My visit to Amritsar was a call I had to take. No questions asked. A force – not entirely of a spiritual nature, I must admit – had been veering my in-built compass and fashioning my travel plans towards a destination not hitherto considered, for an intent not hitherto expressed: a hedonistic desire to sample the holy city’s famed rehri fare, second only to Lahore I’m told, but you’ll never hear that from any self-respecting Amritsari. The arrival of a journalist friend from London, uncannily sensing a similar tug (and a good copy), pretty much sealed my plans. Needless to say, the Golden Temple was a prime attraction. After all, recovery from the excesses we had in mind would necessitate the benevolence of divine powers. We were not taking any chances.
Initial homework had thrown up a score of must-eat-at(s) scattered all around the city. Going back some half a century or more, and family-owned, they covered the whole gamut from pokey holes-in-the-wall to glass-fronted restaurant-aspirants. Despite our greed-induced protests, this list was trimmed down to half by a friend who (in a weak moment, we thought) had offered to be our food guide. In retrospect, our insides are forever beholden to him for his prescience, given our lack of insight regarding the sensual assault awaiting us that day.
Our non-stop culinary excursion commenced with a breakfast of kulche-chole, generously dripping home-churned butter, at the “All India Fame” dhaba (actually, an unpretentious little shack with seating in the open) on Maqbool Road. Now, these kulchas are in no remote fashion related to the ones we habitually buy off the counter at our local bakery. About the size of medium serving pizzas, they come stuffed and piping hot off a griddle. No more than just one of these can happily do you in, unless the charms of the accompanying chutney work beforehand. The guy serving us suggests a hot cup of tea to rinse down the grease coating our palette, but this luxury was not ours to take until our next stop, the Giani Tea Stall. Here was another establishment totally lacking in ambition: we played dodge ball with passing traffic while we relished our “world-famous” tea and paneer pakoras squeezed gingerly between bicycles parked along the road. Not a bad thing really considering we were quick to spot the Brijwasi Chaat Shop right across from where we were now regretting our second round of pakoras. Blocking out all metabolic protests, we then proceeded to ruminate through paapri-chaat, bhalla-chaat and (gosh yes!) gol-gappas. Sounds incredible to me even as I recollect, and yet, we were only midway through our gluttonous marathon.
At the Golden Temple. The sun shone just right as we walked, washed, knelt and prostrated along the parikrama, gentle breeze carrying strains of gurbani to us from across the calm and pristine waters of the sarovar. Peace, my first meditative reflection as I waited my turn on the causeway. Parshaad, my more basic second! In the end, even He understands it really is about food.
On our exit from the gurudwara, we exchanged our comfortable SUV for a crazily-careening rickshaw of miniscule dimensions (and of magical powers, I still believe), adroitly maneuvered through the warren of narrow streets of the walled city to where our lunch awaited us at Kesar da Dhaba. Alighting just ahead of us from another rickshaw was a bent old lady of indeterminate age. Great-aunt of the owner, she personally supervises the running of the kitchen till today. No wonder then that the contents of the thaali we ordered did not even feign to subscribe to modern-day health fads. Good old-fashioned ghee-soaked fare. Very nigh bursting point, we still managed a mouthful each of their superlatively described phirni.
While endorsing all that has been inked about the truly indigenous fish preparations of the region, as also the meat curries, special mention must be made of the trotter recipes of Pal da Dhaba. The owner will have you know that hordes of notables, including film stars and cricketers, have been attracted to his establishment for a taste of the kharore and keema naans. Up to our gills in it, we still mustered the will to order a plateful of the former, which came accompanied by onions and mint relish. Not exactly high tea! Actually, nor was the specialty at our next stop, Ahuja Lassiwala – on special request from my vegetarian friend who had to forego the carnivorous segment of our gastronomic exercise. Frankly, I was quite keen myself till I saw the guy sneak in a fistful of fresh butter into our gallon-sized glasses. That did it. I gave up, right there. Not another masala-laden crumb, nor another buttery sip, was going to pass through my lips.
However, our chuckling friend cum food-guide, who looked no worse for wear, had other plans. Just so we knew what mouthwatering delicacies we had neglected to nibble (our loss, surely, but he wouldn’t listen), our groaning tummy-clutching forms were driven to Lawrence Road for a teaser. More of the same vendors, offering more of the same wares that were now rolling out of our ears. Except, the one. A gaily-painted cart, brimming with red-capped bottles and glass jars full of digestives (just what the doctored ordered), was parked under a tree. A sign in Hindi proudly proclaimed – Lubhaya Ram Aam Papad Wala. In smaller print was his delightful address – Under The Peepal Tree, Near The Girls College, Lawrence Road. Needless to add, we emptied a fair share of our pockets there. Anything to breath again, I reckon. After all, I had a story to tell.
Beyond doubt, an unforgettable adventure – and I don’t use that word lightly! Still, I refrain from making any judgment calls vis-à-vis quality, taste, health benefits or authenticity of claims. I also refrain from revealing the after-effects of traumatizing our innards in the manner described above. It’s an experience those interested must personally submit themselves to. A gentle cautionary, nonetheless, is warranted for pernickety epicureans, sartorial gurus and those faint of heart (metaphorically speaking, naturally). As for me, I’m going back for more of the same once the memories fade, of course!