Amritsar is a city which is at one go mesmerizing.Be it the first sight of the Golden Temple,the serene waters of the Sarovar ,the soulful ardaas and kirtans Amritsar is not however a pilgrimage city only.Historically rich ,it is a city which carries the ravages of Partition yet it breathes life ,it unifies ,embraces and above all reiterates the intrinsic connection between food and religiosity.Amritsar is a foodies paradise with an array of specialities -be it the Karha Prasad of the Golden Temple ,the early morning tea and the Kheer at Ramdas Langar,the crunchy roadside Kulchas served with tempting choley (chickpea curry),the simmering Maa ki Dals with Tandoori Rotis laced with desi ghee,the irresistible Aam papads and papads,the refreshing lassi and the kulfas and the little warm jalebis dipped in the sugar syrup.
My trip to Amritsar some months back will be one of my treasured memories.The feeling one experiences at the Golden temple either at the crack of dawn or at the last hours of night cannot be put in words.Spend hours sitting beside the Sarovar listening to the kirtans and the chants of Wahe Guru ki Fateh ,I felt a peace which no religious place has ever given me.The glistening temple,the faith of the people,the eagerness for self less service,the self imposed discipline ,the environment is in itself fulfilling.At that point I felt desire for nothing ,only an inner peace enveloped my being.
Amritsar is not just about the Golden Temple and its Langar. Being a foodie and eager to explore, the entire afternoons were spent savoring the unending delicacies.The restaurants and stalls in the walled city around the Golden Temple follows a strict vegetarian spread. The tandoori chicken ,the laccha paratha,the baingan bharta can be tried and replicated anywhere in the country ,what remains the specialty of Amritsar is its kulchas .It is said that the holy waters of Ravi contribute to the unique taste of the Kulchas of Amritsar. The popular saying “Jis Lahore nahin vekhiya au jamiya nahin. Jis Amritsar aa ke kulcha nahin khada une kuj khada hi nahin…” (If you haven’t seen Lahore it’s as good as not being born. If you’re visiting Amritsar and haven’t eaten the kulcha, you’ve eaten nothing at all.) is right after all.
One meal no one has to plan for in this city is the Amritsari kulcha. This street food blurs social divides and is available around every corner of the city. The crunch of the kulchas ,the crispy outsides and the soft inside stuffed with aloo ,gobi or paneer turned out to be my favorite at Amritsar.As I went across the city savoring Kulchas in all its forms, the history of the Kulcha- its evolution,adaptation and how it made its home in Amritsar intrigued me. It is believed that about one lakh Kulchas are tossed out of city tandoors every day. . With the Amritsari kulcha, you’ll experience the fifth sense-sound. Once out of the tandoor the kulcha is smeared with a cube of butter and is crushed at the middle. If there’s a crackling sound it is baked to perfection. The crackle ensures it’s got the right texture. Crushing it snaps open the top layer allowing the heat to escape and letting the goodness of melted butter to trickle in…the first bite is close to heaven.
The history of kulchas can be traced back to the Nizams of Deccan. 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 as the royal insignia. Food, politics, identity… Mir Qamruddin of the Mughal court went to meet his spiritual Guru- Sufi mystic Hazrat Nizamuddin Aurangabadi after he got appointed as the “Subedar-e-Dakhan”. Hazrat Nizamuddin invited him for a meal and offered the subedar kulchas .Mir Qamruddin ate seven kulchas. , Hazrat Nizamuddin in a prophecy said 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. The Nizams, who were simply governors, declared their de facto rule in the Deccan in the context of the waning power of the Mughals. And with that the kulcha, earned its place in the royal cuisine.
Other historical findings assert that the region of undivided Punjab gave birth to the bharwaan (stuffed) kulcha. Invaders from Central Asia brought along their cooking traditions. The techniques which originated in Persia were of making the leavened bread and the tandoor were adapted by the province of Punjab. Punjabis, who hitherto made unleavened wholegrain flatbread on an iron griddle, started using refined flour leavening the dough for fermentation and filling it with a mixture of potatoes and baking it in the tandoor. Later influenced by French chefs engaged in royal household they adopted a puff pastry procedure- smearing the the dough with butter and folding it before letting it rest.-Flaky yet soft bharwan kulchas came to rule Amritsar for time indefinite.
My choice for Kulchas
Amritsar abounds in shops selling Kulchas all through the day though Kulchas are more in demand for breakfast.The tradition of making rotis in community tandoors in villages of Punjab has trickled down to the city and a large number of families prefer having their daily breakfast of Kulcha -Chole in their favorite shop before going for their daily work.Every katra or mohalla of Amritsar particularly in the old walled city has Kulcha shops- overcrowded yet fragrant with the aroma of the fresh butter and the tangy choley.
Pehelwan Kulcha Shop– Very close to Ramgharia Gate and near Shahid Baba Deep Singhji Gurudwara ,the Pehelwan Kulcha Shop is nondescript by appearance.You can easily recognize it by the large crowd outside waiting for a seat at the shop.There is no separate dining area,you sit beside the tandoor and see the kulchas being stuffed,roasted and then that big dollop of butter sliding on to the flaky kulcha..Served on a tissue paper..golden brown crisp,the butter trickles down…the crackling sound of the kulcha and the choley …very delicately spiced with a spluttering of onion and green chilli is a must eat while at Amritsar.
Bhai Kulwant Singh Kulchian Wale- An early morning darshan at the Golden Temple has to be followed by a sumptuous breakfast at this kulcha shop.Located in Bazar Bikaneria in Katra Ahluwalia very near to the temple you can just walk your way.The flaky kulchas are served with choley alonh with several pickles and you can wash them down with a glass of Lassi. The kulchas are available in various variants-aloo, gobi, paneer, pithi.If you are there in the morning you may have to wait for your turn but the service is very fast and the staff very friendly.
Not to miss are piping hot kulchas at All India Famous Kulcha at Maqbool Road , Kulcha Land at Ranjit Avenue, Ashok Kulche Wale at Gobindgarh Fort Road and Amritsari Neutri Kulcha near DAV College,opposite Arya Samaj Mandir.
If you wish to compliment the Kulchas with a glass of refreshing Lassi which in itself is so filling do visit Gian Di Lassi near Regent Cinema.The creamy lassi cooled to perfection will fulfill your senses.And what is an afternoon without a siesta and the perfect trigger to it is a couple of crisp little jalebis fried perfect at Katra Ahluwalia near the Golden Temple at a shop called Gurdas Ram Jalebi Wala.
Amritsar is a city which is loved by its people.The mohallas,katras,the Hall Bazar,the numerous gates in the walled city,the Town Hall are spectators to history .The Golden Temple steeped in devotion and selfless service enthralled me in a calmness and gave me a strength of mind that words can hardly describe.The foodscape of Amritsar cannot be experienced in a single visit-every corner has its delicacies ,its USP beinga dollop of love and warmth of the city and its people.
Amritsar…..a city of colors….a city of life and a city of culinary delights.