So I was off to Amritsar for three days — to eat. The excitement was very fast turning into trepidation. After all, Amritsari cuisine is what legends are made of, Amritsar a magical realm where all things gastronomic float in ghee and gleam with butter. Where a glass of makkhan malai lassi is enough to make grown men surrender an upcoming meal. This was the food of the Punjab giants, and I was certainly no giant.
With enough places to keep me busy for a week, I put aside that fear and, pardon the expression, grew a pair! I figured the best way to start any morning would be with a nice cup of masala chai at Giani Tea Stall (5am–7.30pm; Queens Road). Okay, so I couldn’t resist the omelette-bread (Rs 40, including tea) and kachoris (7–9am) either and neither should you. As at many an establishment in Amritsar, you will find proprietor Giani Gurmeet Singh making every single batch of tea himself.
Amritsar is famous for many culinary creations but the first one that comes to my mind are those wonderfully flaky kulchas. There are two kinds: a more bread-like baked kulcha, which is what I’m used to seeing, and what is essentially a stuffed naan cooked in an open tandoor. The perfect Amritsari kulcha will have a crisp exterior and soft and flaky interiors that wrap around savoury fillings of potato, onion, cauliflower and more. Almost perfect. Dollop of butter. Ah, now it’s perfect! The place that brings legends to life is All India Famous (Ratan Singh Chowk, Maqbool Road). There is no actual shop name written there, but it is the only one on the circle. They only serve a mixed kulcha with a potato, onion and cauliflower filling (Rs 25), which, I’m happy to report, was truly worthy of its name. If all this talk of aloo and gobhi just isn’t doing it for you, and you find yourself yearning for something meatier, just head to Friends Dhaba for their keema naan with butter and gravy (Rs 90; 210 Queens Road). The keema naan on its own is delicious but dunk it in that gravy and you are awed into silence.
Ghee, butter, milk, paneer…Punjab’s love for dairy is apparent in every dish you consume. It might have something to do with the fact that it is India’s second largest producer of milk. There’s no sweeter way to take the plunge than with a frothy glass of lassi. The two spots that tie for best lassi are Surjan Singh (Chowk Regent Cinema) and Ahuja Sweets (Dhab Khatikan). Neither of these places sells any gimmicky flavours, just a tall glass of plain sweet lassi topped with fresh cream (Rs 25 at both). For the strong hearted, Surjan Singh also serves his lassi with fresh white butter (proved a little too much for us namby-pamby city dwellers). Ahuja Sweets also makes one of the best phirnis in town.
Another dairy-centric Amritsar speciality is the fruit cream. You can either get it frozen like ice cream or as a more viscous and luscious concoction which I felt was truer to its name. To find the best, head straight to Lohgarh Road where there are three fruit cream guys next to each other — and pick Rana. The frozen variety you get next door or at Durga and Sukh Ram (aka Pehelwan’s) on Lawrence Road are all equally good. The obsession for dairy isn’t only limited to sweets. Paneer is clearly a favourite in Punjab and Amritsar is no exception. For the ultimate paneer indulgence, try the paneer bhurji with bread at Pyara Lal (Telephone Exchange), more like a pao bhaji than a dry bhurji (Rs 75 for a generous portion). They use up about five to six kilos of butter every day, but I promise you it is worth every calorie — that is, if you are foolish enough to count.
Now that we’re done with breakfast, let’s move on to lunch. A trip to Amritsar won’t be complete without a ‘pure veg meal’ cooked in ‘100% pure ghee’. There are two well-known places where you can eat this. The first is Kesar da Dhaba (Chowk Passian; kesardadhaba.com), located in a winding lane of the old city and boasting a kitchen that remains exactly as it was when it opened ninety-six years ago. The thing that makes this place legendary and notorious at the same time is its generous use of ghee. Keeping in mind that no one in Amritsar shies away from using ghee and butter, you can imagine what it means to still stand out. The best maa di dal (Rs 45) in all of Amritsar is to be found at Kesar. The dal is laboriously cooked for twelve hours before being served and all that slow cooking certainly makes the difference. Other goodies to tuck into include malai kofta (Rs 150), sarson ka saag (Rs 50) and phirni (Rs 20). If you’re now worrying seriously about how your arteries are reacting to all this ghee, head to Bharawan da Dhaba (8am–11.30pm; Town Hall; bharawandadhaba.com) instead. Established in 1912, but not looking a day over 2010, this flashy canteen-style eatery has clearly adapted to modern stomachs. It may lack the ambience of Kesar but I found the food a notch tastier, minus the dal, of course. The baigan ka bharta (Rs 85) is a must, as are the sarson ka saag (Rs 85) and makke di roti (Rs 15), rajma (Rs 80), chhole kulchey (Rs 90) and kheer (Rs 30).
The only way to settle your tummy is to press it all down with something sweet. After you’ve paid your respects at the Golden Temple (be sure to eat some halwa on your way out), stop nearby at Khubi Ram’s Sweets (Katra Ahluwalia). Though I was recommended the moong dal and besan burfis, which certainly weren’t bad, what made me moan in pleasure were the chandrakala, sooji ka halwa and patisa (Rs 90 for a portion of each, burfis included). Chandrakala is basically fried pastry dough stuffed with koha (cooked and thickened milk paste) and nuts. At Khubi Ram’s they grind up the nuts with the koha, so it’s all a sinfully smooth paste. This is then dipped in sugar syrup because there is always one more step you can take towards culinary hedonism. At first I mistook the sooji ka halwa (sold by weight) for gajar halwa because of the deep red colour it bore thanks to the jaggery used to sweeten it. Absolutely divine.
No dessert binge can be complete without jalebis and Amritsar has quite a few options. If you are closer to the Golden Temple, then you can head to the famous Gurdas Ram Jalebi Wala (Rs 10; Katra Ahluwalia). Or to Sharma Sweets (Rs 10), if you’re in the Lawrence Road area. There are two Sharma’s; this doppelgänger dilemma is something you will face for every renowned shop in Amritsar. There is a way to tell them apart, I found — the real McCoy will usually have the number of years it’s been in operation written somewhere on the shopfront. Now both Sharma’s make equally good jalebis but the original one on the right also makes to-die-for gulab jamuns (Rs 10). So take your pick.
At some point your stomach will beg for mercy. Since there’s very little time and much to eat, stopping is out of the question. What we can temporarily appease it with is some churan and aam papad. The one and only Lubhaya Ram & Sons (pushcart on Lawrence Road under a big peepal tree) makes about seven varieties of aam papad and a few types of churan (the imli churan is highly recommended). The rolls of aam papad are kept inside a glass case. If you want to eat on the spot, they will tear you a piece of aam papad, and sprinkle it with fresh masala and a squeeze of lime juice. The anardana paste too is really good. If you’re indecisive, buy a mixed box which contains a bit of everything (Rs 150).
Non-vegetarians do not despair, I haven’t forgotten about you; in fact, I am one of you. So let’s head to a meaty paradise known as Surjit Food Plaza (Lawrence Road). It may have transformed from a small roadside spot into a snazzier avatar, with air-conditioning and open kitchen to boot, but the food still remains true to its roots. It’s also a more welcoming place after dark for women with its no-alcohol policy. You must order the mutton tikka (Rs 250), which in true Amritsari fashion is first cooked in the tandoor and then jazzed up on the tawa with ghee, onions and some more masala — ensuring a deliciously tender and flavour-packed dish. You may think of tawa chicken as ubiquitous but once you dig into the version here (Rs 230) with a delicious lachha paratha (Rs 25), you will never under-estimate this dish again.
Every establishment in Amritsar may have many dishes to boast of but there are usually just one or two at each place that are truly exceptional. For instance, Surjit’s tandoori chicken is what made the joint famous, and of course it is a deliciously juicy bird but if tandoori chicken is what you’re after, you have to eat it at Beera’s (approx. Rs 130 for half chicken; Majitha Road). A little skinnier than Surjit’s perhaps but the attention to the marinade and spices makes for a much tastier chicken. Though not much else stood out at Beera’s, you could try a mutton champ. Or you could — actually, let me rephrase that, you should — walk down the road to Makhan Fish (Majitha Road). Here you will find what is easily the tastiest and freshest Amritsari fried fish (Rs 225). The first thing you’ll see as you enter are glorious golden stacks of fried fish, either sole or singhara. Grab a beer or a patiala and a plate of fish. Sit under the stars and don’t forget to thank the lord — because it doesn’t get better than this.
On one outing in Amritsar I befriended my rickshaw driver. I would peck at the food and share the rest with him because it was all too much for me. After he’d gobbled a malai lassi, a kulfi falooda, a plate of tikkis and three fruit creams, we haggled over the fare. “Look on the bright side,” I said, “I’ve saved you spending on dinner.” “Dinner?” he grunted, “Madam, I’m from Punjab. I will go and eat my dinner now!” This is the bottom line: you can eat all day in Amritsar and there will still be lots more to eat. So for the love of food, stay a day or two more and really eat like a giant. Because this is food you wouldn’t want to miss for the world.