In 1947 after the Partition of India, the Punjab province of British India was divided between India and Pakistan. However, Punjab’s culinary heritage is eternally rooted in the vast swathes of its undivided lands fed by the five rivers (the Beas, Sutlej, Chenab, Ravi and Jhelum), by which the name of this region – panj meaning five and ab meaning waters in Persian – was inspired. Archaeological finds and Vedic treatises link the Punjab region to the Indus Valley Civilisation, one of the world’s most ancient civilisations.

Punjabi Cuisine
A delicious Punjabi thali

With its strategic position on the legendary Silk Route, it was quite natural that those qafilas (convoy of travellers), groaning under their loads of textiles, spices, indigo, sugar, rice and unimaginable luxuries to the markets of Bukhara, Ishfahan and beyond the Caucasus Mountains, also carried away with them tales of this wondrous land. Undivided Punjab’s Lahore, Amritsar, Ludhiana and Karnal were transformed into thriving textile production hubs, feeding the burgeoning demand from Central Asia. Meanwhile, the agrarian community was producing bountiful harvests of wheat, barley, millet, maize, paddy, sugarcane, greens and plentiful milk (along with ghee and curd), which are the staples of the state’s culinary predilections from the Vedic times.

Punjab may have been India’s pride, it was also the envy of its neighbours – judging from the number of invasions it bore the brunt of over the centuries. While those ancient caravan routes from Central Asia to Punjab left their indelible stamp on the Khyber Pass in the Hindu Kush mountain range, this legendary pass (located in present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province – formerly the North West Frontier Province, near Peshawar, Pakistan) also became the tardy sentinel which allowed raiders to enter the subcontinent’s northern frontiers to loot and plunder the region. On they came…Mahmud of Ghazni in the 10th century (17 raids in all), Timur from Central Asia in the 14th century, Darius and Alexander of Greece, the Scythians, Turks, Afghans and Mughals from Central Asia. Each raid left its mark on the land and its people. And then came the British…by sea this time, but they too left their imprint as they pursued the Great Game with the Russians, while dealing with the likes of legendary Punjab ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh with his capital in Lahore.

Courtesy The Claridges
Amritsari chhole
Amritsari chhole is pretty famous around the world!

Thus, Punjabi cuisine today is a mélange of Indo-Mughal-Persian-Afghani nuances. With the fleeing Punjabis from Pakistan came the tandoor, which opened up a whole new world of barbequed fare for the rest of India. From Persia came the samosa, which was embraced and localised with a spicy potato filling instead of the traditional minced meat filling of Iran, and also cottage cheese (paneer). With the cross cultural winds from the North West Frontier arrived the simple but robust flavours of a nomadic people. Tandoori meats, fish, slow cooked mutton burra and mutton tikka – Peshawari cuisine, with its Afghani influences and the minimal use of spices, was the great legacy of undivided Punjab. It became as integral to the repertoire of India’s Punjabi cookhouse as sarson ka saag, makki di roti, maash dal, parathas and aam ka achar. These cross-cultural influences were reflected in the embracing of fresh and dried fruits and a wide range of exotic nuts, from Afghanistan and Central Asia – chilgoza (pine nuts), pistachios, almonds, apricots, khubani (dried apricot), sarda (galia melon), muskmelons and the like.

Tribhuvan Tiwari
Sarson ka saag and makki di roti, an appetising dish prepared in winter

While traditional Punjabi cooking is pretty straight forward (no fancy marinations et al), recipes are rife with the largesse of milk, curd, butter and cream. Punjabis today are known for having one of the richest cuisines in India. They’ve embraced everything from the spare offerings of the cuisine of the North West Frontier Province to the recipes of exotic Mughlai cuisine (see p59), in particular the preparations of rich poultry and mutton dishes. Today Punjab’s ubiquitous ‘tandoori chicken’ knows no borders as it continues to conquer the culinary world.

Celebrity gastronome, author and ambassador of Indian cuisine Jiggs Kalra, in his book Classic Cooking of Punjab, co-authored with friend Puspesh Pant, tells us, “No Punjabi has ever treated the ‘two square meals’ as a daily chore. His ancestors considered eating a sacred ritual.” He shares that it was in the era of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (whose imperial court in Lahore was a veritable cosmopolitan hub) that Punjabi food set the standard of the ‘Good Life’.

The regional offerings of prepartition Punjab are still sacrosanct in the annals of the state’s culinary traditions. Peshawar, according to Kalra, was inspired by the culinary traditions of Afghanistan. That really should not come as a surprise considering this is Pathan country and the township, surrounded by deep orchards of stone fruits such as peaches and apricots, apart from pomegranates and apples, handled much of the trade that passed through it, which included saffron from Kashmir, spices from Hyderabad and sugar, salt, tea and hing (asafoetida) from Delhi.

Prabhjot Singh Gill
Pakoras being fried in a huge kadhai
Pakoras being fried in a huge kadhai. They make for delicious snacks

Rawalpindi, adjoining the Kashmir Valley and Afghanistan, imbibed the influences of both the fare of the North West Frontier and Kashmiri cooking. Its access to the best produce of Punjab heightened its epicurean adventures.

Baluchistan, of which vast swathes fell under British Rule, was neighbours with the NWFP, Persia, Sindh and Punjab. Basic and robust fare dominated the frontier table, including game birds, unleavened flatbreads made of barley and wheat, cheeses, vegetables – and rice and fish in the coastal area.

Amritsar surrounded by swathes of ber, mango and jamun groves, produced wheat, gram, maize, barley, sugarcane, pulses, rice and cotton. The legendary ‘milk’ is courtesy their use of bovines in agricultural pursuits and dairy farms. Amritsar again was an important trading hub with its bazaars bursting at the seams with their bounty for the caravans of Bukhara, Kabul and Kashmir.

Guru ka Langar

The eating of and the sharing of food carries sacred connotations for the Punjabi, and nowhere is this more evident than in the tradition of the Guru ka Langar, a free community kitchen where all may come and partake of the simple but wholesome food cooked and served by kar sevaks of all faiths in the dining areas of the gurudwaras. Enshrined as a revered tradition for India’s Sikh community, the langar was initiated by Guru Nanak who established the tenets of the Sikh faith. It was the 3rd Sikh Guru, Amar Das, who established the langar as a standard ritual for both the rich and the poor without any discrimination in the name of religion, caste or sex. It has been an intrinsic part of gurudwara activities both in India and around the world ever since. In his Rahitnama, Bhai Desa Singh exhorts Sikhs who are well-to-do to look to the needs of their poor neighbours and whenever they meet a traveller or a pilgrim from a foreign country, they must serve him devotedly. Even the Mughal emperor Akbar has eaten the langar at The Golden Temple.

Prabhjot Singh Gill
Devotees being served by volunteers in the Langar Ghar
Devotees being served by volunteers in the Langar Ghar

The Arrival of the Dhaba

Punjab’s iconic dhaba culture evolved out of need for survival for the displaced peoples of Punjab, who fled their homes both sides of the border with the Partition of India. The fare they offered to people was basic Punjabi comfort food – rotis, parathas, dal, sabzi. The food was fresh, the turnover quick and there were no leftovers because of the problems of refrigeration. So you sold what you cooked and that was it. These dhabas became the lifeline of truckers and the Grand Trunk Road was the fertile ground upon which they flourished. A leading light back in the day was the Sher-e-Punjab chain, which served up ma di dal, tandoori chicken and tandoori roti as staples. The dhabas were also pivotal to bringing Punjabi culinary traditions to the rest of the country as fleeing Punjabis spread across the country with the aftermath of the bloodbath that was the partition.The dhaba culture of Amritsar has paeans sung to it for its fabulous array of culinary experiences from kukkad (chicken) to stuffed kulchas to lassi peda maar ke.

The Golden Temple: Guru Ram Dasji Ka Langar

It is the world’s largest as free community kitchen’s go. The food served is vegetarian, simple but nourishing. This meal, basic but fresh and delicious, consists of roti, rice, a vegetable, dal and kheer. Around 75,000 people are fed on any given day and on religious festivals the numbers can easily double that if not more. Its two dining halls can accommodate 5,000 people at a sitting (pangat). Mats are laid out on the floor and everyone takes their place in reverential decorum – no pushing and shoving here! The food is served by karsevaks (volunteers) who are also involved in all the preparation, the cooking and the washing-up. Even women and children participate in this godly service. The women cook…the children serve. Though there are just 300 permanent sevadars the numbers are boosted by the volume of volunteers. Families consider it an honour to serve and can take it on from anywhere from a week to a month. While most of the rotis are made by hand on regular days by volunteers, when the numbers go up a roti-making machine, donated by a devotee from Lebanon, is used, which can churn out 25,000 rotis in an hour.

Tribhuvan Tiwari
Butter chicken and naan
Butter chicken and naan are iconic foods

The raw materials for these massive meals are sourced from the local bazaars and Delhi. On a daily basis the gurudwara kitchens load up on around 100 quintals of flour, 25 quintals of cereals, 5,000 litres of milk, 10 quintals of rice, 10 quintals of sugar and 5 quintals of pure ghee for the meals. Massive cooking pots and ladles are used to prepare the food. You can even join in to do your bit if you wish. Hygeine is critical and if you don’t feel like washing your own plate there are volunteers at hand to do so willingly.

What Punjab Eats

At the heart of it is the seasonal bounty, which marks the daily menus of the Punjabi household – because freshness and purity, rather than complicated cooking techniques is the core essence of traditional Punjabi cuisine. Copious quantities of milk and milk products too are intrinsic to this vibrant cuisine. Also dishes would vary from region to region basically in terms of use of spices and cooking methods. Food was essentially prepared with desi ghee, butter or sunflower oil.

A slew of Punjabi vegetarian dishes – sarson ka saag and makki di roti with a dollop of white butter, maa di dal (slow cooked on a clay chulha), rajma-chawal, chana-chawal, kadhi-chawal, mattar-paneer, gobhi-aloo, baingan bharta, palak paneer, chana-bhatura/ puri/ kulchas have made their way into menus across India. The non-vegetarian table is dominated by kukkad, lamb, goat and fish in various forms – tandoori chicken, kadhai chicken, chicken tikka, mutton curry, mutton burra, keema-mattar, pan-fried Amritsari fish and more. Desserts consist of kheer, gajar ka halwa, panjeeri, seviyan and jalebis amongst others. Dhabas, down the ages, in Amritsar have staked their reputations in specialising in some of these. Since Punjab is flush with harvests of grains, rotis, stuffed parathas of gobhi, aloo and mooli – baked on a tawa, or cooked in a tandoor are mouth-watering options for the Punjabi thali. In the winter, rotis made from maize (makki) marry well with saag (mustard greens) – a huge favourite.

A chef holds a huge naan
A chef holds a huge naan
Amritsari tandoori kukkad
Amritsari tandoori kukkad is delicious
Dal makhani
Dal makhani pairs well with rice or breads

Amongst the beverages served with a meal, lassi and chhachh (butter-milk flavoured with herbs and spices) rate very high. Tea time meant home-made mathris accompanied by mango pickle, pakoras (sliced potatoes or onion rings dipped in gram flour and deep fried) and sweet shakarparas served with hot masala chai.

Punjabi home cooking is definitely different from that of restaurant fare. What you get when you eat out is much richer…with lashings of cream, ghee, butter and exotic spices. At home, though desi ghee is used it is more restrained. Spices used are turmeric, pepper, mustard seeds, hing, ginger, garlic and onions. With the influence of the Arabs, cumin and coriander were added to the spicebox. Sourness to a dish was added with amchoor powder, dried plums and imli powder as tomatoes were introduced later by the Portuguese.

In the winter the ladies of the household make a spicy drink called kanji from black carrots. In fact they also make potato chips, vari (baked lentil cakes) used in a curry with potatoes – and of course pickles – especially mango pickle and gobhi-shalgam-gajar ka achar (cauliflower-turnip-carrot pickle marinated in jaggery, vinegar, mustard oil, ginger, garlic, freshly ground spices and salt. Murabbas (sweet relishes) were also made at home.

Preparations

The Punjabi bhathi (oven) was made of bricks or mud and clay and topped with a sheet of metal. An opening was fed with wood and grass to light the fire. The tandoor was found in many Punjabi homes as tandoori fare rose in popularity after partition.

Cooking techniques were simple tried and tested methods. Spices would be ground/ crushed with the traditional mortar and pestle. Khada masala (chopped/ sliced) was another method of spicing up a dish. The tadka (tempering) of a dish was a serious matter, for that’s what added the zing to the kadhi, the saag or the humble dal. Popular tadka ingredients were fried onions, garlic, green chillies, cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, etc. Chutney made from pudina and coriander was also ground at home.

Brass and copper utensils, believed to be beneficial for health, were used in the Punjab. Small bowls, rimmed plates, larger pots for water and milk, huge cooking vessels and other artefacts were made by the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru, 15km from Amritsar. These utensils were manufactured for both ritual and utilitarian purposes. This crafts colony was set up in the times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1883). The Jandiala Guru utensil-making technique was inscribed in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2014.

Read more in the Outlook Traveller Getaways India’s Culinary Heritage