Amritsar’s narrow lanes are is easily navigated on cycle-rickshaw, but can be extremely confusing for tourists. These lanes contain hidden gems, old stories and most importantly some amazing food. I remember my first trip to Amritsar was in 2011. I went straight to the Golden Temple, saw the amazing beauty of it, had the kada prasad from its massive kitchen and came out into the narrow lanes to explore the essence of Amritsar.
Amritsar is, without doubt, the food capital of Punjab. One of the most famous forms of street food in Amritsar is the Amritsari Kulcha. These are stuffed mashed potatoes inside a naan, cooked till it’s crispy, enjoyed hot with LOTS of butter on top.
This kulcha is a humble take on the famous aloo ka paratha. The naan for these kulchas is made with self-rising flour and raising agents (like baking soda), which gives it a soft chewy bite, and then stuffed with a mashed potato mixture. It can simply be cooked on a tawa or a tandoor and perhaps this was the reason it was so famous from masses to classes. Other variants of this have fresh or dry fruits, with meat or gobhi (cauliflower). A modern day version also has soya powder stuffing. Kulchas are also famous in Peshawar, Kashmir and of course saddi Dilli.
The history of kulchas goes back to the Mughals and Nizams. Khansamas during Shah Jahan’s time used to stuff kulchas with vegetables and they made it popular inthe darbar. It was so tasty that it became the official bread for breakfast or lunch by the time Shah Jehan took to the throne. Legends also have it that he preferred these breads over biryanis in his exile. Even Aurangzeb was fond of naan as it went well with dals and other vegetables.
But this story goes even further back in history. It is believed that it was the Nizam’s who made “kulcha” famous in India. It was in fact the official symbol of the Asaf Jahi dynasty and even appeared on the Hyderabad state flag till it became a part of the Indian subcontinent post-independence. This amazing crispy bread was chosen as the emblem while the rest of the princely states had the lions and/or elephants.
History tells us that Mir Qamruddin (an old courtier in Mughal court) went to meet his spiritual Guru, the Sufi mystic Hazrat Nizamuddin Aurangabadi after he got appointed as the “Subedar-e-Dakhan”. Hazrat Nizamuddin invited him for a meal and offered him kulchas and offered Mir Qamruddin to eat as much as possible as he was sure that the Subedar was hungry. Hearing this, Mir Qamruddin stuffed himself with seven kulchas. Post this, Hazrat Nizamuddin prophesised that one day he would be king and that his descendants would rule for seven generations. This prophecy came true. Soon after Mir Qamruddin came to Deccan, Nadir Shah invaded and sacked Delhi. All vestiges of Mughal power were gone. The Nizams, who were simply governors, declared their de facto rule in the Deccan, and became the richest kings of the biggest kingdom in India. And with that, the kulcha, which was a humble replacement of the naan, earned its place in royal cuisine.
My recent trip to Amritsar was in February 2017, after I became a part of the Masterchef family. I remember reading about Maqbool Kulcha Shop in one of my favorite chef’s—Vikas Khanna’s—book, which is also referred to in Pamela Timm’s book Kheer, Korma & Kismet. This place is also famous as All India Famous Kulcha, hence it was a no brainer that I would go and try the food here. Chef Vikas also says that this was the place where he learned to make kulchas. I also tried this food at Ashok Kulcha at Ranjit Avenue and Harbans Kulcha at Green Avenue. These were some of the best kulchas I have ever had. Amritsari really knows how to make kulchas and they taste 1000 times better than kulchas made anywhere else in India.
The chef in me always looks for the recipes and how best to replicate these kulchas. I remember going to a friend’s place and asking his grandmother about the secret. She told me that the best kulchas must be crispy on the outside and really moist in the inside. She told me to add both baking powder and baking soda in the maida and knead it with yogurt, milk and oil. All these ingredients react well with maida to give it the texture that we want after the kulchas are baked.
I do undertstand that is difficult to make kulchas at home, but you can use a pressure cooker. Take a deep cooker and let it get hot from the inside. Once it hits the desired temperature, stick the bread on the inside walls of cooker just the way you see in dhabas or streetside joints.
In my opinion, you don’t need to team these breads with anything, they are just amazing by itself or with some mango or chilli pickle. But if you absolutely have to have something along with it, then I’d suggest go with any curry and if you are non-vegetarian then chicken is the best option. Or else, just enjoy the flavours with chole, raw onion and pickles.
You can find another version of my article on NDTV Smart Cooky.