It is not just butter chicken or kulchas with a tall glass of lassi at a dhaba down the road. And though I would never turn my nose up at warm Amritsari machhi sold from bright little kiosks all over Amritsar, I was in search of something more complex. Returning to Amritsar after more than a decade, I was curious about how the city and its unpredictable food scene have changed. I had just two days, so much to eat, so little time. Still, Punjab Grill on its season 2 of Rangla Punjab fed us rather well and not just in Amritsar but some interesting locations close by where their menu is inspired!
Most certainly my search for Punjabi cooking led to Punjab Grill’s corporate chef Gurpreet Singh Gehdu, known for his skill and enthralment with North Indian flavours. On Day 1, he lays a spread – hold your breath, at a venue called Pul Kanjari, the last village on the Indo-Pak border and en-route our curator Kiran Dhillon kept us satiated with narratives of Amritsar which made the expedition of an hour and a half filled of exciting stories. Coming to the food, which was the focus of my trip, I would say Gehdu’s version stays true to the essence and spirit of the old fashioned classics, he adds simple but clever tweaks. His starters included a subtly spiced sautéed lamb on the griddle, which was a star of the show as was the chargah chicken in the mains, with Gurmeet Bawa famed for her long ‘hek’ (breathless opening of a Punjabi song) in the background, kept us entertained and awe inspired.
That evening we checked into Ranjit’s Svaasa, where we were greeted with ‘dhol dhamaka’ and a block of ice with nails on it. Yes we broke the ice quite literally with hammers et all!! Later we were at the hotel’s portico, it was freezing, but immediately warmed by Rohit Aggarwal’s warm hospitality! The dinner spread expanded our horizons, which included Mehra cuisine as well. The food was fascinatingly familiar…home-style ‘methi aloo’, ‘aloo Bukhara ke kofte’ and of course the famous, ‘frozen fruit cream’; all healthy and organic, well, except for the fact that we OD’d on drinks! In our defence, they were delightfully intricate, all flamed and partnered with the amazing food. The elderly Malwai Gidda artists kept our adrenaline going and indeed we lived it up true blue Punjabi style!!
I developed an unanticipated fondness for lassi, thanks to my friend Sajal Jassal, partner at the Punjab Grill in Bengaluru, who encourages me that this luxurious concoction topped with malai can be only had best in Punjab. Apparently, I am not the only one. It is still cold and a large number of dhabas all over advertise glasses of lassi. Our hot spot, on Day 2 was ‘Punjabiyat’ a village where we were welcomed by the most delicious lassi ever! Of course we tried the tractor ride too, as they say, popular culture is popular for a reason — it is fun. While the kitchen prepared the meal, we danced to the tunes of gidda. Finally it was time for lunch, contrary to the Punjabi food stereotype, it is not all meat. Fresh radish, rustic rajma, emerald sarson da saag and intensely orange-red murabba, vegetables were fresh, local and organic so flavours truly intense. Epiphanies from home-grown vegetables sound ridiculous, till you actually taste one. And of course there was meat too and when I bit into the ‘karela keema’ my eyes widened at its surprisingly not bitter but had intense and powerful flavour. The butter chicken was juicy and tender and the dessert right from the ‘sugarcane juice rice’ to the ‘til bhugga’ were a whirlwind of flavours. On the way back to the bus, we accomplish to achieve all our clandestine Yash Chopra desires by prancing through the elegantly yellow mustard fields. Undoubtedly we look more like content goats than hot heroines. But still, at least we managed to have fun!
We end with a party!!
Dancing ‘jhoomer’ (a form of bhangra) all night with a troupe from a college, fuelled by the Punjab’s infamous daaru buckets, mind-altering trance and bonfire! And yes there had to be food, the live grill, tari waala chicken, pinni and a whole lot more, ‘The taste of Amritsar’, and in fact Punjab is unique because it is an expression of so many different factors; abundance of fresh local ingredients, a vivacious conscience. What we eat is who we are, rusticity at its best, with its roots in tradition! What makes Punjab so exciting is the fact that this is tantalisingly transient. And proudly so! Diversity is not restricted to what’s on your plate, but one that escalates quality. Anyone can generate a short-term buzz with an enjoyable location, but the actual trick is to keep customers coming back. Punjab Grill has nailed it for sure by bringing in diverse elements together, whether it is the ingredient or the culture to create an appealing brew.