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Amritsar, the Dhaba Capital of India

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Chicken-Tikkasm

Amritsar, the Dhaba Capital of India

Amritsar assaulted our senses with the force of a sledgehammer – the sight of tall glasses of creamy milky lassis, sizzling jalebis, butter-rich ma ki dal simmered overnight, sinful ras malai and phirni… We sipped, savoured and gorged on all the specialities, much like survivors of a shipwreck who had suddenly found themselves in a foodie paradise

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Our taste buds were engorged but kept asking for more… Amritsar, part holy city part carnival and the city’s dhaba capital, snared us as much with its glorious sights as its burp-inducing food. Piety and faith swirl around the Golden Temple while just outside, snake narrow aromatic alleys that are studded with stalls that cater to the locals’ almost insatiable appetite.

In Katra Ahluwalia in the old city is the famous Gurdas Ram Jalebian Wala, a shop said to serve the best jalebis in town. Cars, scooters and mooing cows jostled for right of way even as the owner of the stall sat with zen-like calm in front of a cauldron of oil. Juicy golden blobs crackled before they were scooped up, crisp and sticky, and served to pedestrians, bikers and passengers in cycle rickshaws and cars who stopped for a zesty mid-day snack.

In Amritsar everybody is a foodie and most have a favourite dhaba to recommend – try the kheema naan at Pal Dhaba; mutton curry at Prakash Dhaba… Recommendations flowed fast and furious. “A glass of Amritsari lassi will fill you up for three to four hours,” exulted a friendly policeman whose girth reflected his appetite. With inimitable frontier spirit, locals swilled frothy lassi, topped with generous pats of butter and cream in one long gulp. The only nod to modern “technology” is that lassi is no longer hand churned but whisked in a pot powered by electricity.Punjab Amritsar - Food - lussi

In the walled city, in a tight radius around the fairy-tale Golden Temple, the dhabas are largely vegetarian. But even in this bastion of tradition, change has sneaked in. Here Bharawan da Dhaba (reportedly the oldest restaurant on the subcontinent) has been in business since 1912 starting life as a tiny smoke-filled shack that was run by two brothers. Next to it is the breakaway dhaba called Brother’s Dhaba. Both have modern interiors and kitchens but what struck us was the fact that pastas, South Indian and Chinese options have insidiously crept into their menus.

Punjab Amritsar - Food - dhaba signboard

“We have to move with the times,” says Dolly Vij, wife of the owner of Bharawan da Dhaba whose ruddy cheeks seem to have been nurtured with tumblers full of Amritsari lassi and desi ghee. “At the same time, we like to remain true to our roots in the food that we serve.”

Some dhabas have been upwardly mobile like the once nondescript Makhan Dhaba, creators of the subtly flavoured makhan fish. The dhaba, once located near the railway station, moved to Lawrence Road where, in the late 1980s, the owner’s sleight of hand at the tawa and the tandoor were discovered by the BBC, Madhur Jaffrey and later Bollywood. Today, it has metamorphosed into the slick Surjit Food Plaza in the Nehru Shopping Complex. In the display kitchen, the courteous turbaned Surjit Singh flipped succulent mutton tikkas and assured us that tandoori chicken does not have to be slathered with lurid artificial colour.

Punjab Amritsar - Food - sampling platter at a dhaba-1

While some dhabas have re-invented themselves others like Kesar da Dhaba in the old city remain stubbornly unchanged. Vijay Kumar, the owner, said proudly: “We don’t do pizzas. We have resisted modernisation.” Functional, with marbled-topped tables and plastic chairs, the 1916 dhaba re-located from Lahore to Amritsar, post Independence. The buttery ma-ki-dal is ideally mopped up with lachha paratha or butter naan.

After a robust meal, uncompromising in its authenticity, we quietened buzzing taste buds with a cool phirni and ras malai and then de-toxed on the banks of the pool that fielded the reflections of the Golden Temple. As they say in Amritsar: “Guru ki kripa se!”

 

Amritsar. Dream it. Plan it. Trip it at www.TripWorks.com

GUSTASP IRANI

Gustasp & Jeroo Irani are a husband and wife team of travel writers/photographers, more accurately, travel junkies always on the lookout for the next fix, the next trip... They have travelled across India and the world. But eventually they return to the city they call home: Mumbai The footloose couple have edited Indian travel magazines, researched and written two guides for South African Tourism in India. Gustasp is the author of the book Once Upon a Raj

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