‘It’s all in the water – it is amrit (nectar)’, Surjit Singh said in a tone laden with as much feeling, as there were flavours in his tandoori chicken. ‘After all, this is the Guru’s city. Wah-e-Guru!’ he folded his arms in reverence and looked above. As I bit into a succulent piece of Amritsari machhi, Surjit paaji pounced on me. ‘See? See?’ I dropped the piece of fish and nearly ducked for cover when paaji relaxed ‘Oye just look at the soft white flesh… dariya di machhi hai. Why spoil it with excess oil and masala. That is our specialty – ghar jaisa khana! Arey, you guys have not touched anything!!’
While my friend Madhukar and I proceeded to demolish entire platters of Amritsar’s eponymous fish, tandoori chicken, mutton tikka, tandoori fish and tawa chicken with scrumptious lachcha parathas, paaji procured Gulab jamuns and Kulfi-falooda out of nowhere. A burly sardar who had been working the kitchen since he was 7, he typified the legendary arms-wide-open hospitality of Amritsar. The signboard outside Surjit Food Plaza ‘The Most Famous Eating Joint in Punjab, Recommended by Lonely Planet’ seemed believable. Paaji’s discourse on water only reinforced what we had learnt on the streets of the holy city.
‘You see, the water is sweet’, ‘The water is very light, that’s why we can digest even the heaviest of meals cooked in it’ ‘If the water is heavy, the kulchas will fall down in the tandoor!’ Whether it was Darshan da Kulcha near Jamadar ki Haveli, Kesar da Dhaba at Chowk Pasiyan or Tare di hatti at Katra Ahluwalia, all swore by Amritsar’s miraculous water. Even when they were called to other cities for catering orders, they would not forget to pack that essential ingredient – water!
We decided to put the theory to test and headed for Suchha da Kulcha. We had been warned to go early as everything wraps up by 2 pm. It was easy to miss this tiny roadside joint on Maqbool Road. After general introductions, we were allowed free access around the place. Rolls of dough lay stacked between layers of ghee as a boy expertly plucked out round balls. These were transferred to a serene looking Sardarji who flattened them out with the piety of a kar-sevak and lovingly stuffed them with masala aloo.
An apprentice flattened them by hand and tossed them to a chap manning the tandoor. He patted the kulchas with the patented Amritsari water and stuck them into the earthen oven. Baked brown to perfection, another man slathered butter with his hands and the kulcha was served with bowls of chana and longi (a chutney made of potato, onion, tamarind and mint). And a bowl of butter, as if all the ghee and butter used so far wasn’t enough. The taste was quite literally to die for!
Breakfast stretched into lunch, lunch gave way to evening snacks and dinner seemed impossible, as we were directed from one ‘old and famous’ eatery to another. Phullonwala Chowk pe Kanhaiyya ka poori-alu nahi khaya, te kya khaya? Gurdas Ram jalebi waley ke mashhoor jalebi khaye? Lawrence Road pe Peepal ke ped ke neeche Ram Lubhaya ke aam papad…? Lohagadh Gate pe Ahuja lassi…? Yes, yes, we had the lassi there! Lekin, makkhan te pede di lassi…? We groaned. The tagline of Goenka’s Sweets seemed ironic – ‘Chahein kam khayein par achcha khayein’ (Eat less, but eat well). Life had become an endless stream of directions and the key to the secret food vaults in the bylanes of Amritsar was a combination of khabbe (left) and sajje (right).
Sweet syrup dripped drop by sticky drop on my forehead from a giant jalebi that loomed above like a vicious spider. Suddenly the floor gave way and I was sucked into a quicksand of butter. Two burly sardars were rubbing turmeric paste all over my body while a Nihang twirled a vicious, spiked skewer near a coal pit. As I shook myself and turned to Maddie, he nodded even before I could speak – ‘Yeah, I’m also getting food nightmares in the day’. With nauseous taste buds and distended bellies, we finally sought refuge at the feet of the Guru. A ride past Jallianwala Bagh brought us to the Golden Temple, the place where it had all started.
Guru Ramdas, the 4th Sikh Guru, personally supervised the excavation of a sacred sweet-water tank sitting under a ber tree (now a subsidiary shrine) while his son Guru Arjan Dev initiated the construction of a temple in 1588. The city that grew around the complex soon became North India’s largest trading town, an important stopover between Delhi and Lahore. The first eateries had mushroomed around the galis of the walled city, but with time, most had shifted out or opened larger, swankier branches on Lawrence Road, Majitha Road and The Mall.
After depositing our slippers, washing our feet and donning saffron handkerchiefs, we entered the compound through the Ghanta Ghar side. The gilded dome of Harmandir Sahib shone like an exquisite jewel in the middle of the blue expanse while the twin turrets of Bunga Ramgarhia greeted us to the left and lofty flags marked the Akal Takht to the right. The circumambulation around the pond did wonders. Pilgrims chanted Wah e Guru while the ambient hum of kirtans filtered out of Bose speakers. ‘Ramdas Sarovar Nahate, Sab uttre paap kamate’ – bathing in the tank of Ramdas washes away all your sins. In our case, we were guilty of gluttony. Surprisingly, we already felt a lot lighter.
An elderly gentleman guided us to the first floor, then to the tank for a sip of the holy water but before we could slip away, he tugged at our sleeves, looked kindly into our eyes and said ‘But how can you go without eating at Guru ka Langar’. At this point, we should have fainted, but strangely, our legs guided us to a large hall. And then, the miracle happened. Like how a throng paves way for the king, in a manner that the Red Sea had parted for Moses, all the food we’d eaten gave way to accommodate the two rotis, dal, kheer and karha parshad (wheat halwa) dripping with ghee! Without this, the Amritsar experience would have been incomplete, for this was food for your soul, lovingly prepared in what can qualify as the city’s first kitchen, where every grain had been blessed by prayer.
Jet Airways runs daily flights from Delhi to Amritsar.
Where to Stay
Hotel Le Golden (near Clock-tower) and RS Residency (Hall Bazaar) are good options near the Golden Temple while Hotel Khyber Continental (Queen’s Road) and Royal Castle and Mohan International (Albert Road) offer greater comfort.
Where to Eat
The aloo-puri breakfast and halwa-pinni of Kanhaiya Sweets (Phullonwala Chowk, Near Katra Bhai Sant Singh) is legendary. For kulchas, try the top 3 – Suchha da kulcha (Maqbool Road, Purani Chungi), Ashok da Kulcha (Ranjit Avenue, A Block Market) and Darshan Kulcha wala (Near Jamadar ki Haveli, Guru Bazaar). Wash it all down with lassi at Ahuja Milk Bhandaar (Lohagadh Gate) or Gyan di lassi (Near Regent Cinema, DAV College). For mah ki dal, Amritsari chhole and a wider variety of pure-veg fare, try Kesar ka Dhaba (Chowk Pasiyan), Bade Bhai ka Brothers Dhaba and Bharawan da Dhaba (Town Hall). At Katra Ahluwalia, do not miss the paneer bhurji, masala omelette and soya keema at Tare di hatti and top it off with Gurdas Ram ki jalebi. If you have a sweet tooth, a stop at Kanha Sweets and Bansal Sweets (Lawrence Road) is essential. While there, also drop by at the famous Surjit Food Plaza (Nehru Complex) for excellent non-veg fare. On Majitha Road, try the tandoori chicken at Beera Chicken and the fish at Makhan fishwala.
What to buy
Amritsar is famous for its badi and papad (Rs.160-170/kg), available in many flavours and advertised in big bold letters at the various ‘Papad-Warian’ shops. Harjinder Singh’s ‘Famous Amritsari Papar Warian’ near BBK DAV College on Lawrence Road is a good place to shop, while on the opposite side, choose between 15 varieties of aam-papad at Lubhaya Ram & Sons.
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the March, 2011 issue of JetWings magazine.