Dhaba hop by day temple trail by night

, Palate

From langar at the Golden Temple to home-cooked meals at the dhabas, Amritsar is home to some mouth-watering dishes

When I set about a culinary tour in Amritsar, my idea of their food was entirely different. As I take a stroll down the street “Ek toh hum Punjabi, upar se cute” cheerfully quips the red T-shirt dangling outside one of the shops on Amritsar’s revamped Heritage Street. The one-kilometre-long stretch featuring pleasant pink facades, lampposts, statues and fountains, from Chowk Phowara to Old Town Hall towards Jallianwala Bagh and the Golden Temple complex is filled with shopping distractions. So another impulsive purchase joins the packet of local goodies, including a faux gold sword, mathri (crispy, deep-fried snack), masala warian (deep-fried balls of lentil paste) and mango pickle. Living large comes naturally in the northern Indian city known for its 16th-century Golden Temple and legendary cuisine.

Dhaba hop by day

Smoky kitchens, bubbling vats of dal, smouldering hot tandoors and men plating at breakneck speeds, serving nutritious, quick, inexpensive, homely food to endless diners with voracious appetites — all of these paint an appetising image of the cuisine of Amritsar. From the Partition era’s sanjha chulha (rural kitchen) of refugees from Punjab to the food connoisseur’s bucket-list of today, the concept of Punjabi dhabas has come a long way. And there’s no better place in the country to savour a quintessential dhaba than in Amritsar.

An ideal start is a breakfast of aloo poori at Kanha Sweets, Lawrence Road. Plates of puffy pooris (crispy, chewy breads) accompanied by tangy aloo (potato) and sweet kaddu (pumpkin) sabzi followed by kesari suji halwa (saffron semonlina dessert) and tall glasses of lassi (buttermilk) set the tone for the gastronomic explosion that lies ahead.

The famous Kulwant Dhaba down a side street between the Jallianwala Bagh and Golden Temple serves the classic lunch that every foodie pines for. Amritsari kulchas (they offer aloo, gobi and paneer stuffings) served piping hot are best enjoyed with a dollop of butter generously slathered over their browned crust and mouth-watering chhole (spiced chickpeas) on the side. Layered like a puff pastry, the Amritsari kulcha is wholesome, yet light on stomach and calls for a second round.

Bhrawan da Dhaba near Town Hall, since its origins in 1912, is best known for its winter specialty, sarson da saag (mustard greens) with makke-di-roti (cornmeal bread). But the archetypal maa-ki-dal (black lentils) and crisp tandoori rotis are no less lip-smacking.

Non-vegetarian cravings can be satiated at the 50-year-old Pal Dhaba, located at Hathi Gate. Steaming hot paaya (a luscious tomato-onion curry made with lamb trotters) and hearty keema parathas are the specialty here. Seafood lovers can relish the best fish in town at Makhan Fish & Chicken Corner. Since 1962, crowds throng here to taste the delectable sole or singara fish fry, a spicy double fried delicacy coated in a chickpea batter with freshly ground spices like garam masala, crushed coriander seeds, ajwain, red chilli powder, lemon juice, chopped green chilli and salt.

Temple trail by night

The soothing coolness of the night offers an ideal setting for a homage to the country’s most deeply revered Sikh shrine, the Darbar Sahib. Barefoot and head covered respectfully, as one crosses the portal into the hallowed complex, eyes get glued involuntarily to the spectacle ahead. An ornamental gilded treasure chest with a sparkling dome and delicate spires seems to afloat in the centre of the sarovar against the pitch black sky. The mandatory perambulation around the Holy Pond has a meditative effect, against the soulful sounds of Gurbani. The sight of worshippers taking a dip in the holy waters at the marble steps and sevadars tirelessly continuing their chores, adds to the serenity of the atmosphere.

The spiritual experience is completed by participating in a langar in one of the biggest community kitchens in the world. At the Golden Temple, an average of 75,000 devotees are fed daily, as part of a tradition initiated by Guru Nanak Dev Ji and established by the third Guru Sri Guru Amar Dass Jee. Squatting on the plain floor mats in a hall full of devotees from all social strata, one feels strangely unified with mankind. Energetic servers ladle out generous amounts of kadhi, dal and vegetables into the laid-out rows of steel thalis. A simple meal bursting with flavours and tempered with selfless love.

Just visualising hundreds of volunteers spending hours in peeling, chopping, cooking, serving and cleaning in the temple kitchens, bridges the gap between ordinary and extraordinary in a second. And one realises how this sacred city skillfully balances the act between satiating the stomach and the soul.

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