Amritsar – Food and culture with a pinch of Nationalism

It has been twenty-two years since I went on my first food visit – a cheap trip to Agra. We went on a local train where I was left hanging outside the door of a packed train for a large part of the journey. We ate 5 meals a day, each picked by a local friend as a specialty of the city. Two days later, we headed back very satisfied with memories of the ‘kachoris’ and ‘rabri’ rather than of the Taj Mahal, which we also happened to see.

At over double my age from this memorable trip, I undertook another trip- slightly more upscale but with the same result. We made reservations on the Shatabdi Express train with airconditioned seating and booked a nice 4-star, right at the edge of downtown Amritsar. We were planning to still eat at local dhabas but we planned to get there in AC cabs that waited to take us back. But at the heart, it was a trip all about food. There would be a small mention of a few drinks and really enjoyable visits to the Golden Temple and the Atari border ceremony.

The plan was formed out of a whim and a long weekend. By the time I got some close friends to agree to the trip, the executive class tickets on the train were sold out. We settled for the regular chair car. Till almost a week before departure, there were apprehensions about the weather, the things to do, the varied interests, and if we needed to do the trip. With some good luck, the excitement developed, and energies were spent on researching restaurants, the best way to get to the border ceremony at Atari, and making other plans.

The journey started at 6 am on a Friday when cabs were booked for the train station, a good 40-minute ride. A few cancellations and a jam right at the entrance to the station added some adventure but the 9 of us were seated comfortably in our seats when a small jolt got us on the way. A warm cup of tea, a breakfast of eggs or cutlets with toast, some snacks, and loads of conversation kept us entertained through the trip. We also tried to order food for delivery to the train at various stations, but it always kept getting canceled. The canceled orders did help build up an appetite, which fortunately lasted till we had lunch in Amritsar. We had two cabs waiting to pick us up and soon were at the hotel.

The Courtyard by Marriott looked liked a brand new hotel, both by the infrastructure and a little by the training of the staff. Mostly we were happy with it, with the small exception of the swimming which was just as small as this exception.

We quickly dumped our luggage in the rooms and headed to ‘Surjit da Dhaba’ – a small place about 15 min cab ride from the hotel that could seat a full army, as long as the army was less than 11 people. The owner (I am assuming Surjit) was also cooking and we ordered some mutton fry, Amritsari fish, and their all-famous butter chicken. The owner recommended we add some Rara chicken, and we did. The chaas (buttermilk) we ordered to wash all this down were fabulous. The mutton and fish were outstanding – completely worth the hype. The Rara chicken was great though the butter chicken was a little underwhelming. Delhi probably is the best place for butter chicken – so we were used to a different benchmark. On the way back we made a quick stop at Bansal Sweets for some fabulous rasmalai and motichur ladoos – absolutely delicious.

So much food had to be followed up with some rest before the mandatory visit to the Golden Temple. The Golden Temple or Harmandir Sahib is the most religious place for Sikhism and is the icon that represents the city of Amritsar. The place is both majestically serene and stunningly beautiful at the same time. It is large enough that the massive crowds get just merged into the beauty of the sanctum sanctorum and the pond around it. The same cannot be said for the areas just outside of the temple. While the area seems to have been cleaned up lately, it is still a very crowded market selling a wide variety of local products – from mixed spices, to religious paintings and cool t-shirts.

The cabs dropped us about 700 meters from the temple entrance and then we walked the rest of the way through the crowded market. We bought head coverings on the way and passed by the narrow entrance to the infamous Jaliawala Bagh. Shoes needed to be dropped at a well-managed token counter and then you walk down a marble staircase to a fabulous first view of the temple. The holy pond surrounds the golden structure, except for the narrow walkway. The first order of business is to bow to the holy place by kneeling and touching your forehead to the ground. A walk around the pond is customary, though a dip in its waters is optional. On the way, you can buy the prasad of Kada havla and also enjoy a meal at the ‘langar’. The line to enter the golden temple can be a couple of hours long on the weekend, so we skipped. After spending a few more minutes clicking a few pics and listening to the last verses of the adraas, we walked out and got into our cabs back to the hotel.

Everyone was a little tired from the travels and the long walks. We decided to keep the dinner a simple affair. Room service of pasta was ordered for the kids and two of us walked to the roadside eatery of “Beere ka Chicken” to pick up some of their famous roast chicken. Amritsar is full of these drive-up shacks where food is served in your cars. This one came highly recommended and happened to be a 9 min walk from the hotel. The menu was small and there was a large crowd of cars waiting, so we quickly ordered a full roast Chicken and an Amritsari fish. The fish was unbelievably good; the chicken was very good but not great. It seemed a little chewy. Eating it in the hotel room meant some additional comfort, but the food wasn’t piping hot. We could also order some beers to go with it, though that was also the drink of choice for most of the cars at the drive-in.

The next day was going to be a log day with more food and a trip to the Atari border coming up… sleep was blissful!

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