Amritsar - An Unforgettable Spiritual and Culinary Journey with my Father
A tribute to you on your 70th Birthday , Dad
As we touched down at Amritsar, I felt a surge of excitement thinking of the culinary journey awaiting me.
I had heard so much about the city that has the most delicious fare in every nook and corner - some years old and some new, and of course the chance to experience Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple itself ...I couldn’t wait!
Arriving at Amritsar
"To a father growing old,nothing is dearer than a daughter"
Amritsar is situated In the north of India, in the state of Punjab - also known as the land of 5 rivers, the land of fierce warriors, and the land of peace and prayer. This is the land to which I belong, the land from where my forefathers came. My grandfather belonged to a family blessed by the third Guru (a spiritual leader of Sikhisim), Guru Amar Das, to be preachers of Sikhism in Sultanpur Lodi, which is my ancestral village in Punjab.
At Sultanpur Lodi
Amritsar (Amrit (nectar) and Sar (pool) mean the pool of nectar) or Amritkund (Amritsar’s ancient name) was an unknown place , a forest area with a pond in the middle amidst four villages- Tung, Gilwali, Sultanwind, and Guntala-even though it was right on the Grand Trunk Road that connected India to Central Asian countries and just 28km away from the capital city of Lahore . On a visit to Amritsar, the first Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Nanak Sahib was pleased by its calming environment and later the third Guru (Guru Amar Das) based himself in Amritsar.
But Amritkund gained prominence when Emperor Akbar decided to gift this land (which then comprised of a few villages) to Guru Amar Das. At the time, Guru Amar Das was impressed by the secular atmosphere of a shrine which was then at Goindwal on the River Beas. The guru, however, refused to accept this gift which was later given to his daughter Bibi Bhani . It is this gifted land that now surrounds the site of the holy pond at the Golden Temple. Guru Amar Das gave his successor –Guru Ramdas - the task of developing this area into a spiritual haven. More land was bought for rupees 700 from the landlord of the village Tung, and the adjoining village of Sultanwind presented more land out of reverence. In 1573 AD, Guru Ramdas began work on the city of Amritsar .
We had just left the airport when we were told of a famous Kulcha shop on our way to the city ...and we decided to make an impromptu pit stop for breakfast .You cannot get away from Kulchas in Amritsar...every nook and corner has a kulcha stall and is a must have all day meal. A Kulcha is a flat bread made with refined flour: it can be stuffed or plain, is cooked in a Tandoor, and is usually eaten with spiced chickpeas.
Kulcha like no other!
The stall we ended up at was called Kulcha land (in Ranjit Avenue). We had travelled on a weekend so it was a bit packed but we managed to get a table outside the small eatery. It was a very small, unpretentious place, the menu only has Kulchas on offer. As we sat, I could see my fathers excited eyes as he quickly asked a small waiter called Bhole (you need to be a Punjabi to be able to pronounce this name correctly – its more Pol-ay than Bhole!) to bring us the speciality Kulchas , stuffed with potato, and also a tall glass of lassi with malai - he wouldn’t have it otherwise!
Dad in Action!
These are Amritsari Kulchas and not the normal kulchas that are served elsewhere. These are made of less flour (http://www.kulchaland.com/kulcha.html) and their recipe can be viewed in the link.
Amritsari Kulchas are stuffed with potato, cottage cheese and masalas or spices and cooked in a tandoor, then smeared with generous amounts of ghee.
"My father gave me the greeatest gift anyone could give another person...He believed in me"
An experience to be served by Bhole:)
We were joined by the very humble owner of Kulchaland, who told us about the shop that was opened by his father in the early 1940’s - All India Fame - now called All India Famous Kulcha Stall. He told us proudly that the stall’s fame spans all over India even to this day. His father had even been called by the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai to prepare Kulchas for an event there - that is the unbeatable power of flavours of this Golden City. Now the stall is run by his sons, Dalbir and Samarjit Singh.
Making friends anywhere!
It is undisputable - there is no Kulcha like the one we had at Kulchaland. The hospitality we received was amazing - what struck me was the humility with which he spoke of his business and the respect he gave his customers. I’m sure that is the true secret of his success. But then my Dad too has a knack of making friends in no time ...he shared his entire lunch with my Dad, a simple preperation on Lentils and Rice with curd.
I went inside the small eatery and experienced the “kulchand way” of making the most delicious kulchas ever: the kulchas were all lined up waiting to be served after coming out fresh from the tandoor: some with a masala, some stuffed with potato and cottage cheese. The smell of the fresh dough in the tandoor mixed with the tasty stuffings filled the air - the smell combined with the unforgettable taste left us asking for more.
The man behind the delicious kulchas!
The Kulchas alone are enough to lure me to another visit to Amritsar and I knew there were many many more food places of Amritsar that would add to this list .
We were aware of the fact that we had a long day ahead and many more places to visit, so we resisted any more temptations and went to check in at our Hotel .
Our next stop was to savour the famous Makhan fish – also known as Amritsari fish. The restaurant famous for this preparation was founded by S. Mohinder Singh Makhan as a small stall on Lawrence Road in Amritsar. The recipe for Makhan fish was learnt from his father with whom he worked for 16 years.
Oye ...Oye..My dad's favourite phrase upon seeing deliciousness
Always seated first at the table, even when we had guests over at home..he would comment on how amazing the food was !!!..That has'nt changed a bit..
The Makhan fish restaurant on Majitha road is a modern eatery with a modest decor. We ordered the fish and a plate of kulchas, of course! Amritsari fish is a very popular snack in Amritsar and can be seen on various menus in Hotels now - it’s a boneless fish marinated with egg, yoghurt and spices and then deep-fried.
The fish, true to its name, tasted like butter melting in the mouth. You cannot stop at one. The crust is so thin and crisp, and the fish is very well crumbed, together enhancing its subtle flavours.
It was around noon when we finished, and decided to visit the famous ‘Chawlas Chicken’ – I had heard they sold the most awesome grilled chicken in Amritsar but the restaurant wasn’t open for business and so we had to move on to our next stop for chicken: Crystal, on Queens Road ,opposite Company Bagh.
Crystal is a well established restaurant – we saw many foreigners dining (truly they must be on top with their marketing!). The menu is dominated by Mughlai favourites and we ordered the house speciality, the impressively names: Tawa Frontier Chicken, which consisted of morsels of highly spiced chicken cooked in a dense onion gravy. The accompaniment? Another set of kulchas of course! However, the Kulchas of Kulchaland were still the best we had eaten so far.
The chicken at Crystal was cooked to perfection and still sizzling on the tawa as it arrived onto our table ...the gravy was well spiced and it was a bit heavy but very flavourful. Another restaurant for chicken we had heard of was Beeras, we but couldn’t make it there.
As we made our way out from Crystal, we were thinking of getting some dessert, and were told about a stall called Durga Ice creams at Company Bagh. As we approached it, we thought it was closed since there was no one inside. There are no tables to sit just a counter of ice-creams and kulfi.
As we went inside, we ordered a Badaam doodh (Almond milk), which is a delicious preparation of milk flavoured gently with almonds, cardamom, and saffron. I am not very fond of Indian almond milk but when I had my first sip of this Badaam doodh I couldn’t stop at the first sip. I called my father and insisted that he too take a sip. The smile on his face as he tasted the milk said it all. As I was taking photos, the owner, Gaurav, came to meet us and introduced us to the various specialities of his wonderful small shop.
Badaam Doodh or Almond Milk , tasted like never before
Gaurav , theowner
The quality of milk products that we savoured in this tiny shop were among the best we had ever had. The milk used in all his products is fresh and the ice cream is hand made. We also had his famous kulfi, which was seriously the best ever I had ever tasted ..my father felt the same and he loves kulfi and cannot resist it anytime.
pista ice cream ..all
freshly hand made
The Kulfi was served with falooda (glass noodles mixed with rose syrup). The hospitality at the shop was on another level. Gaurav kept asking us to try his sweets and serving different flavours of his hand made ice-cream. After this experience, I cant understand how and why people have machine made ice creams! How true is the age-old adage: never judge a book by its cover.
The flavours were bursting in this shop, and in this city: Amritsar is a foodies haven in the true sense.
Gaurav then introduced us to a shop just a few feet away from his ,as he realised we had come to taste the best of Amritsar. He led us inside a narrow lane serving paneer pakoras (fried cottage cheese fritters)...they were simmering in the kadai (wok) shining like jewels. It is Vaishno Food Shop and does serve other pakoras too , of potato, cauliflower ,fenugreek , onion etc but the cottage cheese pakoras are the crowd puller!
These pakoras were not like the pakoras one finds in Delhi that are thickly coated in gramflour batter; the gramflour batter on these was just about coating some parts and you could see other parts of the soft cottage cheese cubes.
Just one bite of these pakodas blew us away...we could have eaten kilos of it ..but had to keep away thinking of the many more delights one has to savour in this city. I could see many students in this corner lane with their friends enjoying an afternoon of pure culinary bliss..what fun!
"A daughter may outgrow your lap but she will never outgrow your heart"
Held like a jewel ,
my Dad literally thought it was!
We then made our way to the nearby Bansal sweet shop to pick up ladoos and sweets to take to Delhi. The shop was just one long counter dishing out all the sweets one could ask for. Since it was late afternoon, thankfully it wasn’t crowded, and we could get a clear view of all the mithais (Indian sweets) - from besan ladoos, to moong daal barfi ,gulab jamuns ,pinnis, and most of the milk based sweets .....we packed some to take home to Delhi and set off for Wagha border which is 28km away from the city.
"My Dad has never denied us anything if we wanted to buy something ...I can't remember even one instance in my life where I ever thought that when I start earning myself I would like to get THAT SOMETHING that I had been denied as a child" ...and it was the same at the sweet shop ...he got me all my favourites !... leaving not one sweet behind....
Through the glass...choosing the sweets
Finally chosen my favourites--patisa, moong daal burfi and besan ke ladoo
"My Father is neither an anchor to hold us back,nor a sail to take us there,but a guiding light whose love shows us the way"
Wagah Border is the border between Pakistan and India where thousands throng daily to see the daily retreat ceremony which is done in style. It starts 30 minutes before sunset where both the countries flags are pulled down and folded , a tradition since 1959.Wagha , is 29 km from Lahore ,a town of my Dad s birth , so it was a very special trip . It takes around 45 minutes from Amritsar town to reach this place and I would recommend that one takes a VIP pass, if one wants to see the entire ceremony .The crowd of upto 2000+people or more can assemble here daily , the atmosphere electrifying!
At the India-Pakistan Border ,close to his birthplace..and as usual he found someone to talk with ..a street vendor selling golas..or Indian popsicles.
It was a humid evening and we were very tired after our adventures – we needed a little energy boost which we got from a tea-stall called Gianis which our driver cum guide took us to - he said anyone who has visited Amritsar has had tea at Gianis.
Pictures are courtesy ..my dad ..who decided to order the Bread omelette while it was being made since it was in demand!
My dad brought me the small glass of tea - called cutting chai in some parts of India - sweetened milky tea is continuously brewed (I was too tired to get out of the car). The tea took away all my fatigue , and I am not even a regular tea drinker. The tea was good, but I couldn’t understand why my Dad looked so excited - he took my camera and rushed back to the stall to capture the most delicious omelette bread ever!
In our family,we can gobble an egg dish any time of the day or night and the omelette bread we were served was divine. Don’t know if we were hungry or it was the long day we had, but it was gobbled up in no time ...it was by far the most delicious omelette bread ever had.
We knew this was not the end of our culinary day and couldn’t begin to think all that we had experienced today was probably the best ever tasting food ever had and we couldn’t wait for more, and set off for one of the most famous eateries in Amritsar, Bhrawan da Dhaba, which means brothers dhaba (a dhaba is typically a roadside eatery but is now often found in malls!)
We visited the branch at the mall near our hotel as it was convenient , and it had a 20 minute wait .
It was a pure vegetarian restaurant and we couldn’t believe the crowds it attracted. When we were finally seated and quickly handed the menus (which of course had all the Amritsari specialitie), we ordered the Deluxe Thalis which comprised of chole (chickpeas in a gravy), daal (a lentil), jeera rice (rice flavoured with cumin), shahi paneer (cottage cheese in yoghurt gravy) and 2 paranthas. The food was delicious.
Even after a tiring day, ready for a meal at the dhaba....a sign of a true punjabi!
"A father provides the foundation of strength,wisdom and hope. So that his children may build their dreams upon it.
The thali and phirni
This restaurant also serves the famous aloo kulcha and other dishes like pooris (fried flat breads), aloo launji (potato curry), and paneer bhurji (crumbled spiced cottage cheese). Be sure to try these if you visit Amritsar.
After a glass of lassi (churned yoghurt) to wash all the food down, we ordered phirni, a milk based dessert usually set in an earthen ware bowl. The phirni didn’t meet our expectations.We are so used to the amazing phirni which my grandmother would make ,any other phirni falls short ...always!
at 3.30 a.m
We were very tired at the end of the day after soaking in all the food experiences of the day, but we were looking forward to our much awaited visit to the Sri Darbar Sahib, Sri Harminder Sahib or the Golden Temple.
Litrerally meaning the temple of god,built on a 64 sq.ft platform , in the centre of the Sarovar tank ,on a lower level so that devotees go down some steps to bring a sense of humbleness . It was concieved by the 5th Guru, Guru Arjan Sahib,who got its foundation laid by a Muslim saint ,Hazrat , Mian Mirji of Lahore.
It has 4 entrances and exits ,unlike any other Hindu Temple making it accesable to every person without any distinction of caste, creed, sex or religion.
After being completed in 1601,Guru Arjan Sahib insalled a newly created Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book in the Sri Harminder Sahib and appointed Baba Budhaji as its first Granthi i.e the reader of the Granth Sahib.
The Darshani Deori (an arch) stands at the shore of the causeway or bridge leading up to the main temple.The bridge is connected with a circulatory path running around the main shrine , leading to the Har ki Paure or "Steps of God" where the Granth Sahib is read continuously.
"My Dad always told me ..Never be fearful of being right even if you are the only one standing on that side of the fight"...
As she has planted , so does she harvest...such is the field of Karma-
Guru Granth Sahib
At Bliss ...at the Golden Temple
The Palki Sahib which carries the holy book
There is a continuous singing of Gurbani Kirtan (hymns) at Sri Harimandir Sahib from the opening of its portals (doors) to their closing. After the departure of the Palki Sahib (palanquin) carrying Sri Guru Granth Sahib to The Akal Takhat Sahib, the devotees, accompanied by the Gurdwara staff, clean the Sri Harimandir Sahib for one hour. During this process these devotees sing the Gurbani Kirtan in melodious and devotional tones. After purifying the precincts, the rugs are spread, on which the Peera Sahib (a small cot) is placed to install the Sri Guru Granth Sahib in the early morning. At the completion of the Ardas (Sikh Prayer), Karah Prasad (holy offering or the halwa) is distributed among the devotees.
Sri Akal Takhat Sahib , the place where the Sri Granth Sahib lies in the night
Taking a round of the temple, visiting the various places where the Sri Granth Sahib is read throughout the night..
Selfie at the steps ...with Dad..thank you for very special moments...
Each day before sunrise, the Granth Sahib or the holy book of the Sikhs (it contains 937 hyms of 36 Hindu saints , Muslim sufis and bards), is taken into the Harmandir Sahib where Guru Arjans manuscript of the Granth Sahib was completed and installed in 1604. It is taken in a palanquin with so much reverence - we caught ourselves chanting with the crowd. I couldn’t believe the sea of people at that hour at the temple!
It was, spiritually, one of the most uplifting moments of my life.
Upon purchasing the Kada Prashad, or holy offering, half of the quantity is given back to distribute among the poor..
The walk by the pool of nectar, the cool touch of the marble floors, the recitation of the Granth Sahib in various nooks and corners of the temple, the most delicious halwa prashad ever, and finally the much talked about Langar, which is the free mean for all offered at all Gurudwaras. The hall where the Langar was served was huge, with rows and rows of people seated for a cup of tea and a rusk..all given the same treatment by the volunteers who serve in the hall.
Over 100,000 meals are served per day irrespective of class, race or religion
Accepting tea and a rusk..the most simplest of early morning snacks..feeling grateful and humble..
We stepped out after the refreshment (even the tea has a different flavour at gurudwaras!),and witnessed the kitchen areas where people were cooking and making rotis. The volunteers collecting the tea glasses did so with so much reverence ...it was unbelievable.
Volunteers doing "seva" or service..a lot of goodness in the world still exists!
Stepping into the kitchens of the world largest langars was simply overwhelming...the size of the cooking utensils,the various machines that rolled the rotis and then smeared with ghee manually..seva done with fervour at dawn!
In of the worlds greatest and most generous kitchens!
Rotis or flat breads are made in a room by a machine and then volunteers smeer it with ghee!
When I was nearly 8, he challenged my sister and me to learn the Vishnu Sahasranaam(the 1000 names of Vishnu), and in return he would give up smoking. We won the challenge ....but somehow I feel now it was a win -win for him....
As we came out of the Langar hall, the hues in the skies had changed, dawn was upon us and the Golden Temple could be seen in a different light. It was so clearly set behind the pool of nectar: absolutely unreal. We admired it while taking a walk around the pool and as we approached the exit we couldn’t but keep our gaze on it..till it faded from our sight.
at 6 a.m
One of my greatest blessings...My Dad
As bright as ever..from night to dawn
This experience is not to be missed..the best we have had.I have noticed .i keep saying this:) The thrill of witnessing the sight had left us speechless for a while and as we climbed the bus to take us back to our hotel, we felt the need to rest so that we could resume our food adventures for the day.
For breakfast, we were treated to chole and pithi pooris at Kanha Sweets,Lawrence Road.
The kitchen for the restaurant is in a narrow lane, open for viewing, where cooks prepare the pooris and churn glasses of lassi for customers. The dining area is a few feet away and one has to wait in a queue to get in. While we waited for a seat, we savoured all the delights of the kitchen and the cooks were glad to show off their skills .
The famous pooris being hand rolled ,fried...and served.
With fresh Lassi!
You get 2 pooris , a sweet and sour potato curry and spicy chole , with raw onions on the side, on a plate for a fixed price and thereafter one has to pay for extras. You get served continuously and are expected to eat quickly and give way to the next customer as soon as possible. It was a delicious breakfast and I think we had eaten enough chole for a lifetime but worth it!
Of course My dad , had to try the lassi there ...and found it as delicious.
It was time for dessert and off we went to Sharmas Sweets (off Lawrence road).
It was the tiniest shack I have ever seen - there were only 2 sweets being prepared: Gulab Jamun and Malpuas.
This is what happens when you are in Amritsar...passing by another sweet shop we stopped for some basanti halwa
The worlds most delicious Malpuas and Gulab Jamuns!
The Gulab Jamuns were floating in the sugar syrup and perfectly browned. They were so soft and smooth. I had never savoured a Gulab Jamun so rich in taste and soft in texture. The Malpuas were being fired fresh and had a hint of sauf (fennel) that made me smile as I bit into the first one. That is the beauty of Amritsar...the most exotic, authentic tastes can be found in the most unusual of places.
I devoured both sweets – which are up on my list of favourites!
And we went on to our next experience – an Aam Papar (dried Mango fruit leather) stall across the street. The stall is owned by Ram Lubhaya and Sons, who sell their “world famous” wares under a huge umbrella. He is very proud of his product and made us try out all types. He has an online business too, and couriers his product far and wide!
One thing I particularly wanted to try was the Bheege Chole, (Kulchas (bread) dipped in chole (chickpeas)) which are very very famous in Amritsar. So we went over to an nearby eatery since we did not have much time and had to head back to Delhi. I have heard that Ashok Kulcha wala at Ranjit Avenue serves some of the best Bheege Chole...I will keep that for my next visit!
I do hope and wish for many spiritual journeys with you ,of course with our foodie genes being delighted ...along the way!
Thank you for being the best Father I could have ever wished for !
It was time to head back home. My father and I had had a trip of a lifetime. Amritsar is a foodie and spiritual paradise. The Golden Temple is proof of human pain and the power to forgive, to serve and to love, and this sentiment spreads far and wide through the people of Amritsar.
Fittingly, the foods in this city are cooked with so much care and love – I feel this reflects their proximity to the Harmindar Sahib or the Golden Temple.
We, to this day , cannot forget our trip to Amazing Amritsar and hope to be back soon to taste all the delights the city has to offer.