Amritsar – In Search of the Perfect Dhaba Breakaway
I start my exploration – my journey to Amritsar in Punjab, India’s richest state on my quest to find the best foodie hot-spots and capture the versatility of the famous Punjabi meal.
Along with me on this trip is Mr. Yashbir Sharma, author of many books on the Dhabas of Amritsar, and more recently the Food Trail of Punjab. He has graciously offered to take me on this induction tour, a rather special one which would take me to some of the most famous Dhabas and eateries of their time.
I’ve researched as much as I could before embarking on this trip, from the writings of Khushwant Singh, and Chitra Banerji and the oh so interesting ‘ Foodpath- Cuisine along the Grand Trunk Road from Kabul to Kolkata. In her book ‘Eating India’, Chitra Banerji talks about how authenticity in food has survived in the ever changing young –old immigrant nation that is India.
One of the things I’m most excited about is visiting a place which is the cradle of a cuisine that has become a part of the urban eating vocabulary in the West – but sadly in the form of the much eaten and far from authentic chicken tikka masala, Black (Kaali) Dal and naan bread.
I realise that the versatility is experiencing the food treks and authentic mixes of our culinary heritage first hand. Whether it is the food or the unstinted Punjabi hospitality, or eating at the langar at the Golden Temple, it is more than just the food, for sure.
Once there, I thought the best place to start would be the place that has no divides, a place that exemplifies the ideal of equality amongst the rich and poor. The Golden Temple is not just known for its beautiful construction and spiritual richness. It has been renowned for its ‘spotless langar’ that feeds any and all visitors, Sikh or otherwise, needy or rich, starved or stuffed, with unquestioning largesse…Its immaculate presentation, warmth and inclusive practice of involving civil society members to distribute equal hardy meals, often of roti, daal and a sabzi (vegetable) is an experience like none other. It’s quite a privilege to witness local men and women and the Temple folk putting together the langar that feeds over 100,000 people every weekend. The food was simple, with a sensitive blend of soft spices and textures to compliment everyone’s food palette. A walk around their kitchens is welcomed and I’m amazed to see, the selfless seva that hundreds of volunteers are doing, and how technology has intervened to simplify the simple task of making rotis.
After my clean, modest yet filling experience at the Golden Temple, I began to wander into the galis and local corridors of Amritsar to find the local hot-spots. Doing so, one thing became evident. The pathways to deliciousness were not pretty. For those who desire clean roads, constructed pathways that are meticulously kept and offer easy manoeuvring whether in a car or on foot, this may not be your ideal trek. But let me tell you, it is definitely worth it – at least to your taste buds!
The streets and galis are cramped, dirty and display a barbaric array of modern glass and steel structures and stores stuffed next to one another as hundreds of stores are conveniently neighboring one another within five kilometers of walking.
Amritsar is famous for such delicious delights as the soft as sponge Aloo Kulchas at Kulchaland, the ubiquitous sarson da saag and makki di roti, paneer purji (bhurji to you and me) and refreshing sweet lassi, the sweetest temptation of all.
Once you channel your way to the dhabas that the world talks about, that the top restaurants in India get inspiration from, and what drives thousands of visitors every day, it all makes a bit of sense.
We made sure we went to the famous Kesar da Dhaba, which has been around in this exact same location for over ninety years. The owner has a simple menu that hasn’t changed in decades. It doesn’t need to, as people from all over India, Punjab, yet alone Amritsar, flock every single day for his divine Maa di Daal (which is cooked for 12 hours before being served), Sarson ka Saag(in the season only ofcourse), Phirni and sinfully crisp jalebis.
A walk down Lawrence Road stopping by at the World Famous Kanha Sweets (every eatery in Amritsar is world famous) or the papad and vadiyan wala who has a “ can courier anywhere in the world” policy
Amritsar is known for its fried fish, and the place to go is Makhan da Dhaba. Here, indulgence is served fresh and fried, lightly in gram flour (besan) and egg-white batter topped with carom (ajwain). Typically your option will be sole or singhara – and I’d recommend a local beer to really soak in the experience!
If fish is not your fancy, don’t worry. There is yet another institution in Amritsar that specializes in savoury delicacies, Bhrawan Da Dhaba. It’s been around since 1912 and is perhaps the most ‘attractive’ dhaba. For those who rate hygiene high on their places-to-eat at metric, this is the place. Their Baingan ka Bharta and Rajmah are cooked to perfection the food is served quick, no muss, no fuss. The Rajmah is in comparison, if not better, than any five-star hotel and restaurant, with a homey-kick.
Yashbirji in deep conversation with Subhash ji of Bhrawan da dhaba.
The dhabas are simple. The staff is accommodating. The managers are nice and tend to always be around. The food is sensational and the weather is not so much of a concern – certainly helps if its winter, you can pack in so much more and still have space for Phirni.
They feed us with ‘plea yure’ –unstinted Punjabi hospitality to the fore, as long as you don’t ask them to clean up their act!