A food safari in Chef Vikas Khanna’s Amritsar

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It’s a long post with many pictures so keep scrolling. Link to the Facebook album with the pics.
All the pictures in the post were taken by a Nokia Lumia 1530 except if specified otherwise. They have been compressed and auto corrected in Microsoft Office Picture Manager.

We missed out on the dhabas on this trip and some of the famous ones I am told are Brothers (which we saw), Kesar and Bharwan…reasons enough to go back.

I just got back from a trip of a life time from Amritsar.

I lived every Bollywood Punjabi cliché while I was there. Landing into the to spanking new airport at Amritsar made you feel as if you were parachuting into a Yash Chopra film set with the green fields around. I met people who were as big hearted, jovial and hospitable as any Sardarji stereotype that Hindi cinema throws at us. And I had some pretty great food too.
I was hosted in Amritsar by Microsoft devices who wanted me to try out the Lumia phone camera while in Amritsar. They, in turn, were hosted by Punjab Tourism who were launching their culinary trails map. An interesting initiative by a government body to promote culinary tourism. Possibly the first such initiative by a tourism authority in India. This event was centred around the launch of the book, Amritsar, written by Michelin starred celebrity chef Vikas Khanna.
Non Lumia. Here’s Vikas Khanna with his mom launching the Food Trails in Hotel Sarhad
I had met Khanna once before. That time too was at a book launch. I was not a Vikas Khanna fan boy though he evidently has many. When I tweeted about him there were people who would answer who had his picture as their DPs which was a bit creepy to be honest but shows how popular he is.
Apart from the Masterchef Australia episode where he features, I have not seen his TV shows. Nor have I read his books.
Yet, at the end of the two days, where I was part of the entourage brought by Lumia and by his publishers, I was really impressed by Vikas Khanna. What I love about Chef Vikas is his simplicity and down to earth nature. He would welcome everyone with a smile and talk to them. He would go to the smallest of jalebi shops and kulcha dhabas and greet the owner as if the latter was the most important person in the world. Would tell us in front of the owner of the tiny shop how he had learnt making kulchas, gulab jamuns, chicken and so on from him. How he used to eat at that shop when he lived in Amritsar. If the person was elder to chef, then he would touch his feet. Otherwise a big Punjabi, nothing held back, hug would follow when they met. This celebrity chef would make these owners of simple hole in the wall shops feel like the most important person in the world when he met them.
Vikas Khanna loves his Amritsar. Grew up there for the first thirty years of his life. He seemed like a kid when he was there. Dragging us to show us his favourite places. In between stopping to be hugged by assorted aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces and took his mother with his wherever he went. He was very happy slipping into Hindi and Punjabi from English.
“Food capital of the world” corrected Chef Vikas emphatically when the folks from Punjab Tourism shared their plans to make Amritsar the food capital of North India.
I always look forward to seeing a place through the eyes of its locals who take pride in the place. Vikas Khanna turned out to be a great guide for our food safari in Amritsar. I battled a cold and cough which I had carried from Mumbai. Urged myself to get out of the hotel room telling myself ‘who knows when you’ll be back’.
Turned out to be worth it. Chicken makes you changa as they say here.
For a moment let’s play the devil’s advocate and say that Vikas Khanna was playing to the gallery and had a book to sell.
But then I saw him doing this for two days and it’s difficult to keep on a front continuously I would think. In fact he was like a kid showing off his favourite toys to the uncles and aunties who had come home. And in the process he made people genuinely happy, made them feel treasured and also really feted the city of Amritsar. Which is a good thing right?
Perhaps we get too cynical at times.
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At the end of the second night I got a surprise gift of a personally autographed copy of the book. I have skimmed through it so far. It is not entirely a cook book. Vikas Khanna’s ‘Amritsar…Flavours of the Golden City’ is a book on the city of Amritsar and its food. It has chapters on its history, its touristic highlights, places to eat and then moves into recipes, some of which are from the shops chef had taken us to in the trip.  The book has some pretty good photographs  which make Amritsar and its people look beautiful and its food scrumptious. The book has vignettes of Khanna’s life in Amritsar and stories from them. However, the book is not entirely autobiographical. Given his evident love for Amritsar, and the number of stories that Khanna told us in a short span of two days, I feel that the book could have benefited from more stories from Khanna. That apart, it is a nice coffee table book to have at home.
Book  pictures are non Lumia
While we spent two nights in Amritsar I thought I will draw up a plan of that you could do in Amritsar if you were there for a day and where you could eat. Hope you find this useful.
A day in Amritsar
Breakfast
I hate early starts and cringed when I heard we had to wake up at 3.30 am so that we could reach the Golden Temple by 4.30 am. The aim was to see the Palki Sahib where they bring out the holy book to the sanctum sanctorum. Amritsar, of course, is known as the Temple City and the Sikh holy shrine of the Golden Temple or Harminder Sahib is at its heart.
Well, having gone through the once in a lifetime experience I would strongly recommend going to the temple before dawn. A decade back I had come to Amritsar and gone to the Golden Temple in the evening. I was struck by its serenity even then. This time was even more special.
You leave your shoes outside, wet your feet in the stream of water at the gate to cleanse them and walk in. I saw devotees wash their face with the water. Sikhism teaches humility and the lessons start at the gate of the temple.
It was surreal to see the temple in the dark and the sense of calm was something to be treasured. We saw the procession of folks bringing out the holy book, the palki sahib, and there was something poetic in the rhythmic movement of the procession.
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There were counters where you can buy the kada prasad. I bought the smallest portion. Ten Rupees.
Then I did a faux pas. The aromas of the kada prasad (made with sugar, ghee and whole-wheat flour according to the recipe in Khanna’s book) were warm and welcoming. I was a tad sleepy and the heat of the leafy envelope in which the prasad was served was very reassuring. I went to a corner and wolfed down its hot, ghee laden, nourishing goodness. I broke into a smile. I felt happy.
Non Lumia
Then I decided to follow the trail of the others in our group and join the queue to the sanctum sanctorum in the middle of the lake. Which is when I saw that people were taking the kada prasad packets to a counter where folks were taking a part out of it with a sword (hence the name ‘kada’ as my mom told me) and putting it into a common counter and giving the rest back to the people. On the way out we were served kada prasad from the collected bits from the offerings.
Which is when the penny dropped. You are not supposed to eat the prasad straight like I did after buying it. You first offer it as prasad and then take the rest! A kind Sikh gentleman from Punjab Tourism reassured me that there was nothing wrong if I ate it. “Aap kha bhi liya toh koi dhikkat nahin”
Still, I went and bought another pack of the prasad and give it as an offering.
Standing in an orderly queue among fervent devotees as we snaked down the passage in the lake to the golden sanctum sanctorum was a humbling experience. Seeing the day break and the skies turn from dark to sunny was a treat. Having grown up in the 1980s at the time of the Sikh insurgency and the bloodshed which had happened at the Golden Temple, I am always awestruck by the sense of peace and tranquillity which is there now when I visit it.
If you want to do a breakfast at the temple itself you can go to langar or the community kitchen where those who come to the temple are fed free of cost. Vikas Khanna earlier spoke to us about the langar being the central kitchen not just of the temple, but of the the whole city.
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That morning they were giving tea and rusks to folks sitting at the langar while others outside were chopping onions and prepping for the afternoon meals.
The area around the Golden Temple is surrounded by eateries. You could go for breakfast there too. Incidentally you are not allowed to serve non vegetarian food, alcohol or cigarettes by order around a certain radius around the Temple.
Where Chef Khanna and the Punjab Tourism folks took us for breakfast to was a 90 year old place called Kanha, short for Kanhaiya Sweets. It is famous for its puris. The puris are fried in front of you and then brought into the large dining hall. The puris are like round balls and look like bhatoores. They are not as crisp as bhatoores though and have a thin film of masala below the surface. This is served with channa and a very interesting, slightly sweet, chutney like alu sabzi. The idea is to have the puri with alternating bites of the savoury chhole and the sweet potato curry.
The halwa is quite famous here and is dark red in colour and is popular in the morning. What I would recommend though is the lassi which is a lot lighter, frothier and less sweet than what we are used to in Mumbai and has a layer of milk solid on top of the glass. A plate of two of these deep fried puris cost Rs 60 and the lassi Rs 40.
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Very close to Kanha is a shack on the wall which Khanna insisted we go to. It’s a place called Sharma’s where gulab jamuns are made in front of you. Khanna said these are the only flat gulab jamuns in Amritsar and that the core is left intentionally undercooked giving a textural contrast to the experience. He said that when he was a caterer in Amritsar, before he left for NYC, Khanna used to order gulabjamuns from here for his catering orders. He said he could have made them himself but that would be an insult to the GJs. In his inimitable style chef made the folks making the gulabjamuns feel like renowned maestros. The secret, according to chef Vikas, was in the milk used. This place has apparently featured in Khanna’s show. ‘The Twist of taste’.
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Non Lumia
Between the kada prasad at the Golden Temple, Kanha’s and Sharma’s you can have a truly no holds barred, king’s breakfast in Amritsar.
A good thing to go on after that is the heritage walk that starts near the Town Hall. The Punjab Tourism folks conduct this every morning at 8 am and charge Rs 25 from Indians and its slightly more for foreigners. We had a late start though at 11 am and that made it really hot. I would strongly recommend the walk as walking down the by lanes of Amritsar with its rich Muslim and Western architectural heritage is a mind blowing experience. The guides point you to where you look including the figurine of a thumb pointing down from the balconies of houses.
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“Stay rooted no matter how rich you become or how much you grow” is its message.
During your walk you will come across Jalebiwala chowk (the postal address is Katra Ahluwalia points out Jaideep Riar from Amritsar) . As Vikas Khanna pointed out, possibly one of the few places in the world name after a dessert! Our guide, Devenderji, told us that the inception of the Jalianwala Bag Movement was here. The place is named after Gurdas Ram Jalebi Wala's jalebi shop which was opened in the mid 1950s. I wanted to try one of the jalebis there but the gentleman at the shop insisted that we try fresh ones. They made fresh jalebis for us. No colour is added here so they go into the wok white unlike the orange ones at Ustaad’s in Fort. A few of us waited for the jalebis while the rest of the group moved on. It was worth it. The jalebis had a crunch with a chubby soft centre, the sugar balance was just right. Undeniably the best jalebis I have had in my life so far. The stand out dish for me in a trip of great eats.
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Lunch
Amritsar is famous for its Amritsari kulchas and they make for a good lunch. They are similar to parathas and have a light potato stuffing. Unlike parathas, which are made with whole wheat flour or atta, kulchas are made with refined flour or maida. They are made in a tandoor oven and then dressed with butter to give them a crunch.
Our guide took us to a 50 year old shop called   Bhai Kulwant Singh Kulchawaale outside the temple to try out a piping hot kulcha which was served with a stick of butter on top.
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By then we were tired and fully fed but with childlike enthusiasm chef Vikas insisted that we go to his favourite kulcha place. A place which features is his book. The Maqbool road Amritsari Famous Kulcha which is also mentioned in Pamela Timm’s book. We were not keen and just wanted to go back to the hotel for a shower. Chef pleaded with us and even offered to go before us, order, and get the kulchas to our air-conditioned bus. Such fervour cannot be ignored and we followed him and did get down.
The Maqbool road kulcha place is a small one, open on all sides, with a few plastic chairs and tables on the road to enjoy the kulchas by. The kulchas are taken out of the tandoor and served hot to you. Are truly delicious specially when had with the chhole served a tamarind and onion chutney.
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The next day, before my flight back, I had a last great kulcha and lassi (Rs 70 in total) at a place called Kulcha Land which is at Ranjit Road outside our hotel Holiday Inn. The Holiday Inn rooms and bathrooms are pretty modern and are a good bet if, like me, you prefer to stay in a modern, comfortable place while travelling. It is in the outskirts but the main city is not too far away.
The kulcha here too is pretty outstanding. The shop is 35 years old and the cook has been there right from the beginning. The lassi was light and frothy. The family that runs Kulcha Land has been in the business for 70 years and earlier operated in the ‘sheher’(main city) I was told.
There is a dining hall and then tables and chairs outside. It was packed in the hall so I sat outside. Sharing my table was a soft spoken, real life sarpanch (village council head), Sukhvinderji.
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Evening
We went to the Attari Wagah border on the first evening of the trip. After seeing the retreat ceremonies on TV in travel shows it was great to see it in real life. Thanks to the Punjab Tourism folks we got seats pretty close to the gates. It was hard not to get caught up in the spirit of the things with Bollywood patriotic songs blasted in full volumes, patriotic chants of Bharat Mata Ki Jai, Vande Mataram ( I was tempted to go Sachin Sachin) and then the soldiers with their exaggerated martial movements. The experience was festive and testosterone filled. The Bollywood quotient was added by Sonam Kapoor and her Khubsurat team who were there to promote their film. I did see some folks focusing more on her than on the soldiers.
Wagah pics are non Lumia
Coming back to the city and our focus on food you can go to Brijwasi for chaats. We tried the bhalla papdi chaat and the tikki. I quite loved both. The Delhi folks with us found the chaats similar to what they are used to but were impressed by the tikkis. I noticed this through the trip. Those of us from outside Delhi were really excited by the food while those from Delhi found some of it to be similar to what they are used to.
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After chaats we crossed over to Giani’s, a small tea shop, to have cardamom infused piping hot tea. You can also get samosas and gulab jamuns there. I was feeling a bit under the weather till then because of my cold but the tea was just the magic potion I needed.
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Dinner
While we were having our chaats, chef Vikas Khanna came to us and told us not to waste anymore stomach space and head to Beera’s. He said that we should have dinner there and leave the ordering to him. He said, “give me time and I will ensure you eat well.”
We drove down to Beera’s. A fairly simple place with an open kitchen with a cavernous, non air-conditioned, dining hall. Our group filled up the place.
Vikas’s order for us was Beera’s chicken (there was no tandoori chicken on the extensive chicken menu) and fish fry.
I am not a big fan of chicken but this one woo’ed  me.  A whole chicken, roasted in minimal spices, cut and served to you. The chicken was very tender including the breast pieces! Not red in colour unlike the tandooris we are used to and not charred either. Tasted wonderful with the mint chutney it was served with. I was amazed by how juicy and luscious the chicken was. The restrained spicing made the chicken the hero of the dish making it quite European in spirit.
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As was the light batter coated fried (in mustard oil) fish which had a spring in every bite. They use river fish here. Something called singara and sole fish too. Again the taste was all about the fatty creaminess of the fish and not about the masalas. People in our group were more impressed by the fish though I found both to be exceptional. The recipe is there in the book.
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We mopped this up with some paneer kulchas and tandoori rotis.
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Non Lumia
Dinner done, I went next door to Makhan’s chicken which some on twitter who recommended it to me for the fish. We tried the chicken and the fish here which were both a bit spicier than what we had at Beera’s and more similar to the tandoori chicken and fish tikkas one has had in past.
Vikas, had evidently chosen well with Beera’s. The man knows his food.
This didn’t stop Vikas from coming into Makhan’s and hugged the elderly Sardarji who is the owner.
This gentleman later insisted that we try out the mutton tikka and this ghee doused tender goat meat dish is the thing to order in Makhan according to me even more than the fish it is famous for.
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At Makhan’s we sat on the first floor which is air conditioned. Both Makhan’s and Beera’s are about forty years old. Makhan’s looked more popular and full that evening than Beera’s. The food at Beera’s touched my soul more though.
In case you have space for dessert then head to a place called Lohgar where there are a few small shops selling fruit creams and bottles of masala milk too. They serve you the chopped fruits with cream in little bowls or plastic cups and they make for a delectable cooling end to a night of heavy eating. No bananas in the cup though. Apparently because they turn black.
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Anthony Bourdain, who is my guru, recently in an interview to the Wall Street Journal said “if you show up and ask, "What's for dinner?" you get a more intimate look at people's lives.”
That’s what this trip showed to me once again. That the best way to discover a place and to connect with its people is through its food. It’s no wonder that I fall in love with whichever place my travels take me to and always come back well fed.
This trip was sponsored by Microsoft devices and was part of a FAM (familiarity) trip organised by the Punjab Tourism & Heritage Board.
Thanks Lumia, Punjab Tourism and Chef Vikas Khanna for this wonderful trip. You made me happy.
Non Lumia
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