Some say Amritsar is India’s culinary capital. Try the street food here, and you just might agree.
Often hailed as the breadbasket of India, the fertile northwestern state of Punjab is known for its rich, hearty cuisine that mines an abundance of grains and dairy. Perhaps no city is more revered in Punjabâ€”and in all of Indiaâ€”for its local fare than Amritsar, where much of the food is prepared and sold in the alleys around Sikhismâ€™s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple. From crisp kulcha flatbreads to tumblers of thirst-quenching lassi, hereâ€™s a selection of the townâ€™s most divine street-side bites.
A typical Punjabi breakfast, chole puri (a.k.a. chole batura) pairs chickpeas in gravy with glistening puffs of deep-fried flatbread.
At Kanhaiya Lal Harbhajan Singh on Lawrence Road, the puri is prepared by the street in a car-tire-sized karahi wok. Head upstairs to the faded dining hall, where you can tuck into puri so crispy that it crackles when pulled apart, a chole that yields notes of cumin and cloves, and a side of potato cooked with tamarind and jaggery.
Also worth seeking out is Novelty Sweets (corner of Lawrence Rd. and Mall Rd.), inside a half-finished shopping mall just a five-minute stroll to the south. Amritsaris swear by its chole puri and for good reasonâ€”the dish is more layered than at Kanhaiya Lal, its puri flecked with chili powder inside and the potato enriched by peas and nuggets of cashew.
Lassi is More
Two spots in the old walled city surrounding the Golden Temple excel in this cooling yogurt drink. Since 1921, Gian di Lassi (Golden Temple Out Rd., opposite Regent Cinema) has been churning out creamy lassi laced with rose essence and topped with a dollop of butter. Such is the shopâ€™s popularity that it goes through 500 kilograms of yogurt on a hot day. Over on B.K. Dutt Gate, the making of lassi at Ahuja Sweets is a hypnotic sight, with the preparer theatrically pouring and stirring ingredients into a dented spherical mixing urn. The result is a creamy, frothy, and indulgent concoction.
For six decades, the Budha MalÂ pakora stall has served up its acclaimed vege-table fritters next to the old city wallâ€™s Hakima Gate. Eight years ago its owners opened a proper shop, but they didnâ€™t move farâ€”youâ€™ll now find them on the west side of the gate. The deftly fried pakora of cauliflower florets, cucumbers, and onions are succulent, crispy, and impossible to resist with a chutney featuring chili powder and lime juice.
Mixing it Up
Resembling Mexican scrambled eggs, paneer bhurji is a fiery, buttery pick-me-up that combines paneer cheese, onions, tomatoes, chili, and other spices. At Bau Paneer Bhurji near the Old Telephone Exchange in Hathi Gate, this addictive dish is served with a sublime mint chutney and slices of plain white bread. The space can barely fit more than half a dozen people, so try to avoid the midday cruch.
Tea vendors can be found day and night on street corners all over the city, but none have the following of Giani Tea Stall. Little more than a covered platform raised a few steps above Cooper Road, itâ€™s a frequent stop for Amritsarâ€™s turbaned police officers. The masala chai is creamy, sweet, and fragrant with the perfume of tea leaves and cardamom.
Just steps from Giani in a little alley next to the train tracks, Inderpuri Bhojnalaya (196 Cooper Rd.) doles out velvety, earthy sarson ka saag (spiced mustard greens), a Punjabi specialty best paired with the filling corn bread known as makki ki roti. Preface the main dish with some gratifying dahi bhalla (lentil dumplings in yogurt), which feature a topping of sweet-sour tamarind sauce.
No culinary tour of Amritsar is complete without a taste of its kulcha, a leavened flatbread. For an authentic experience, seek out the canteen-style Monu Kulcha Hut on Loharka Road in the residential neighborhood of Ranjit Vihar. Monu churns out 2,000 kulchas on a busy day, serving each one with several scoops of chole and a side of chili with lime and chopped onion. The kulchas are works of artâ€”as crispy, flaky, and delicate as a mille-feuille pastry, but with the salty kick of a pat of butter on top.
Walking in the narrow streets just off Golden Temple Road by day, youâ€™ll likely pass Gurdas Ram Jalebi Wala without noticing it. But after dark, the area around this corner stall fills with locals hankering for a sugary treat. The coil-like jalebis are surprisingly tender and crunchy, unlike most commercial varieties that have a gummy texture. But the real star is the melt-in-the-mouth gulab jamunâ€”round, milk solidsâ€“based confections that are warm, creamy, and bathed in sugar syrup.
This article originally appeared in theÂ October/November 2017Â print issue of DestinAsian magazine (â€śPunjab on a Plateâ€ť).