Amritsar, in the heart of Punjab, exhibits everything that the country has come to love about Punjabi heritage – friendly people, unparalleled hospitality, colourful accessories and superlative food. Home to the most important Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple, the food here is as heavenly as the temple itself. From the sacred langar (community meal at the Golden Temple) to the famous dhabas around the city, from eateries in narrow galis to fancy restaurants, the food in Amritsar is as vibrant as its people. Delicious Kulchas dripping with butter, fried Amritsari fish, keema and the famous Maa ki Daal, there’s a lot on offer for both vegetarians and nonvegetarians.
A culinary trail at Amritsar should start with breakfast at Kanha sweets on Lawrence Road. Chole Puri and pinnis (an Indian sweet made of ground urad dal, crushed dry fruits and wheat flour) is what Kanha is most well known for. A hot cup of tea at Giani tea stall on Cooper Road, could be the next stop. A small, often crowded joint, it has been visited by the likes of Chief Minister of Punjab and Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor, among many others. A mini, follow-up breakfast of kachori and bread omelet is highly recommended at Giani’s.
Though many would consider skipping lunch after the rather filling breakfasts on offer, this is one meal that provides yet another opportunity to sample some of the best food the city has to offer. There are various choices, from an all-veg dhaba dating back to 1916 to the legendary Amritsari fish. The very famous Kesar da dhaba has been serving delicious vegetarian food cooked in pure desi ghee since 1916. I have had the most delicious Maa di dal here – black lentils perfectly flavoured with freshly ground spices. This dal is cooked for 12 hours, often on a coal/wood-fired oven, before it is served. Maa di dal, buttery kulchas , palak paneer and spicy aloo paratha would make a memorable meal at Kesar. Phirni, a milk and rice based dessert with almonds, is a must-have.
For non-vegetarians craving fish, Makhan da dhaba at Majitha Road serves boneless fried Amritsari fish that just melts in the mouth. The fish is fresh, not very spicy or oily, and has the perfect balance of flavors. Paneer tikka, chunky cubes of cottage cheese, marinated in spiced curd and then grilled on coal, is another favourite at Makhan. The slightly charred notes of the tikka, which comes with grilled tomatoes, onions and capsicum, and their heavenly aroma, fills up the senses and the memory of the paneer melting in the mouth remains long after the meal is done.
If there is indeed any space left in the stomach after lunch, it is best drowned with a generous glass of lassi, a flavoured drinking yogurt which most of Punjab is known for. At Ahuja’s Lassi opposite Hindu College, the thick and creamy lassi is a meal in itself, served as it is with a huge helping of malai (cream) and a laddoo (a traditional Indian sweet).
An afternoon siesta is the best antidote to such binging sprees but Amritsar has ample shopping experiences to offer to visitors. Colourful juttis, intricately embroidered shawls and salwar suits and fine jewellery are worth exploring. If all the shopping makes you hungry, the chaat and pani puri at Brijwasi Chaat on Cooper Road is the local favourite evening stop. Given that the chances of getting a plate of pani puri reduce with time, this joint is best visited before 6 PM.
With approaching nightfall, the twinkling lights of the Golden Temple, reflecting off the water, beckon. Sitting by the sarovar (pond), feet dipped in the water, watching multitudes of people coming and going, listening to gurbani (devotional music) wafting across, makes for an immensely calming experience. After darshan most visitors head to the community dining hall for the langar, a free meal served to anyone who would like to eat at the temple. Gentle, polite, karsewaks or volunteers, serve food cooked in the community kitchen with love and devotion. Though the menu changes slightly every day, a dal (often maa di daal) and roti are common. This is a live experience of the world’s largest free kitchen. The meal could end with khada parshad, whole wheat halwa prepared in desi ghee, which is handed out to every visitor as a blessing.
This holy city also has some of the best sweets on offer in the north of India. Among the favourite local haunts is Gurudas Ram Jalebiwala for fresh, crispy and juicy jalebis made of pure ghee. The gulab jamuns are also recommended – fried just right, and then soaked in a cardamom flavoured sugar syrup to perfection.
A trip to Amritsar is a sublime experience at many levels – starting from the Golden Temple, to the warm, affectionate, hospitable Punjabis who have the uncanny ability to make a first-time visitor feel like a long lost friend. And then of course, there’s the food. Unparalleled, delectable, divine food that has patrons like me, wishing for it, dreaming of it, across the many miles that separate us now.