Friday, February 22, 2013

Amritsar - The food

To modify a few lines from Shakespeare, if you, my friend, demand why I go to Amritsar, this is my answer. It’s not that I like Amritsar less but I like the food more.

Yes folks the food in Amritsar is really good. As far as Indian food is concerned, according to me, the finest examples of Indian food are available in Amritsar, at Karim’s in Jama Masjid in Delhi, Bukhara and Dum Pukht at the ITC Hotels. Unfortunately, all these are examples of North Indian food. But then this is my opinion.

On this visit, in chronological order, we ate at:

The Ista
Surjit Food Plaza
The Langar at the Golden Temple
Ahuja Lassi
Kesar Da Dhaba
Kanha Sweets

Let me assure you that getting to these places by taxi and then on foot or cycle rickshaw is reasonably easy. Getting back after dinner is the challenge, unless, you make your transport wait for you while you eat. To us it seemed that Amritsar shuts down very early. Restaurants [except Kesar Da Dhaba] do not have the large custom that we in the larger cities are used to seeing. Things are far more relaxed.

As far as the food is concerned, two aspects that struck us. First; across all the restaurants the temperature at which the food was served was amazing. The food was consistently served steaming hot, and I mean hot. Mind you it was winter so ambient temperatures, were, by Indian standards, low probably 15C or 60F. Also bear in mind that the food was being cooked in primitive kitchens with most cooking done on wood and coal fires. No combi ovens, no microwave ovens, no heat lamps, no salamanders. Just huge Tandoors and, at times, LPG cylinders. If they could pull this off in such adverse conditions, our Mumbai restaurateurs should hang their heads in shame when they serve us tepid, obviously, barely reheated food. I agree that most curries were premade and therefore easy to heat, but that is the case in Mumbai too. Consistently Rotis served were so hot that they could not be handled. The food served at the Langar in the Golden Temple was hot too. That was being served from buckets to 3000 to 5000 people at a time.

The second aspect, this is slightly more philosophical, was the sheer generosity that we felt in the food and the restaurants. The food seemed large hearted, seemed to be made with a feeling of pride and probably fear of losing one’s reputation and consequently the business and custom. If a man did not perform he would lose his job. Presumably with that his reputation. In a small city this would make a difference. In Mumbai Delhi Bangalore would this make any difference? The line cook would get another job easily. Restaurants are run by managers who themselves have no real reputation or business to protect. Maybe I am being simplistic, but the sheer - that word again - generosity, in the food was touching. We get that feeling when we eat in many places in Europe too. No its not free food, it’s not really the chef sending out Amuse Bouches, it’s something more. It’s probably honesty. Then again it’s probably not. Lets close this by saying the food in Amritsar is really good.

On landing we wanted to have something quick so we decided to eat at the Ista itself. We ordered just one dish. Alu Wadiyan with a Roti each. Wadis are dried lentil cakes that are flavoured with chilli, coriander seeds and other spices. They are shallow fried, crumbled and added to a Tomato based gravy with green peas and/or potato. This is a typically Punjabi dish. The Ista served us a good version of this. Suitably fortified we set out to the walled city.

Alu Wadiyan

Dinner was to be at Surjit Food Plaza. We had been here the last time we were in Amritsar. It’s owned by a Sardar Sucha Singh who sits at the counter overseeing all the activities. The two most famous dishes on offer were the Tandoori Chicken and the Amritsari fish. We also ordered a Daal to accompany the food. The Tandoori Chicken was very good. None of the lurid red colour we are so used to. Juicy hot and spicy. Delicious. The Fried Fish Amritsari was top class. Crisp batter and once again no red colour. A strong dose of Ajwain or Carom seed powder was mixed into the batter. The Daal was decent. The portions are all half plates!!

Amritsari Fried Fish

Tandoori Chicken

Black Daal

After our lunch at the Langar we went to Ahuja Lassi to try that out. This place is very highly recommended for the Lassi. The TV programme `Highway On My Plate’ which we quite like, has said that this is the best Lassi in India. We were underwhelmed. It was perfectly good Lassi. But to say it’s the best is a long shot. On the other hand let’s get a bit real. What can you really achieve with a preparation of just 3 ingredients, yogurt, sugar and ice? You could easily give this a miss. The interesting thing was there were so many people ordering a bowl [and that was a MAN sized bowl] of Dahi with sugar which they happily ate. I have never seen this ever in Mumbai. When leaving we bought a half kilo of their pure Desi Ghee to take back to Mumbai. Hope it’s good.

Ahuja Lassi

Dinner was at the legendary Kesar Da Dhaba. This is really difficult to find. Going by car is simply not possible. Our Bentley was parked at the top of the lane and Vijay the driver walked us to the restaurant. This Dhaba had 4 units. One was the kitchen, one the takeaway and two were dining areas. It was 8.45pm, very late by Amritsar standards and there was not a place to sit, it was packed. We soon got a table and ordered. The most famous dishes are the Daal Fry and Channa Fry. Along with this we got an Aloo Gobi which I really like, a Lachha Paratha and an Aloo Paratha. Absolutely delicious food. I have not eaten better vegetarian food ever in my life. Depth of flavour, seasoning, temperature and quality of ingredients were superlative. This was the pinnacle of our journey. The Parathas were flaky, tasty and perfectly cooked. I wholeheartedly recommend that you eat here. Can you guess how much we paid for all that food? Rs. 300/- Yes friends USD 6 yes six dollars.

Laccha Paratha

Alu Paratha

Channa Fry

Daal Fry

Alu Gobi

Kesar Da Dhaba - Kitchen

That meal would be difficult to top. But Amritsar had more in its armoury. Kanha Sweets. This is a place for breakfast. They serve just one thing for breakfast. A plate with 2 Pooris, unlimited Choley, unlimited Potato vegetable and unlimited pickled carrots and onions. You know how much that costs? Rs. 45/- yes folks less than a US Dollar. This was truly the breakfast of champions priced for paupers. The Choley beat the Channa Fry at Kesar Da Dhaba hollow. The potato vegetable was truly delicious. It was sweet, soured with tamarind and with a lot of bitter undertones brought in by liberal additions of Methi or Fenugreek Seeds. Perfectly balanced dish which cut thru the rich spices in the Choley. Fantastic. If you like you can have more than 2 Pooris but then you pay more. You could order Gajar Ka Halwa or any other sweet from their counter outside too. But this was a really good breakfast. We were fortified to handle the low cost no food Spice Jet flight back to Mumbai.

Left - Alu Bhaji Right - Choley

Breakfast at Kanha Sweets was the last time I have smiled.  

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