Julia Child believed that people who eat are the best people. She would have loved the Punjabis, to whom food is everything. And nowhere is this more apparent than on the streets of Amritsar. Everything in this crowded city — from socialising to festivals and even prayer — revolves around food. Stuffed kulchas, loaded lassi, sweet crunchy jalebis — the narrow lanes offer all this and more.
It’s best you start with the Golden Temple. The crack of dawn, when the Sri Guru Granth Sahib is brought to the inner sanctum of the gurudwara, is the best time to visit. After darshan, head to the langar, the largest free kitchen in the world. Volunteers cook and serve a simple meal of roti, dal, vegetables and kheer to over a lakh people every single day. Even if you don’t have the time to sit in the langar, don’t forget to take the ghee-laden kada prasad on your way out.
Besides the Golden Temple and Wagah Border, Amritsar is also synonymous with kulchas, the famous bread made of maida and baked in a tandoor. It is possible to have kulchas for three consecutive meals and for each to be a different dining experience. Over the years, the only offering at All India Famous (at Purani Chungi, also called ‘Cholesterol Chowk’ by locals) has been the butter-drenched, potato-and-cauliflower- stuffed flaky kulcha. It is single-handedly responsible for making this shop a foodie’s pilgrimage spot. The kulcha is served with a side of chana masala and sliced onions and a runny tamarind-jaggery-mint chutney. All India Famous is perfect for breakfast or lunch, but beware, they tend to run out of food by 2:30 p.m.
Kulcha Land (Ranjit Avenue) might not sound authentically Amritsari but their kulchas certainly are. There’s no need for a menu card because the place only serves different varieties of fresh-off-the-tandoor kulchas that the family has been churning out since before the Partition. If you prefer a meatier option, Friends Dhaba (Queens Road) offers a keema naan served with gravy and, of course, butter. The keema kulcha has a crisp exterior wrapped around a spicy keema mix. Slather it with butter before you dunk it in the gravy for a near-spiritual experience.
For over 70 years, Surjit Food Plaza has been serving up some of Amritsar’s best kababs. Located on Lawrence Road in its newest avatar, it has been transformed into a snazzy restaurant with air-conditioning and a menu that features Chinese staples such as chicken sweet corn soup. Thankfully, though, their shammi kebab and mutton tikka continue to be melt-in-your-mouth. Their tikkas are done differently — first cooked in a tandoor and then tawa-fried with ghee, onions and a secret masala handed down through generations.
At Beera Chicken House (Majitha Road), the recipe for tandoori chicken hasn’t changed since 1972. Unlike the variety most of us have grown up with, Beera’s is not red or even charred. Marinated in minimal spices, a whole chicken is roasted to perfection. Down the street from Beera’s is Makhan Fish & Chicken Corner, home to the tastiest fish tikkas in the city, with sole or singhara from the Beas river fried lightly in a besan-and-egg-white batter.
At Hathi Gate, the nondescript hole-in-the-wall Pal da Dhaba has turned into a local favourite for itskharode ka shorba (lamb trotter soup). Opposite All Indian Famous, Mama Meat Shop (Purani Chungi) is famous for a piquant brain curry cooked in desi ghee. Like a lot of Amritsar’s non-vegetarian dhabas, both these allow patrons to bring their own alcohol, and if you want you can do a takeaway or eat in your car.
Vegetarians may head to Kesar da Dhaba (Chowk Passian), a 10-minute walk from the Golden Temple. Tuck into their scrumptious lachcha paratha with a ghee-laden palak paneer or smoky baigan bharta. Kesar serves the best maa ki daal in the city. Don’t leave without trying their famous creamy phirniserved in earthen bowls. Next to the Town Hall is the all-vegetarian Bharawan da Dhaba (‘Oldest and World-famous. Est: 1912’ proclaims the billboard), a no-frills canteen style eatery whose must-tries are the Punjabi staples of sarson da saag, rajma, makke di roti and chhole kulchey.
If you go through an entire day in Amritsar without at least one glass of lassi, you are doing a gastronomic disservice to the place. After all, this is the land of the Ambarsariyas who love ghee and dairy. At Ahuja Milk Bhandar (Dhab Khatikan) reach out for that tall steel glass of lassi so thick you’ll need a spoon to scoop it out. Or you could try the lassi and rabri at Gian di Lassi (Katra Ahluwalia). Dessert options in the city are calorifically off-the-charts. For the best crispy-golden jalebis, it’s a tie between Gurudas Ram Jalebiwala (Katra Ahluwalia) and Sharma Sweets (Lawrence Road). Sharma is also famous for its flat gulab jamuns. The century-old Kahna Sweets (Lawrence Road) with its signature gur (jaggery) halwa is another institution.
If you weigh more when you leave Amritsar than when you came in, don’t be too surprised — the city inspires gluttony like few others do.
(First published in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine, Jun 2, 2016)