In the pursuit of dhabas on the Times of India Passion Trails with chef Kunal Kapur

 

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While this is a long post, you can get a pictorial story of the trip from this album on the Finely Chopped Facebook Page. Er, please like the page too

I recently had an opportunity to go on a road trip of the sort that I rarely have been on before.

It started on a cold wintry morning in New Delhi last week when around 20 people got together at the TOI guest house and sought comfort in hot cups of adrak and mirchi chai.

The ages of those in the group ranged from 25 to 60 years. The group included a CEO, corporate professionals, housewives, consultants, a food blogger, a TV actor, a former radio jockey who now runs a school, an urban dhaba owner, businessmen and a hotelier and aspiring cookbook author. They came from all parts of the country, Delhi, MP, Pune, Bangalore, Gurgaon, Mumbai. Taking time out from their work and families and busy schedules.

They were all united by their passion for food and love for new discoveries. This was the group that set off in a bus from Delhi on a Dhaba trail to Amritsar led by Chef Kunal Kapur. A part of the Times of India Passion Trails initiative.

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The first stop was at Murthal at the outskirts of Delhi, popular for its dhabas serving parathas. The dhabas in Murthal, Chef Kunal pointed out, are an example of the ‘evolution of dhabas’, his favourite phrase for the trip. These no longer confirm to the romantic notion of dhabas where charpais are set in the open for truckers and other weary travellers to get their fill with a rustic heavy meal and then spread out languorously before hitting the road again. Dhabas close to main cities have moved with times and are now air conditioned, have cleaner toilets and some like the famous Sukhdev at Murthal are more like quasi restaurants than just pit stops said Kunal who had done some serious research and made reki trips while planning the trip.

Chef Kunal chose the Seventy Milestone Dhaba to stop which was probably the simplest of the dhabas at Murthal according to him and yet hardly is the sort of place that one thinks of while talking of dhabas. The tandoor baked stuffed parathas here with white butter on the side and hot masala chai were welcome respites in the morning chill. The parathas came with an assortment of stuffings – potato, cauliflower, radish and paneer. The one that stood out was the novel khoya (reduced milk) stuffed parathas.

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The luxury bus then set off down the smooth manicured highways from Delhi to Punjab which the group quite got used to over the coming days. In between there was a stop for keenu juice at one of the many orange juice selling carts that dotted the highway.

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The afternoon stop at Ambala was as different from sanitized Murthal as could be. This was at a cluster of grimy dhabas all claiming to be Puran Singh Dhabas named after the sardar who had first set up a dhaba here. He is no more but his elderly wife with a wizened face has set up a rather bare-boned dhaba in his memory. The dhabas here are very plain and possibly the only one with some sort of grandness is Puran Singh’s ‘Registered dhaba’ set up by the late Puran Singh’s meat supplier. The place is famous for its spicy mutton curries and the amazing tenderness of the mutton (goat meat) is evidence of the owner’s meat seller origins. They have an air conditioned section which stands out from the other simpler places here.

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The bus then rolled on and after a longish drive with a chai and cappuccino stop in between (yes the highway has modern coffee shops along with chai walas) entered Ludhiana and halted for the night at the very impressive Hyatt Regency. The group was in a special treat as chef Kunal took a master class in Punjabi (bhatti chicken and missi roti) and Lahori (mutton Beli Ram) cooking with the group members gamely joining in to make the marinades, mix the meats and preparing them for the cook.

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This was the only weak link of the trip for me. I wished we had stopped at one of the roadside dhabas on the highways of Jalandhar or the Vaishno Dhabas that I remembered from my earlier trips to Ludhiana. I guess the organisers must have taken the fatigue levels of the participants in to account and not packed day 1.

After a leisurely breakfast on day 2 the trail set off to its final destination, the holy city of Amritsar, also considered to be the food capital of Punjab. On entering Amritsar district there was lunch at a farm house called Virasat located in the middle of green Yash Chopra reminiscent fields. The final stretch of the ride was made on a tractor, a first for most of the city slickers in the group. Welcoming the hunters of good food was some colourful bhangra dancers and glasses of fresh and frothy lassi and pakoras and kulchas made by street food hawkers in Amritsar who had been invited by the local TOI correspondent.

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Chef Kunal wielded the ladle again and took master classes in how to make the rustic Punjabi winter delights of sarson ke saag followed by gajar ka halva for dessert. Joining the dishes he cooked to make a lovely rural homelike Punjabi vegetarian thali were a light rajma chawal, flavoursome creamy mutter paneer and an assortment of rotis with hot gulab jamuns to give the gajar ka halva company.

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Our band of food nomads then set off for Amritsar city and pitched tent in Holiday Inn. At night we set off for dhaba hopping. The first stop was Makhan, famous for its fried fish, which, as Chef Kunal pointed out is not the batter coated red dish the rest of India knows it to be. A good fish dish for Punjabis, wryly quipped Kunal, should be fried and made taste like chicken. After bites of the juicy, springy, mildly spiced singara fish it was turn to head to Beera next door famous for its barbequed chicken. Again, not red, unlike tandoori chicken served in the rest of the world, and very delicately flavoured and succulent. The last stop was Surjit’s Dhaba, which is a spin off from Makhan’s after the owners fell out during their Lawrence Road days. The dish of choice here was the mutton tikka with some trying out the gravy rice-like mutton biryani. The fare is frankly similar at each of these places and one can either go dhaba hopping or stop at one and eat.

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Chef Kunal pointed out that each of the three dhabas had renovated themselves to keep up with the time. As the bus drove back to the hotel in zero visibility in the foggy night, the group came closer as they sang Hindi film songs from the 1990s.

This was also the night when I met Jaideep, a Finely Chopped reader from Amritsar who has his own favourites including one called Pal’s Dhaba and wasn’t very approving of all the stops we made!

This is Jaideep’s reco ‘Fish:Pehelwan Fish outside hall gate. chicken at Beera, Majitha Road. Mutton Tawa items (tikkas, brain, trotters etc)/Tandoori Chicken at Pal Dhaba, Hathi Gate. Saag Meat at Joginder Dhaba opp Railway Station. phirni/lassi at Ahuja Lassi , Beri Gate. Jalebis and Gulab Jamun at Sharma Lawrence Road and Gurdas Ram Near Golden Temple. Veg at Kesar Chowk Passiyan, and Bade Bhai ka Brothers Dhaba near Town Hall. Hope this helps’

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This was my second trip to Amritsar in 4 months. I had earlier come here in the Lumia trip with Chef Vikas Khanna but that was different. This time it was much cooler, the travelling companions were different. I made it the langar lunch and kesar da dhaba which I missed last time and most importantly the two chefs were different. Vikas Khanna, who led us last time, wears his heart on his sleeve, is an Amritsar boy and was very emotional about the whole trip. Kunal Kapur, on the other hand, though Punjabi is from Delhi and therefore could distance himself from what was happening and was more analytical than emotional. Two very different people.

Day 3, which was Christmas, started with a breakfast of hot Amritsari kulchas at Kulcha Land next to the hotel, One of the participants had baked and brought a Christmas cake from home which was cut by Chef Kunal while others sang carols.

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The group headed to the Golden Temple, or Harminder Sahib, and folks were taken in by the devotional serenity of their surroundings and many were overwhelmed with emotions. After darshan of the holy shrine it was time to head to the community kitchen or langar where participants joined the volunteers by peeling and dicing potatoes, shelling peas and applying desi ghee to the machine made rotis. This was followed by a simple and soul elevating langar lunch of roti, ma ki daal, channa and kheer which is given free to all who come to the kitchen.

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Far removed from the tranquillity and peace of the Golden Temple was the exaggerated martial spirit during the change of guard at the next stop, the Waga border between India and Pakistan. To the tune of patriotic cries from both sides our group waved at the folks sitting on the Pakistani side who waved back cheerfully. Everyone hoping that their wish to cross the borders and break bread with our neighbours be possible some day.

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Post Wagah there was a stop at Sarhad restaurant close to the border where a bonfire and assorted party games kept the spirits of the participants up in the 2 deg C cold in the open. Dinner, later served inside, was a Lahori thali of chapli kebab, Miyan ke daal, tender mutton nihari and Lucknow biryani like Lahori biryani. The long drive back in foggy roads navigated expertly by our driver, Surinderji, was again accompanied by a chorus of Kumar Sanu songs from the tape mix in the bus.

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Day 4 started with participants realizing sadly that the trip was almost over but not before some more serious eating.

The extended breakfast saw stops for the bhatoore like huge puris at Kanha with chhole and a uniquely sweet alu sabzi. This was followed by gulab jamuns at Sharma’s gulab jamuns stall and then aam papad chaat at Lubhaya Ram’s. All Amritsar institutions.

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Shopping for papad, vadi and chunnis done the group headed down the garbage strewn lanes (a contrast to the supremely clean Golden Temple nearby) of old Amritsar to the near 100 year old institution, Kesar Da Dhaba. The last meal of the trip was redolent with Punjabi love with thick butter soaked rotis, channa, ghee doused ma ki daal which had been simmered for twelve hours before serving and then a fantastic dessert fix of the possibly the best gulab jamuns of a trip filled with great ones, cool and soothing rasmalai, firni and kulfi.

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It was then time for the group to head to the airport and then home.

Stuffed, satiated and hungry for more.

‘Live what you love’ is the Passion Trails motto and that is exactly what we did and plan to do.

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As someone who knows how back breaking a 4 hr food walk can be, full marks to Kunal for doing a great job of leading the trail for 4 days without letting our energy levels sag. Hats off also to Sanjay Lal and his team from TOI, specially Manas and Jatin who were on ground and the Yatra team for the way the trip was excellently organised.

Disclaimer: I was covering the trip for TOI and was hosted by them.

The participants had to apply and then get selected and then paid around 39,000 Rs for double occupancy and 49,000 Rs single occupancy ex Delhi.

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