When I was asked to write for Parts Unknown, Punjab in 2017, it had been close to two years after I met Anthony Bourdain during a closed taping in Manila. We spoke about an article I was working on the Grand Trunk Road. “I’d love to read it,” Tony said and I was elated that he took interest in what I did. He has served as an inspiration throughout my career as a writer.
I recently returned from a trip to my hometown of Amritsar and brought my mother’s ashes to a cemetery
up in the mountains. I had not been back there since I wrote for Tony. Dealing with loss and grief can be difficult and I miss them both immensely. To cope, I retraced all the places they both loved, to recreate the perfect day, as I did once before.
It’s true, the greatest way to honor and remember those we love is through food.
Eat Ghee, find God
Edited by the one and only
Kesar Da Dhaba. Established in 1916, this restaurant was initially located in Sheikhupura, Pakistan. After the hasty and ill-conceived partition in 1947, it relocated to Amritsar. One must brave the trip by foot or rickshaw as it is located in a narrow alley in a busy part of the main bazaar. The 10-minute walk from the last dhaba might do you good. Order the Punjabi Thali, which comes with two parathas, chole (a chickpea curry), and the legendary dal makhani (lentils in butter), a raita, and salad. The secret recipes have not changed for a century. Ideally, they are downed with a cold and refreshing glass of lassi (buttermilk). The flavors, colors, and spices are intense and addictive. Don’t be alarmed by the waiter crumpling your parathas with his bare hands as he places your metal plate on the table. It’s the local way of proving the bread was smothered in pure desi ghee (locally-made clarified butter). Traditional ghee recipes use boiled raw milk. It is cooled to room temperature for at least 12 hours before yogurt is added and left to stand overnight. Those that want to make the butter cultured then churn it with water. The butter is simmered and is complete after the fat has separated from the milk solids and the water has evaporated. Simmering gives the ghee its nutty flavor.
Opt to walk from the Golden Temple to Bharawan Da Dhaba, a local haunt since 1912. Ask for the comforting saag (spinach or sometimes mustard leaves) paired with makki ki roti—unleavened bread made from corn flour that is a Northern Indian winter staple. Farmers consume this in the fields to keep themselves warm and full.
The kulcha flavor bombs are crisp on the outside with a gloriously soft, moist middle. Perhaps it is the dusty road and fumes that add to the rich flavor. The portions are big, so remember to share.
It is often said in Amritsar that the best food is not found in one’s home but on the streets. Each trip back to my ancestral home takes me along the bustling streets in a constant search for the next masala-smothered, heart-clogging chili fix.
Amritsar is the spiritual center of Sikhism and the Golden Temple. It is a city of pilgrimages, where God and food are equally worshiped and life revolves around eating. Due to the climate, Punjab’s fertile land boasts of wheat, basmati fields, and rivers that grow a wide variety of vegetables and dairy products envied in the rest of the country. This is India’s bread basket. What is popularly known to most parts of the world as Indian food—tandoori cooking and ghee-infused curries—hails from Punjab.
Take an auto rickshaw or tuktuk to the All India Famous Amritsari Kulcha more popularly known as “the kulcha shop on Maqbool Road”. The best places never have a proper address. The shack has a few plastic chairs along the road. It will not be the best contender for a sanitation award, but you can watch the kulcha-making process in all its glory.
The sacred land of turbans and ghee, Amritsar is a city of about a million in the state of Punjab, in northern India. It is situated across the Pakistani border on the Grand Trunk Road, one of Asia’s longest and oldest routes. It connects southern and central Asia, as well as the western and eastern regions of India; it’s also the last stop by train along the plains and the gateway to the Himalayas.
A dhaba is an Indian roadside restaurant, and Punjab and Pakistan are a haven for them. They generally serve local cuisine and are situated along the Grand Trunk Road and other highways that also function as truck stops. Everything is inexpensive and served fast, fresh, and piping hot: saag, kulchas, biryanis, chole. These establishments eventually started moving from the roadside to the cities. Many in Amritsar today were founded in the early 20th century, and have been run by the same families for generations.
The soothing reflection of the moon shining on the pool against the backdrop of the golden dome can be a religious experience even for nonbelievers. A night ceremony, called the Palki Sahib, is held daily at 9 p.m. The holy book of the Sikhs is carried from the main temple on an ornate palanquin in an elaborate and symbolic ritual. It is brought across to a building called the Akal Takht (Throne of the Immortal) for safekeeping. The establishment serves as a meeting place for Sikhs to discuss their political and spiritual concerns. Devotional hymns are sung as devotees spend an hour cleaning The Golden Temple. The holy book is returned to the main temple in the early hours of the morning. The Golden Temple is one of the most welcoming places in India. It not only offers a free meal to its visitors but a place to sleep as well. Communal dormitories are built around the premises. Not everyone may have the courage to give up the comforts of a hotel bed, but it provides basic shelter to a person in need. Whatever the reason for your pilgrimage, whether it’s to nourish your spirit in the Golden Temple and Community Kitchen, or through the delicious dishes served on its streets, there is no city like Amritsar. You may leave a few pounds heavier, but that is the ultimate Punjabi compliment.
Amritsar, October 2022.
Nightmarket during Diwali Season in Amritsar. 2022