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Traditional restaurants and sweet shops
AMRITSAR ON A PLATE
The Times of India Avijit Ghosh Sep 28 2014
Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna, who went from Amritsar to America, hits the gastronomic gullies of his hometown
Before Partition, Lahore was the epitome of the good life. Fodecades after the Great Divide old-timers in Amritsar spoke of Anarkali bazaar, the go-to place for kulfis and kebabs, movies and dancing girls. To them, Lahore was the city of nostalgia, and the tastes of its culinary delights lingered on their tongue like a grandmother's pickle no one can match up to.
For some that loss remains. But over the decades, Amritsar has shaped its own culinary identity. As the genial Balraj Singh of Punjab Tourism quips, “Hamare ek afsar kaha karte the, aadha Amritsar khane me laga hua hai aur aadha pakane mein (One of our officials used to say that half of Amritsar is busy eating, the other is busy cook ing).“ The town abounds in dhabas -and some of them such as Kesar da Dhaba have acquired iconic status. “But the taste,“ says chef Vikas Khanna, “remains as good as ever.“
Vikas knows; he was born and bred in the city of the Golden Temple before he conquered New York. His Michelin starred restaurant, Junoon, has a client list that includes Tom Cruise, Andre Agassi and Sarah Jessica Parker.
The dhabas he takes us to as part of a food trail were childhood haunts, where he often cajoled cooks to part with their old recipes. At Maqbool Road Kulchewala, he jests, “I have been here when the tandoor was taller than me“. His latest book, Amritsar: Flavours of the Golden City, is a tribute to the men and women who turned this town into a gastronomic wonderland.Where else would you find a place named Jalebiwala Chowk and Papadwala Bazaar?
One of the stops on the tour is Kanha Sweets, an eatery on Lawrence Road serving jumbo puris with chhole and aloo ki subji for the past 95 years. The twist in the tale: the aaloo ki sabji is sweet. But it's a surprise, not ser endipity.
At Vikas' in sistence, we trot to Shar ma Sweet Shop in a nearby lane.
The chef hugs the man stirring a giant cauldron of milk, presents him a copy of his book, sits on a motorbike and poses for group pictures. Through the day , he might have hugged more men and women than Nirupa Roy, Bollywood's most famous ma, in her entire career. But there is an easy charm and genuine warmth about Vikas that wins over people.
The food trail now morphs into a heritage walk. After spotting fading frescoes on the intricate outer jharokhas of Qila Ahluwalia, we reach Gurdas Ram Jalebianwale. Thankfully, there's no sampling here but we do stop to taste an Amritsari kulcha nearby . “This is nice,“ says Vikas, digging into the plate, “but I will take you to Maqbool Road where they serve the best stuff.“
With red plastic chairs and sweaty waiters in baniyans, the open-air Maqbool Road dhaba looks like the authentic roadside eatery it is. A great Amritsari kulcha, says Vikas, must make a crackling sound when you break into it. “ And the reason, it happens with the kulchas served here is because they are cooked at low tandoor temperature,“ he says. And when the kulcha indeed makes that sound, like a twig snapping off a branch, you know it's the real McCoy. At this nondescript, grimy eatery , there's a special craft we must bow to. And just when we felt it couldn't get any better, it does. And it happens with the unlikeliest of appetizers: aam papad. What's special about it? Let's try to explain: it's sweet, with a hint of lemon. But, more importantly, it is moist and easy on the tongue and leaves you with a lingering aftertaste, like an unforgettable kiss. The stuff, we dis cover later, came from Lubhaya Ram Aam Papad wale, who stands with his cart on Lawrence Road, another artist in his own right.
Late in the afternoon is a solo trip to Kesar da Dhaba, lodged deep in Chowk Passian, a maze of lanes and dangling electricity wires in the old city . The 98-year-old dhaba shifted from Sheikhupura, about 35 km from Lahore, after Partition. The famous dal fry and chapaati swamped by butter is served by a burly waiter, who seems to be gorging on it twice a day . The dal lives up to its reputation.
By the time evening comes, the law of diminishing return is at work. The aloo tikki at Brijwasi Chat is sub-par.Then, the big moment arrives: Beera's roast chicken and fish fry, the latter coated in ajwain-flavored batter. And it lives up to its promise. But the fried fish at Makhan's, at a stone's throw, wins hands down for its crispness.
The bus ride back is a smorgasbord of satisfying memories even though the itinerary had two misses -Pal Dhaba and Bharawan da Dhaba, which are part of local food lore. Amidst jokes, Sanjiba N, a travel organizer from Manipur, has an incident to narrate. Sometime during the food trail an urchin kept following him. “Aap kahan se hain, sir,“ he kept asking him. Sanjiba finally replied, “Yahin, India se!“ The look of disbelief on the boy's face was priceless, he says.Delhi or Amritsar, some things sadly remain the same.