If you loved food as much as I do, you’d agree it’s a shame that Amritsar attracts primarily three kinds of travellers: the businessman (textiles and clothing essentially), the devout (The Golden Temple) and the history buff (Wagah Border and Jallianwala Bagh).
Here and now, I demand a fourth be officially constituted: The foodie. For, unknown to most, Amritsar, the Indian border town aligned with Pakistan’s Lahore, is not just another clichéd destination for butter chicken – that quintessentially Punjabi staple – but a foodie’s drool delight. Be warned though. Most of the lipsmacking offerings emanate from roadside eateries aka dhabas. Neo-sophisticates may well screw up their noses. Calorie-watchers ought certainly to do a rethink. Inveterate foodies, sign up for the gastronomic delights Amritsar offers.
Guru Ka Langar: It’s a given that the first stop for a traveller, category no bar, will be the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of Sikhism (since we are on food, we will not linger on this irresistibly pious draw of Amritsar). The long queue for partaking of kada prasad, the Guru’s delectable offering made of semolina, ghee and sugar, is worth your time, so don’t come away without it. Additionally, the uniquely Sikh attraction of langar is a must. It’s a community kitchen in the gurdwara premises which serves simple, delicious food for free to anybody who walks in. The scale and size of the operations are staggering (apparently food for 40,000 people is catered for each meal). Sitting there, amid all manner of people, and being served, reverently and lovingly, by volunteers is a humbling experience, not just delicious. There can be no greater leveller. Don’t miss it.
Bhrawan Da Dhaba: Not far from the Gurdwara, adjacent to the Town Hall, stands arguably Amritsar’s most popular eatery, Bhrawan Da Dhaba. Given its proximity to the holy shrine, it is vegetarian (or, as we Indians say, ‘pure’ veg) but, make no mistake, it’s a place even hardcore carnivores swear by. The makke di roti and sarson da saag (bread and mustard leaf vegetable) combination is a seasonal speciality and you’d do well to plan a trip during the winter season for it alone. But time of year notwithstanding, do sample the stuffed aloo kulche (bread with potato stuffing) and chhole (spicy chickpea), gulped down with chilled lassi (thick creamy buttermilk). Sign off with a flourish, by polishing off the phirni (rice pudding) served in earthen bowls. Take it from yours truly, it’s heaven on earth. There are thali, combo and a-la carte options, so do ask the waiter for help before you order. Bhrawan serves Chinese and South Indian cuisines too but stay with the safer North Indian dishes. What’s that they say about ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’? Service here is prompt (they want you out of there the soonest so someone else can take your place, it’s that crowded). The only hitch: One always comes away overfed. So don’t plan on doing anything heavy-duty after a meal here.
Beera Da Dhaba: This tiny place is single-handedly responsible for converting the vegetarian me into a chicken-lover. If that doesn’t say much, perhaps this will: If I were granted a dying wish, I’d promptly ask for the roast chicken served at this nondescript dhaba on Manjithia Road. Let me gush no more. Suffice it to say that Amritsar has an ace up its sleeve. Giving company to its tandoori chicken is keema naan, a thick, pizza-like bread stuffed with minced mutton served with a humungous dollop of butter. If things get a tad dry, you can ask for a spicy gravy (served free! Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?). The beauty of Beera, and we are not alluding to the succulent, juicy and masala-ed chicken, is that you can order from your car, park, chomp, relish and leave. There is ample parking. And enough waiters. It also caters to the sit-down variety of patrons.
Crystal Restaurant: Easily the classiest stand-alone restaurant, Crystal is the place the Amritsari heads to for Chinese, though Continental and Mughlai also figure on the menu. Like the leitmotif of most Amritsari food joints, this too has an al fresco set-up but sans a seating place. Order from your car, or stand and eat. And please, even if you are there for a take-away, do sample their softy.
For the Sweet-toothed: Tucked away in the heart of the town nestles a well-kept secret: The fruit-cream-dry fruit concoction. There are only a handful of shops in the whole of Amritsar that sell fruit cream (Hall Bazaar). The textures take you by surprise and one bowl, despite being a fairly generous portion, is never enough. Then there’s kulfa – half-brother of the pan-Indian kulfi with a twist. The result of a lone man’s innovation and enterprise, it is an ice-cream of sorts with a spaghetti-like topping, cream and nuts. For mouth-watering pinni (a sweetmeat of lentil), there’s no better place than Popular Bakery (Queen’s Road).
That isn’t all. Head to Novelty, on Lawrence Road, for their range of crispy, spicy chaat (do eat the aloo tikki). Try the kulchas in the eponymous Kulcha Land (Ranjit Avenue). Dig into hooves of goats (called kharoda) at Pal Da Dhaba, near Hall Bazaar.
Not that Amritsar doesn’t pander to a more cosmopolitan palate. Beyond the ubiquitous dhabas dotting the streets, it houses the tony Ista – the town’s first five-star hotel with its speciality restaurants – and even boasts outlets of international chains like Subway, Pizza Hut, KFC and Dominos. Indulge, if you must, but not for lack of variety. After all, it’s not just butter chicken in Amritsar.