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Wine & Dine
September 18, 2016

Discovering Amritsar Beyond Its Dhabas

Text by Sona Bahadur

Find out how the robust city of Amritsar is best experienced through its home cooks….

Amritsar may be the destination for countless dhaba fantasies, but to truly discover the city, to eat its food, to learn to appreciate its traditions and terroir, you need to get a taste of some real-deal home cooking. That’s the experience I sought during my recent visit to the city. To not feel like a tourist, to sit down at a communal table and pass platters of fresh-cut salad and hot-off-the-tava rotis with the people who eat there every day. I was craving real recipes from real home cooks. Their best-loved family dishes, the ones that would conjure up heavenly aromas and bring back memories of their dinner tables and holiday feasts. The ones that would make me close my eyes and go, “Mmmm!”

That’s where Abhimanyu Rattan Mehra stepped in.

The young hotelier invited me to his heritage homestay Ranjit’s SVAASA in Amritsar and offered to host a weekend of home cooking. He promised to introduce me to two avid cooks, Neerja Khanna and Saroj Kapoor, both erstwhile caterers.

I arrived to find a 200-year-old heritage haveli steeped in history. The kothi is Abhimanyu’s home. It’s where his ancestors grew up and where the children played. The original structure of the building still remains the way it was two centuries ago. The corridor from where I entered proudly showcased photographs of seven generations. Walking me to my room, he told me that SVAASA was a tribute to his father Ranjit Rattan Mehra, who the family lost to cancer. “Sv-aas means breath of life in Sanskrit. We believe his blessings still pervade this place.”

The dining table heaved with great food. Amritsari chole, cauliflower pulao, deep fuchsia beetroot raita. The pièce de résistance was the whole tandoori fish, a favourite of Abhimanyu’s grandfather. “Dadaji wasn’t a cook as much as a lover and connoisseur of good food, poetry and music. He loved to entertain. Though he never touched alcohol, he was the life of any party,” Abhimanyu recounted.

The fish, marinated overnight in a secret spice mix and home-made yoghurt, was an ode to simplicity. “We use fresh singhara from the Beas. It has so much more flavour as opposed to using sole or something frozen. The trick is to use the yogurt and spices in the correct amounts. The fish, cooked on the bone, releases its own taste.” A special custom-made metal grill with a wooden handle was used to encase the singhara. The fish was placed vertically into the tandoor and basted at regular intervals till the juices ran clear. Lightly charred from the tandoor, the final result tasted so light, it was like biting into smoked air. It’s a recipe I wanted to steal.

Each forkful seemed to transport my host to his childhood. He took me with him on flights of reminiscence, vividly recalling his mother Rama Ranjit Mehra growing herbs in the garden, his father being gifted a Persian carpet by the president of Afghanistan and rows of cooks cutting raw mangoes for pickling in the haveli courtyard. The meal ended divinely with one of Abhimanyu’s creations — a decadent aam papad chocolate disc. It is one of the many innovations which he retails under his own wedding favours and corporate giveaway brand, Granny and Me.

The next morning, Khanna, who also offers cooking classes, arrived to make some Kashmiri classics with a Punjabi twist. Growing up in Srinagar, she got into catering after getting married and moving to Amritsar. “There’s no bigger food authority in the city,” vouched Abhimanyu.

She made haldi zaman or paneer and potatoes cooked in a yoghurt gravy, oblong matz (mutton) koftas and creamy radish raita sharpened with a tempering of mustard seeds. “I left Srinagar when I was 19 but continued to cook Kashmiri dishes because my family loves them. I like to add my own touch, like onion paste to the kofta curry,” she chuckled.

We tucked in, washing everything down with glasses of home-made jaljeera. Hair swept back from her gentle face, with brown eyes accented by kohl, she fussed over my plate while picking like a bird at hers, watching me eat and eat and eat.

The simple, intimate meal made me realise how seamlessly the cuisine of Amritsar, a geographically and culturally diverse city, blends together time and space. It is a synthesis of so many regions and ethnic groups, each with their own eating cultures. And that really is the story of food everywhere, the assimilation of regional influences creating an entirely unique riff on the original.

Dhabas were off my radar this visit, but I couldn’t resist exploring the city in the evening. By the time my food tour came to an end, the belly had been stretched by crispy satpuras, Amritsar’s answer to flaky pastry; pounded mutton chanp; hand-churned fruit cream and oval-shaped gulab jamuns from Lawrence Road.

Another bout of stellar home cooking was in store the following day. Kapoor’s line-up of dishes — a Dogra specialty called mani or lentil dumplings in a sour tamarind broth, chana dal and plain rice — owed much to the influence of her great-grandmother who had a home in Jammu. “My mother cooked mani a lot when I was a child. I love its sweet and sour taste.” Kapoor has a gentle demeanour, earnestly explaining cooking techniques with deft gestures, then leaning forward with a quick, soft laugh. She talked with obvious pleasure about using a cast-iron karahi to give mani its jet-black colour and hand-kneading the bhallas (dumplings) to get them ultra-soft. “The dish must be flawless. That’s why I taste my food so many times while cooking.” Here, I realised, as I listened to her talk, was an aspect of Amritsari cooking rarely experienced by tourists: a cuisine based on simple ingredients and time-honoured techniques — dishes that have been cooked so often that they’ve become as familiar as old friends.

As we ate, she held forth on the culinary quirks of her city. “People here love variety and want a mix of cuisines at a party. A little Continental here, a bit of Chinese there. Just one cuisine is way too boring. And large portions please! We Amritsaris are hearty eaters,” she laughed. The city, which lives up to its reputation for gut-busting specialties like buttery urad dal and stuffed kulchas, will happily cradle its visitors in calories. But locals are increasingly opting for platters and baked items at parties. And most prefer to eat whole wheat flour instead of maida. “I eat bran. Even though I’m fat,” she smiled.

On my last evening in the city, I caught up with my friend Gayatri Peshawaria, a former food and wine journalist who owns Gayatri’s Gourmet. A dyed-in-the-wool Amritsari, she knows the city’s culinary DNA intimately. “Across generations, across time, the people of Amritsar have loved to entertain. It’s in our nature. Nowadays everyone’s travelling, watching food shows and reading about food. Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver are household stars.”

Modern twists on traditional food abound. Like her take on Amritsari fish. “Sometimes I just want a change, so I use beer batter instead of the traditional chickpea flour to fry the fish. Voila, you get a beer-battered fish which still tastes like the classic.” Her other experiments sounded just as delicious: chocolate with kinnow zest and sea salt, lassi-marinated Southern fried chicken, jaggery and cumin flavoured macaroons. While most would regard the idea of a health food wave in the land of ghee and butter as blasphemous, she stressed that lighter food was fast gaining ground. “Traditional Amritsari food was created for farmers who had to work the fields and needed the carbs and fat. Today, we’ve made subtle changes to our food, like not dousing our chana with ghee or doing a wheat flour kulcha.”

We chatted late into the night about her mother’s marble cake which inspired her to bake her first cake at age eight, her belief in the artisan method of cooking, her love for seasonal produce, and her latest project — masterclasses on eating healthy for schoolchildren in Amritsar. As my weekend party came to an end, I felt a rush of adrenaline. To have tasted must-have comfort foods and secret family recipes packed with flavour, to have celebrated the cultures and environments in which these dishes were created (and the people who created them), was a rare adventure. I was served rich, satisfying stories that were complex, defining and memorable.

I departed with four boxes of leftovers and at least five or six small plastic containers of those oval gulab jamuns I so adore, as well as that particular feeling of satisfaction that comes with discovering a real cuisine — and a community.

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