In my opinion, there are a few communities that sincerely take their food seriously: Bengalis, Muslims and Punjabis. From the way they prepare dishes in the kitchen, to the way they host their guests, everything is unique and elaborate.
My trips to Amritsar always prove to me how warm people from Punjab are. The Punjabi they speak in Amritsar is far better than the Punjabi one will hear in Delhi. The elders have a softness and depth in their voice, with the hint of Urdu. The first time I was in the old town of Amritsar, I felt as though I were in some old black and white movie; narrow lanes and streets full of food, juttiya (shoes) and phulkari clothes. The small tea shops near the street corners that often becomes the “hang out” place for people of all ages.. I also learned that the name of the city is not Amritsar but ‘Ambarsar’, a fact that stayed with me, and I now prefer it calling it the way the locals call it.
Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru is credited with establishing the holy city of Amritsar in the year 1574. Since then, city has evolved into the city of food and vibrant culture. There is an old saying in this city, ‘Khaada peeta lahe da, baaki Ahmed Shahe da’ (what we eat and drink is ours, the rest is for invaders), which really proves the point that Punjabis are about food first and everything else comes later.
My first trip to this city was in 2013 and since then, it has so happened that I have been there every year, either for some work, or to take my friends from India and abroad on a trip through the city. The streets of Ambarsar, especially near the Harmandir Sahab Gurudwara (The Golden Temple), are poetic. The years of construction engraved on the buildings, the billboards in Urdu and the streets named similar to cities existing in Pakistan, take you back in time to another era entirely.
I have not seen more iconic food establishments anywhere in India. These places have been running and serving the same food through the ages, and are now being run and managed by third-generation family members. This speaks volumes for the place. In the competitive market where a restaurant’s life is short-lived, these establishments in Ambarsar have stood the test of time.
Punjabi food for most is synonymous with creamy, buttery textures, and lots of ghee. If Bombay is for Vada Pav, then Ambarsar is for Chole Kulche. These shops are mushroomed all over the city, serving the famous crispy Amritsari kulcha—not one of these stalls was empty in the mornings.
I had just 24 hours in this land of food and culture, and put together this blog as a guide for your next trip, if you have limited time to explore all the food the city has to offer.
I started my journey by taking a walk to my personal favourite, Pahelwan Kulcha. They open in the morning at around 8.00 am and shut by 1.00 pm, so it’s important to get there early. This is small place with a kitchen and sitting space tucked in together in one corner, the walls are flush with images of pahelwans (wrestlers), their names captioned in Urdu and Punjabi. Even before you enter and find a spot to sit, you’ll notice the busy cooks, or as they say, “karigars”, around the two tandoors making the fresh bread. The divine smell of fresh breads being baked will make your mouth water. They just have one kind of kulcha with the stuffing of potato and other vegitable and you can choose between a spicy or a regular variation. They top this kulcha with ghee, and for the calorie conscious (though I suggest you drop that idea for a trip to Amritsar), you can ask for the olive oil version, a new addition to their menu. These kulchas are accompanied with chole.
Once you are done with breakfast, head to Gian Di Lassi at Hathi Gate for a 500 ml glass of thick lassi. They have been serving lassi since 1921 and have hosted big celebrated names, including two of my favourite chefs, Chef Vikas Khanna and Ranveer Brar. You can find a few other desserts at this shop, but lassi is a must—either order the classic or the special one with crushed peda in it. My advice would be to finish the glass, and then walk back towards Harmandir Sahab compound for lunch at Bhrawan da Dhaba; on your way grabbing some khajura from the small street-side sweet shops. These are dough of khoya and maida deep-fried in ghee. I promise that though they are heavy, they just crumble in your mouth. One won’t find this outside of Ambarsar, so take the opportunity!
Lunch at Bhrawan da Dhaba is a unique experience. This is an iconic restaurant with one of the sweetest owners, Sushil Vij. If you greet him, he will feed you everything that he loves in his restaurant. I asked him why he thinks his grandfather started the restaurant and he said he loved eating food, and possibly wanted to share this love with everyone coming to Harmandir Sahab. I went during the season of Makke di roti and Sarso da saag, and therefore obviously ordered this delicacy. This dish tastes way better in Ambarsar then anywhere else I have ever had. The pronounced smell and flavour of ghee and garlic in the saag, and the ghee in the makke di roti give it a distinct earthy flavour and smell. If you’re not a fan of this dish, order the iconic Maa ki Daal with Lacha paratha.
Give your stomach a break, let it breath and relax a bit to recover from the gastronomic indulgences. Roam around the market, buy yourself the phulkari print cloths, jutti, aam papad, wadiya and papad. And then, when you’re slightly rested, get yourself a cup of hot brewed kadak chai and some kada prashad from Harmandir Sahab—alongside the 24×7 langar, they have an unlimited supply of tea which smells heavenly, full of elaichi. The temple gives me peace and calms my senses, and perhaps it will do the same for you. One can do ‘sewa’ (volunteer) at the temple and earn some blessings. You can choose to make rotis, or serve them, the only condition is that you have to be clean and hygienic, because we are talking about food here.
For dinner convince yourself to go a little far from the Harmandir Sahab compound and head straight to Makhan Fish and Chicken Corner on Majitha Road. This place has been around since 1962 and just like the other establishments, this one also is being managed by the third generation and serving their special Amritsari fish. Walk in the restaurant and you’ll be hit with the strong whiff of fish being fried in pure mustard oil. Winters are great to enjoy the delicate flavour of this batter fried fish. I learnt that they use Singhara fish (catfish), and the frying oil gets replaced every day to maintain the quality. Ambarsar is the meeting point of, three rivers – the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas – so there is an abundance of fresh water fish. Amritsari Macchi is now a local favourite delicacy.
In earlier days, poor natives living around the rivers used to eat a lot of fish because of the easy availability, but iteventually made it to the kitchens of the Mughal Darbar. The khansamas took this fish and improvised it, by adding their own version of masalas and cooking techniques. Later, the locals wanted to reclaim the dish, and modified these flavours with their own home grown spices. They would dry-roast the spices and used them in the marinade before leaving the fish to rest overnight in the cold winter. They would later deep fry the fish, coating the pieces in a batter made of rice flour and besan. It didn’t just stop there; they even started double frying the fish to make it crispy, giving it the desired golden brown colour.
At Makhan Fish and Chicken Corner, they sprinkle the secret chaat masala, which gives a rare and delicious flavour to this dish. You should also order the chicken tikka or some of the other gravy-based dishes that they serve, but at the end of the day, you may not have enough space.
End your day with a glass of hot milk from a street side sweet shop being cooked over a slow flame and infused with saffron and other dry fruits.
I believe the range of dishes one can find in Ambarsar, and the richness of all those dishes, just reestablishes the Punjabi idiom ‘Pet na payian rotian, sabhe gallan khotiyan’ (conversations are meaningless if you are hungry).