paste of garam masala, curd, tomatoes, chillies and onions, has a lovely peppery bite to it. Priced at Rs. 55 for a full plate, and Rs. 30 for half a plate, it's polished off between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. by about customers ranging from "visiting ministers to local rickshaw-pullers," according to Naresh Kumar, whose father Parkash Singh of Himachal's Kangra district set up the shop 53 years ago. "Mutton curry is all that we serve here. But three months ago, we set up another branch on Maqbool Road, and there we serve not just mutton curry but also kebabs and tandoori chicken."

The Amritsari fish at "Makhan Dhaba" is everything the BBC and Lonely Planet had made it out to be. This place gives us the sole of the Beas river, fried lightly in a besan-and-egg white batter. It's not soggy with oil, but quite dry, with firm white meat flavoured, uniquely, with ajwain.

All too soon, it was time to take the train back to Delhi. On the way to the station, I stopped to buy papads and Amritsar ki Pinni for my friends. Laden with parcels, I sat back in the cycle-rickshaw, a tad wistful that it was all over. But as the old rickshaw-wala struggled up a hillslope, I saw this little kulfi shop, the name of which I cannot recollect. I asked him to stop, went in and grabbed two plates of — what else — malai kulfi. We ate it sitting out in the creaky rickshaw. Creamy yet textured, quite like the land, it was wonderful.

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