In Amritsar, food is the overruling passion. It is famously said that you can never be hungry in the city, where ghee, butter and cream are the star performers, sometimes rocking a dish all together. Olive oil? What’s that?
On one end of its scale is the surreal Harmandar Sahib or Golden Temple where the holy kitchen serves wholesome communal meals round-the-clock and on the other side are numerous kiosks, carts and upscale eateries whipping up an incredible assortment.
A true-blue Ambarsari, as the locals refer to themselves, had once told me, “‘What’s cooking’ is no mere phrase here. We take those two words very seriously. Our bulk hours are spent in relishing a spread and planning the next one.”
One meal no one has to plan for in this city is the Amritsari kulcha. Quick to prepare and pocket-friendly, this classic street food blurs social divides and is available around every corner. It is believed that about one lakh kulchas are tossed out of city tandoors per day.
While “kulcha” in other parts of the country is prepared with fermented dough and has a bread-like texture, the city’s version is similar in appearance to a stuffed tandoori roti, but very different in terms of preparation and taste.
Food is savoured through sight, smell, touch, and taste, but with the Amritsari kulcha, you’ll also experience the fifth sense. You can hear it.
Once out of the scorching tandoor, it is generously glazed with a cube of butter. Then, all you need to do is give it a gentle crush. If there’s a crackling sound it is baked to perfection. A silent Amritsari kulcha is just not good enough. The crackle ensures it’s got the textures: a crusty exterior followed by moist and flaky inner folds stuffed with potato and spices. Crushing it snaps open the top layer allowing the heat to escape and letting the goodness of melted butter to trickle in, adding intensity to robust flavours.
Before setting off on the kulcha trail, I asked some Amritsari friends for their favourites. Within minutes I had a collection of names ranging from soot-stained hole-in-the-wall eateries to slightly fancy (read air-conditioned) restaurants. I should have expected that. The large-hearted and affable Ambarsari enjoys eating out and gastronomy here is reflective of the city’s multi-religious and multi-lingual ethos.
I criss-crossed Amritsar in my pursuit of the perfect kulcha, walking its uninspiring contemporary areas and travelling back in time through the 500-year-old walled city or Shehr: a mosaic of bazaars, mohallas and katras (roadside inns), labyrinthine streets canopied with electrical wires, skies speckled with flying kites, a riot of merchandise and advertising boards, and many an “old and famous” eatery.
History is blurry on the date, but the consensus is that the region of undivided Punjab gave birth to the bharwaan (stuffed) kulcha. As invading armies from Central Asia rode in, they brought along their cooking traditions. One of these was the process of making the leavened naan, the other being the dug-in tandoor, both techniques said to have originated in Persia. Enterprising Punjabis, who traditionally devoured roti or unleavened wholegrain flatbread made on an iron griddle, started refining the flour, leavening the dough, filling it with a mixture of potatoes and baking it in the tandoor.
Later they spied on French chefs labouring in the region’s royal kitchens and improvised further. They adopted a puff pastry procedure; slathering the dough with butter and folding it a few times before letting it rest. The result was a success with flaky kulchas flying off the tandoor.
Out of the few places I picked, most had a menu restricted to kulchas, with options of potato, paneer, cauliflower, or mixed stuffing, and a knock-out glass of lassi. Almost each of these spots downed its shutters after lunch or as soon as the dough was finished.
On a cuisine map dominated by such heavyweights as tandoor-roasted chicken, slow-cooked mutton gravy, and Amritsari machhi (batter-fried river fish; either sole or catfish), I found the humble stuffed-bread holding its own at eateries such as Harbans Kulcha (Green Avenue), Kulcha Land and Ashok Kulchewala (both on Ranjit Avenue). Old-timers vouched for Darshan Kulchawala and Bhai Kulwant Singh Kulchian Wale, both tucked away in Shehr—in Jamadar Ki Haveli, Guru Bazaar, and Bazaar Bikaneria, Katra Ahluwalia, respectively.
In Purani Chungi, I sat on a rickety plastic chair at the reticent Sucha Singh’s much-visited All India Famous Kulcha dhaba. In these nondescript environs, I greedily demolished a couple of piping-hot kulchas with charcoal roasted edges. Though served with the accompaniments of spiced Kabuli chana curry, a tangy tamarind chutney or the ubiquitous sliced onion-radish salad, this authentic Amritsari kulcha qualifies as a delicious meal all by itself.
Each time I probed a local baker on the secret behind crispy kulchas he would promptly attribute it to the holy water of Amritsar adding that extra punch to the all-important dough. Pawandeep Singh of Kulcha Land mentioned carting the local water when undertaking outstation catering; making it a point to state he was not the only one doing so.
The kulcha has had a remarkable journey. Whilst I binged on it, I recalled my grandpa’s addition to a popular adage: “Jis Lahore nahin vekhiya au jamiya nahin. Jis Amritsar aa ke kulcha nahin khada une kuj khada hi nahin… If you haven’t seen Lahore it’s as good as not being born. If you’re visiting Amritsar and haven’t eaten the kulcha, you’ve eaten nothing at all.”
After I retired to the in-house restaurant of my international-chain hotel, the steward suggested I try their Amritsari kulcha. I wasn’t a fan of five-star hotel experiments with street food. But no sooner had it arrived, than I had to eat my words. There was no stopping at one. Later, I complimented the F&B manager. “We have to get it spot on,” he said. “In this city you’re only as good as your Amritsari kulcha!”
For an inviting breakfast of peethi-puri, Kabuli chana curry, tangy aloo launji (`80) and gur ka karah (`50) head to Kanha Sweets on Lawrence Road. In the evening, the outlet fries the samosa (`50) in desi ghee. A ghee-drenched vegetarian thali awaits you at Kesar Da Dhaba (`200) at Chowk Pasiyan, or Bharawan Da Dhaba (`175) near Town Hall.
For tandoori chicken, head to Beera Chicken (`340 for a full plate) and for batter-fried fish, to Makhan Fish (`320 for 250 gm), both on Majitha Road. Should mutton be your preference, Sunder Meat Shop at Maqbool Road (`200) is the place. A winter delicacy here is kharode or lamb trotter’s clear soup (`50 per glass) and gravy (`250 per plate) at Pal da Dhaba in Hathi Gate. For a light meal of paneer bhurji and sliced bread (`120), stop by at Pyara Lal, Katra Jaimal Singh, Hall Bazaar.
At Giani Tea Stall, Cooper Road, there’s street-style bread wrapped in omelette, kachori, paneer samosa and masala chai (from `15). Under Bhandari Bridge is Pul de Pakore serving a variety of pakora (from `20) along with mint chutney and a thin bread-kulcha.
Choose between kesar lassi of Ahuja Milk Bhandaar, Dhab Khatikan, near Hindu College (`55), and pede wali lassi of Gian di Lassi, near Regent Cinema (`75). To satiate your sweet-tooth, head to Katra Ahluwalia for jalebi and gulab jamun at Gurdasram Jalebiwala (`40 per 100 gm), or walk slightly further to Khubi Ram Sweets & Namkeen for chandrakala and patisa (`360 and `440 per kg).
Brinda Suri is an independent journalist often at large in the world trotting bylanes, pursing adventure and always getting drawn to good food. Her bags usually bring back sugar and spice and all things nice. She tweets as @brinda_suri.