Punjab: More than just mustard fields

We start writing our list on the train. “Golden Temple, Jallianwalla Bagh and Wagah, obviously,” says the good-looking boy sitting beside us, striking up a conversation mid-journey. (Much to our delight.) All of us had boarded the train in Delhi early in the morning, amid cries of chai-chai and promises of ‘garam, garam bread omelette’ from passing vendors. My two friends and I are on our way to Amritsar on a sudden whim to explore what’s possibly India’s most gracious city.

Mystery boy tells us he grew up in Amritsar and it has the “best food in the world”. We smile politely, dismissing it as loyal hyperbole. Till everyone around chimes in. “Oh those papad-wadis,” sighs one lady. “Alu kulchas” says another. Mystery boy takes over, “Beera chicken. Kesar dhabha. Amritsari fish at Makhan. Kulchas on Maqbool road…”

Disembarking at Amritsar station, we find our way to Hong Kong hotel, chosen for its fantastic parathas. By the time we wash the railway grime off our hands, the cheery owner has sent a man to our room with hot alu parathas served with packs of Amul butter and ginger tea. He’s also sent a list of places we should eat at. But our friend and self-appointed guide in Amritsar, the inexhaustible Harleen calls to warn us not to eat too much, because she has her own list. We pile into her car and begin with Brijwasi’s mixed chaat filled with snappy papdi, spongy bhalla (fried balls of urad dal, that have been spiced and soaked in yoghurt) and finely chopped potato. All topped with a squiggle of sweet tamarind chutney.

We take a breather at the Pakistani market, in a shop piled with bolts of cloth like a fabric library. The deliciously gaudy cloth unfurls displaying traditional pieces heavy with gold embroidery, but also funky prints, reminiscent of Masaba Gupta’s work, with unexpected icons like oversized pink safety pins. From there we wander through ‘Chor Bazaar’ with its knock off ‘designer’sunglasses, perfumes yellowed with age and overly amorous shopkeepers. Then it’s time to fortify ourselves with bhel puri, served from a small window just below a gun shop that advertises itself with a massive cut-out of a rifle suspended above. It’s rather surreal, all of us bundled up in pashminas, cautiously balancing a massive cone of bhel puri, crisp puffed rice laced with golden sev, black salt and lemon juice.

Dinner’s at Brother’s dhaba with unabashedly pink walls, where sarson ka saag arrives topped with a fat cube of rapidly melting butter. Following advice from Harleen and her husband, we head to the Golden Temple at 3 a.m. Although it’s freezing when we emerge from the warm car, we’re thrilled to see it glittering between arched pillars. Inside, as we soak up its prayerfully charged atmosphere we’re handed bowls made of woven leaves filled with freshly made, hot wheat halwa, drippy with ghee. As we exit, a man in a majestic turban beckons us to the langar area, where they pass us bright green plastic cups and a carefully torn section of newspaper. Volunteers with stainless steel jugs pour steamy tea into our glasses. The tea is fragrant with an unexpected flavour. Saunf (fennel seed.) “Good for your stomach,” smiles a passing lady.

We’re up at 7 a.m. because Harleen has promised us puri-chole at Kanahya’s. Waiting for a table, we watch three cross-legged cooks sitting solemnly frying puris in massive iron kadais dark with age. Inside, we are handed plates, onto which waiters ladle channa and potato in a jaggery-tamarind sauce. Teamed with fluffy puris and washed down with tall tumblers of thick lassi topped with chunky cream, it’s possibly the best meal of the trip.

Studying our constantly expanding list, we make a quick stop at Makhan for fish encased in a crisp ajwain-laced batter, then head out to buy wadi-papad. The papads are liberally speckled with pepper. The wadi is a neat clump of urad dal laced with pepper and red chillies. Next, we speed to Wagah for the chest-thumping border ceremony. On the way back, we manage to fulfil all our secret Yash Chopra ambitions by skipping through the gorgeously yellow mustard fields. Admittedly we look more like happy goats than sultry heroines. But still. At least we’ve ticked off 60 per cent of that list!