Friday 23 May 2014

FORTUNE COOKIE: One Man's Journey Into The Secrets of Amritsar's Iconic Dhabas

A shorter version of this column appeared in the May 22, 2014, edition of Mail TodayCopyright: Mail Today Newspapers

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

WHEN you ask Yashbir Sharma about the secret of the consistently unbeatable taste of Amritsar's dhaba cuisine, he'll tell that it's the water blessed by the gurus. I can't think of a more logical explanation, having marvelled at the simple yet flavourful dishes I have had in Amritsar, from the historic Kesar Da Dhaba and Ram Lubhiyan aam papad-wallah outside DAV School, Lawrence Road, to Surjit Food Plaza and Makhan's Fish Corner.
He has been a freelance sports journalist and magazine editor, the president of the Delhi Chess Association and secretary of the Delhi Billiards and Snooker Association, but today, Sharma has made it his life's mission to eat at every dhaba in Punjab. And he has been tirelessly collecting the recipes for the iconic dishes that have acquired a committed following around the world. Some years back, Sharma had self-published The Food Trail of Punjab, which got rave reviews for the wealth of information it brought to the table, and I was certain he would have publishers flocking to him for subsequent titles.
I guess, like the dhabawallahs he writes about, Sharma is too self-effacing to catch the attention of fancy publishing houses, but thankfully, he continues to write and publish. So now we have his latest, The Dhabas of Amritsar, which, like its predecessor, makes up for its lack of production values and matter-of-fact writing style with the many secrets it unravels.
Yashbir Sharma (below), who started his writing
career in 1972 with book on chess maestro
Bobby Fischer, has been collecting recipes
of iconic Punjabi eateries such as
Amritsar's Kesar da Dhaba (above).

The slim volume is studded with recipes you'd want to replicate at home: from Golden Temple's Kadha Parshad, which has never ceased to amaze me with its divine aromas, to the Sarson da Saag and Malai Kofta of Bharawan da Dhaba, which was founded by Diwan Chand Vij in 1912 and has now metamorphosed into a sprawling restaurant under the management of his grandson, Subhash Vij.
His elder brother, Jitender Vij, also makes an appearance with sons Vivek and Niraj, the trio behind the breakaway Bade Bhai Ka Brothers' Dhaba, which has been a hit since it opened in 2001, especially because of its sarson da saag and missi roti. Sharma, though, chooses to share the recipe of the restaurant's equally famous kadhi pakora. Another family, that of the Mehras of Kesar Da Dhaba at Chowk Passian, also get their due in the book and Ramesh Mehra, the fourth-generation owner of the eatery established by Lala Kesar Mal in 1916, lets Sharma into the secret of the chini da parantha.
The only cooking medium used in the recipes is desi ghee, which was being unfairly demonised till nutritionists rose up in its defence, and there's a complete absence of any layers of full-fat cream and butter. These dishes leave a permanent mark on our epicurious memory because of their uncomplicated taste. Delhi's Punjabi restaurants have done immense disservice to the cuisine of our most vibrant state.
The high point is the recipe for Amritsari Kulcha (along with those of the accompanying chholey and chutney), which was shared with Sharma by another favourite of the holy city, Ranjit Avenue's Kulcha Land. It completely demystifies Amritsar's signature bread and will make you want to prepare it at home on a Sunday (please don't try to replace the desi ghee!) Heed this advice when you make Shri Krishna Mishtan Bhandar's silver varq-wrapped Besan de Laddoo, which the shop's star halwai, Shyam, has been rolling out for 40 years. For a kilo of besan (chickpea flour), the recipe requires 750gm each of desi ghee and sugar! To balance this ghee attack, you could have Amritsari Fish, the way it is made at Makhan's, or Beera's Chicken, grilled over charcoal after minimal marination.
To be able to dig Amritsar's street food in its entirety, Sharma insists you take the overnight Golden Temple Mail from Delhi so that you can start your culinary hunt as soon as you land at 6 a.m. For, there's more to Amritsar than the obvious big names.
One such timeless institution is Dharam Pal Chholey Wale, which is run by D.S. Sethi at Namak Mandi from the 5ftx2ft stall that his grandfather occupied a century ago. Here, for the princely sum of Rs 5, you can get a plate of chholey, whose secret masala (now retailed as DPS Chana Masala) is prepared every morning by Sethi and his sons and relatives at his palatial house near the famous Ahuja Lassi Wala. Hira di Hatti is the other unmissable chholey-bhaturewallah. The chholey at this little-known eatery comes with a hefty chunk of soft fried paneer, steaming bhaturas, gal-gal (Kumaon lemon) achar, onions and chutney.
Thanks to Sharma, you now don't need to go to Amritsar to savour its flavours. What you'll miss, though, when you follow his recipes, is the blessed water, which continues to transform everyday food into extraordinary experiences.

WITH the imminent arrival of Burger King, which is being rolled out by Pan India Food Solutions (a.k.a. Blue Foods), a major player in the food court business, the country now has a slew of successful quick service restaurant (QSR) chains, from established names such as McDonald's, Domino's, Subway and KFC to newcomers Pita Pit, Quiznos, Fat Boy's and Au Bon Pain. Can we now expect a comparable home-grown chain, rooted in the vast variety of Indian food, emerge as a potential game-changer?
I see that happening with Tikka Town, which is slowly but surely spreading its wings. Tikka Town started in 2008 on an inauspicious note -- its first outlet at Shalimar Bagh had to be aborted -- but it now has eight outlets in Delhi, Gurgaon, Pune and Lavasa. Its stated purpose is to take the menu of one of my all-time favourite restaurants, Chor Bizarre, to the masses, which seemed to me to be very ambitious at first. That may be why it has been taking its time to grow, which is the hallmark of any Old World Hospitality venture (I guess because it is headed by Rohit Khattar, who's a perfectionist!), but a senior Tikka Town executive assured me that "we have put our foot on the accelerator".
That's heartening news, for Tikka Town has been able to show that an Indian food chain in the QSR segment is not only feasible, but also scalable operationally. With 62 items on the menu, it gives us as many choices as we would care to have -- from chicken biryani to rajma-chawal, to tandoori platters (do try the mutton seekh kebab or kakori kebab platters) that come with dal makhni and laccha paranthas. And it has surprises galore. My favourites in this category are the Afghani Soya Chaamp, which leaves Wah Ji Wah's signature product behind by a mile; the sumptuous Jodhpuri Parantha stuffed with spinach and onions; the Pocket Paranthas, which are kathis reinvented for the QSR format; and the forgotten Punjabi winter dessert, gud churi made with jaggery. Can we finally say goodbye to burgers, even if they come with zing -- or bling!

Michael Swamy's slim volume
scores with its recipes but not
with its wine pairing suggestions
EVER SINCE the government allowed wine imports in 2000, gastronomes around the world have been debating the logic of pairing Indian food with wine. I remember the sentiment that was common in those early days of our courtship with wine: "Oh, you can only have Coke or lassi with Indian food." The tide of opinion started changing course once Indian restaurants in Britain started pairing their menus with wines and influential UK writers, notably Fiona Beckett and Charles Metcalf, started matching Indian food and wine. The world of epicures finally came round the view that all Indian dishes are not scalding hot like the vindaloo that the Bangladeshi restaurants serve across Britain and that there are great matches waiting to be discovered.
Michael Swamy, a gifted chef and TV personality, has taken a significant first step by putting together the Easy Guide to Pairing Indian Food and Wine (Om Books), sponsored by Nine Hills, Pernod Ricard India's wine label. My grouse against the slim volume is that it follows the flawed rationale of "when in doubt about Indian food and wine pairing, take out a Chenin Blanc or Shiraz Rose". How can a book dedicated to matching Indian food and wine, for instance, not have Riesling or Gewurtztraminer as options? I am sure Swamy, if he's not hemmed by the limited portfolio of a wine sponsor, will do better the next time.

AN IMPORTED cheese crisis has struck fine-dining restaurants and the villain is the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, which is yet another example of a well-intentioned move backfiring because of the ignorance, real or feigned, of mandarins drafting our laws. The new rules, which the authority is mandated to implement, state that all cheeses imported into the country have to be made with pasteurised milk! Hello, but we have been eating cheeses such as Brie, Camembert, Chevre and everybody's favourite, Parmigiano Reggiano, which have forever been made with raw milk, and not fallen sick. Why have the authorities woken up suddenly to the threat of raw milk cheeses? Did someone say the law's an ass?

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