Thursday, May 16, 2013

Amritsar - The Food Capital of Punjab

Started in the morning at 9.30 am from Jalandhar to Amritsar with a slightly disturbed digestive system. The highway to Amritsar is a typical Punjabi set up with lush green fertile land with fields extending till horizon. Small hamlets popping up every 10 odd kilometer with the impeccable white glistening Gurudwaras and the houses of flamboyant Sikhs with the water tank essentially shaped as a football or a falcon. Falcon is an important bird associated with Sikhism. Remember the lines? “Chidiya naal je Baaz ladawaan taan Gobind Singh naam dharavaan” You are not an Indian if the Punjabi culture doesn’t impress you!

Mustard Fileds - The Essential Yash Chopra Movie Ingredients
Thanks to the Bollywood and Doordarshan, I have been hearing about these names since childhood – Amritsar, Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Phagwara and how I was there! The verdant green fields, the fertile land, fresh air and the lively attitude of people immortalized by these lines ‘Khao, piyo te aish karo mitro’ makes your trip worth. Punjab as such doesn’t appear on Indian map as a tourist destination. But almost everybody in India knows that life flows in full fervor here. Find a Punjabi friend who has a house in the countryside of the rustic Punjab and you will know why Yash Chopra was so obsessed with painting his films yellow with the fields of sarason (mustard)

I had been to Amritsar three years ago but it was a very breezy encounter. I had approached the city from the endearingly beautiful Dalhousie in HP. Didn’t get time to pay respect to Harmandar Sahib and horror of horrors…didn’t get good food to eat. I left that day with a sunken heart and had decided to return with full vigour. And after 3 years, there I was with 3 days at disposal and a big list of eateries to sink my teeth and my heart too.

I spent the whole afternoon resting and essentially giving rest to my guts who had revolted earlier night. They had faced the onslaught continuously for 3 days and needed a break. The revolt was so bad that I had become slightly doubtful about my plan in Amritsar. But still I had faith in myself and was expecting a quick recovery.

In the evening, I finally decided to go ahead with the planned itinerary. I was still not feeling any pang in my stomach even though I had skipped my breakfast and lunch on that day. I said to myself – a milk should not worsen the condition and besides, what are you doing if you are in Amritsar and haven’t had the lassi at Ahuja Milk Centre!!! It was a no brainer. I hired an auto and asked him to drive all the way to the Hindu Mahasabha College near Beri Gate. Ahuja Lassi is famous since the auto guy dropped me exactly in front of this shop.

Lassi is thick creamy drink made from yogurt and sugar especially popular in the northern region of India. Lassi in Punjab is legend and that too in Amritsar..then it has to be Ahuja Lassi! I love lassi and have tasted it at few places. I have to say that by far this is the best lassi I ever got to drink. Since 1955 if somebody hasn’t gone wrong with his main product then it is least likely that he’ll go wrong today. The graceful and lanky Mr. Ahuja oversees all the preparations and is sure about maintaining the quality. The lassi is served since morning 7 am to 12 noon (because it is finished J) and the second phase starts at 5 pm. You gotta be there on time!

The original form of lassi remains the best in my view. It has simple ingredients of yogurt and sugar. Now it is being modified by adding fruit pulps and dubbing as mango lassi, strawberry lassi etc etc. I have also tried the famous ‘makhaniya’ lassi  at Janata Sweet Home in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. But honestly, Ahuja scores ahead of all the lassis. Every glass of lassi here comes with a dollop of cream. What a start to my food exploration in Amritsar! I managed to strike a conversation with Mr. Ahuja telling him that I had been travelling through Punjab for tasting food and heard a lot about his lassi especially from Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma. He was mighty pleased to hear that and lo and behold…I got an extra dollop of cream on my lassi. My stomach never regretted from this point onwards!

P.S. Some people especially from Mumbai or Pune region may come up with suggestion for the best lassi they have had in their own areas. Thanks in advance for your valuable inputs!

Ahuja Lassi, Near Hindu Mahasabha College, Beri Gate, Amritsar
Taste – 10/10  Ambiance – 5/10 Service – 8/10 Value for Money – 10/10 (INR 25 for this fab lassi!)

My next destination was the Harmandir Sahib or popularly known as the Golden Temple. Since I had stomach full of lassi for the evening, I decided to pay my respect to this wonderful temple late in the night. To build up the appetite, I decided to walk to the Golden Temple through the almost deserted roads at 10.30 pm in the night. As I started nearing the temple, the commotion started increasing. Even at that point of time there was sizeable number of devotees visiting the temple but I guess most of them were done with paying their respect.

The Harmandir Sahib
As I entered the complex, I was enthralled by the beautiful view of the temple at night. The Harmandir Sahib was glistening in the golden hue and it was reflecting in the calm waters of the surrounding lake. The place was peaceful with minimal amount of visitors. After paying respect to Harmadir Sahib, I sat on the banks of the lake trying to grasp the tranquility of the surreal atmosphere.

After spending some time sitting quietly, I made my way to the famous Langar of the Harmandir Sahib. Langar is the term used in the Sikh religion or in Punjab in general for common kitchen/canteen where food is served in a Gurudwara to all the visitors (without distinction of background) for free. This particular langar feeds almost 70 k to 1 lac people in a day. There is no discrimination - no poor, no rich, no Sikh, no non-Sikh, no Indian, no foreigner. All are equal and they sit together to be served by the volunteers of the Harmandir Sahib, right from the distribution of utensils, serving the food and washing of the utensils. That is the ‘kar sevaa’ offered by the devotees here.

Langar at The Harmandir Sahib
I went and sat in the row with my utensils. Soon the sabzi and daal were served and then came the roti. I first extended my right hand to accept the roti. I was promptly told that I should be accepting the roti with both my hands as what I am getting is the holy offering. Honestly, it was such a simple meal yet so delicious. I enjoyed every morsel. However, I didn’t like the attitude of many people enjoying free food. They take everything for granted and leave so much of food in the plate. That’s disgraceful. If you respect God then have respect for food in your plate also. Many a times God must be meeting you when you are hungry and you eat the first morsel. Don’t dishonor that meeting!

The sabzi was a simple potato preparation with minimum spices and daal was the legendary kaali daal with ample amount of garlic giving it a sharp taste. The rice kheer (rice pudding) was delicious. I also found the mechanical water dispenser very interesting as it didn’t have any human intervention maintaining hygiene. In fact, the whole premise of the Harmandir Sahib is impeccably clean and you indeed feel like visiting a holy place.

Rocky Singh put his verdict for the food at Golden Temple in a very apt manner – “God bless you, who are we to pass verdict on this one”

My food journey in Amritsar had started on a fabulous note!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Punjab Food Trip - Exploring Ludhiana!

“There is no sincerer love than the love for food” – George Bernard Shaw

Punjabi Food holds a distinct place everywhere and also in the memories of a small town boy like me born in 80’s. The idea of luxury food was always synonymous with Punjabi Food as Chinese dishes were yet to be introduced everywhere. The ‘Palak Paneer’ (Cottage cheese in spinach paste) remains my (as well as for many) first encounter with Paneer. Paneer epitomizes Punjab and Punjab epitomizes Paneer. It always used to be a memorable affair to go to a famous local restaurant and feast on the ‘so called’ Punjabi dishes at least once in 3 months. Eating out itself was a luxury that time. While taking every bite, I always wondered that how Punjabis manage to cook this stuff and eat on daily basis. J Super myths! I always looked up and asked, “Why didn’t you send me to this world as Punjabi?” I don’t know but God must have smiled many a times and said, “My dear child, you are a born foodie. You will be in Punjab someday for the sake of food only!”

My love for Punjabi food kept on growing. As I travelled to bigger cities like Pune and Mumbai, I was introduced to the finer versions of this exquisite cuisine. In Pune, I realized that ‘Malai Kofta’ (Fried Cream nuggets in sweet and spicy gravy) is actually composed of ‘Malai’ and not potato. J Mumbai though a den of foodies have few restaurants offering authentic Punjabi cuisine. I loved the spread at ‘Urban Tadka’ and was also disappointed by the ‘Punjab Grill’. My first encounter with authentic Punjabi food happened in the heartland, just outside Delhi on Grand Trunk Road. “Gulshan Vaishno Dhaba” at Murthal is a fab eatery and I can anyday swear by their ‘Pyaaz Paratha’. However, it was just a chance encounter but it further fanned my desire to visit Punjab for enjoying the authentic spread.

Meanwhile, the Gods nicknamed Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma of “Highway on My Plate” were on rampage in the Northern Punjab region, devouring the best of the food and letting it out loudly. It was an awe-inspiring journey through the cities viz. Patiala, Ludhiana, Phagwara, Jalandhar, Amritsar and Pathankot. How I wished while seeing the show that I should also be following the same circuit for food. The dream remained untouched till March 2013. When I was contemplating for a long trip, Anita, my better half suggested me the wonderful idea of exploring Punjab for food. And I was left wondering that why it didn’t click to me. The timing was perfect, the winter was about to over.

Finally, the day arrived, I mean the night arrived. I boarded on the ‘Golden Temple Mail’ on 17th March 2013. The night sky was smiling at me with the wonderful formation of crescent moon and two stars. All the way I was dreaming about paneer, parathas, chole kulche, naan, bhature, kaali daal, gajarela, lassi and the insane amount of white butter added in almost every dish. Finally I reached the Ludhiana junction on the morning of 19th March at 2.45 am. Quite an odd hour! But yes… A solo food trip to Punjab and why, yes, it was happening!!!

Due to arrival at odd timings and thrill due to novelty factor of my food trip, it took a while to come to the terms and I slept at 4.30 a.m. This started my day late but there was no change in the schedule. I was staying at Hotel Maharaja near Clock Tower in the Bhadaur Market Area. Since it was a solo trip, I had all the flexibility to make it as frugal as possible. I got a shared auto from the main square to Apollo Hospital and then a private bus all the way to Doraha where my first food destination was located “New Zimindara Baba Neem Wala Dhaba” As I entered the dhaba, I saw only two patrons partaking lunch. 

New Zimindara Baba Neem Wala Dhaba, Doraha
Being true to the Punjabi dhaba culture, I first decided to sit on a ‘charpai’ but changed my mind and settled on a table. The menu was quickly rendered by the waiter while I asked him to hold on and pulled the ‘Highway On My Plate’ book from my sack to decide what to eat. The waiter was visibly surprised. The choice was simple – kadhai paneer and daal makhani with hot tandoori rotis to be washed down with a big jug of buttermilk! Though the daal was served with a big cube of yellow butter, for me, kadhai paneer was the clear winner. The wonderful spices cooked perfectly and absorbed by the luscious paneer and accompanied by crunchy bell peppers was an absolute delight.  

Kadhai Paneer and Daal Makhani
The daal makhani was subtly flavoured but honestly, I didn’t challenge my palettes. As a tradition, the ‘Zimindara Dhabas’ owned by Zimindars (landlords) in Punjab serve unlimited amount of buttermilk. After finishing the sumptuous lunch, I walked over to have a word with the gentleman owner of the dhaba.  He was impressed after learning that I was travelling through Punjab to taste the authenticity. He took down my number and promised to meet me whenever he comes to Mumbai. Guess this holds some prospects of getting discounts next time I visit his dhaba. Yeah!

New Zimindara Baba Neem Wala Dhaba,  Doraha, Near Ludhiana
Taste – 7/10 Ambiance – 6/10 Service – 9/10 Price – 8/10

I was fortunately staying at a very strategic place and didn’t have to make way to my preferred eateries in the evening through the unbelievably noisy and dusty roads of Ludhiana. These Ludhiana people are terrible honkers. Ludhiana is also supposed to have the maximum density of merc in India but that day, all I had seen were BMWs and Audis. Guess there is a change of taste for Ludhiane de Puttars!

Veg Menu @ Chawla Chicken :)
So my next target was – Chawla Restaurant famous for its chicken dishes. Now what a veggie like me has to do with this restaurant? So there are two Chawla restaurants in Bhadaur House area. I first entered the Veg Chawla restaurant and didn’t find ‘Chawla Special Creamy Paneer’. I asked the waiter and he blabbered all the dishes with paneer and insisted that all are ‘Creamy’. I got up, went to the manager and asked him for the address of the Chawla Restaurant I was looking for. I got the address. It was just a 5 minutes walking distance but helped to build my appetite more!

Chawala Chicken, as the name suggests is indeed a chicken eater’s heaven. It is in fact a take away station. However, I was not taking away anything, I settled at a sparse dining area available on the first floor. The order was no brainer – Chawla Special Cream Paneer with again, hot tandoori rotis. The Chawla Special Cream Paneer is the veg variant of their famous dish – Chawla  Special Cream Chicken. The paneer/chicken is cooked in a special assembly line only in milk and cream using special ingredients at different stages (the main spice being the black pepper) and uses no water at any stage. I found creamy paneer very interesting but not a spectacular one. But the combo of hot rotis, raw onion with green chutney and paneer in thick creamy gravy was indeed a gastronomical delight.

The famous 'Chawla Special Cream Paneer' with Tandoori Rotis

Chawla Chicken, Bhadaur House, Near Clock Tower, Ludhiana
Taste – 7/10  Ambiance – 5/10 Service – 6/10 Price – 7/10

Fruit Ice Cream, Basant Ice Cream
In the last stage for the search of best ice cream of Ludhaina, I landed at Basant Ice Cream. As a guy living in a metropolitan city, I believe that my taste for ice cream has undergone multifold changes. After having tasted Naturals, Baskin Robins, Move N Pick, Gelato and Cocoberry, it was unlikely that Basant Ice Cream would have casted a spell. Yes, it didn’t. Too sweet for my palette. Didn’t like it and somehow I was the only person sitting in the sprawling 2000 sq feet area trying to enjoy the famous (?) fruit ice cream!
The trip had started well! With the exception of ice cream, everything was up to mark! Oye, chak de phatte! J     

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bowing at The Top : Trek to Tungnath (The Highest Shiv Temple in the World)

Trek to the beautiful Tungnath Temple has always mesmerized me. I had been longing for my first encounter with the snow and it couldn’t have come better than in the form of the trek to Tungnath Temple and Chandrashila Peak. It didn’t take much time to decide upon the itinerary as I was in Haridwar at the time of scheduling and my friend, Ashish joined me from Mumbai after having an arduous journey in the air and on the rail tracks.

Deoria Taal and Chaukhamba
In the first phase, we explored the enchantingly beautiful Deoria Lake. Words were not sufficient to describe the beauty of this place. The mighty Chaukhamba peak with the fabulous Gangotri Range of the Himalaya reflecting in the calm waters of the Deoria Taal was one surreal experience. After spending a night at the Deoria Taal, we returned to Saari village by noon. A sumptuous Pahadi Lunch of rice, vegetables and special chutney filled our guts for our next project – Tungnath and Chandrashila!

For the uninitiated – Tungnath is the highest Lord Shiva temple in the world situated at an altitude of 12073 feet (3680 m). It is also part of the Panch Kedar group of temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. Chandrashila is the summit situated atop Tungnath at the height of 13000 feet.

As we drove from Saari village to Chopta, the drop in the temperature was obvious. An uphill drive in the dense forestation of the Kedarnath Wildlife Conservaory with the red and pink hues due to rhododendrons was a sight which was unforgettable. Garhwal is more beautiful than Kumaon and how I was experiencing that! Finally, we stopped at Chopta and started our trek for Tungnath and Chandrashila at 2.45 pm. It was late by any standards for the 5 km trek till Chandrashila .

Red hue of Buraansh, Chopta
The trek to Tungnath though is longer than Deoria Taal trek but it is not as arduous as the same. The well constructed pavement makes it little easy in the initial phase as you pass through the thickly forested area dotted with numerous trees of buraansh (Rhododendron). We could see many people coming down as they were about to finish their trek and myself and Ashish were the only souls who were climbing. I didn’t check but many of them must have had a bewildered look in their eyes.
Bugyal on the trek to Tungnath

I got the first glimpse of the snow lying by the pavement. It looked as if a carcass of dolphin has washed ashore. Not very best of the comparison but I was still elated. All around me were snow strands and not exactly the way I had expected. But was a heady combo of rhododendrons and snow that energized us to trek further as new dimensions of nature’s beauty were unveiling in front of us at every turn. The next turn and we were gawking at a beautiful bugyal guarded by barren hills on one side. It had started drizzling at that time and the atmosphere became magical.

The snow started to appear prominently and vegetation was getting less dense. The air temperature shifted from cool to cold. Frankly speaking, we were not so well equipped for the snow trek and the change in the weather was making it worse. The weather in the mountain is unpredictable. The clear weather by noon changed with dark clouds gathering in the sky and we could see that it was raining heavily at a distance on few hills. I was wearing a simple t-shirt, a pair of jeans and sweater as if I was strolling on the Mall Road of Mussoorie. Ashish was wearing his all time favourite UCLA jacket. All I could vouch for were my all weather shoes.

Snowy Trek, Tungnath
The vegetation had now almost vanished and we rested at the last full bloomed buraansh before we proceeded.  The pavement was lined by snow though we were yet to see the glimpse of Tungnath temple. 
All of a sudden a mild hailstorm approached us. The tiny small ice pellets landed on the exposed part of my hand giving me momentary numbness. I quickly wore the sweater I was just tying around my waist.  In the meanwhile, we met a newly married couple who were returning to base and generously offered their stick to navigate through the snow at the top. Other two locals who were coming down warned us of the bad weather (which we could see and experience).
Tungnath, village buried in snow!

As I mentioned that we were getting surprised at almost every turn which was unveiling the newer form of beauty. After braving the hailstorm, we reached the point where we could finally see the glimpse of Tungnath temple and the beautiful paved track with snow on either side. Due to the open space at the top, the wind was now blowing with lot of gust and it was chilling too. Me and Ashish were tired and hence took a 5 minute break and grabbed a chocolate bar. All we were praying for was to have a cup of piping hot tea when we reached the colony at Tungnath.
Not a single soul, Tungnath

Lo and behold…we reached the Tungnath village (actually it’s a small colony) and not a single soul was present there. The whole village was covered in 3-4 feet thick snow. The residents had shifted to the plains after the festival of Diwali and we could see why. All the doors locked. Thankfully, we heard somebody repairing a roof of a house there. We approached him and ask if we could get tea. He seemed least bothered and asked to continue to visit the temple. Disappointment! No tea! It was tricky to make way through the snow and the stick came handy. Thanks to that couple who insisted that we should carry the stick!

Tungnath and Parvati Temple, 12073 feet
Honestly, the only thing which looked divine in the vicinity was the Tungnath Temple otherwise the whole village had an eerie look. We proceeded to the temple. The newly constructed blue frame at the entrance has numerous bells hanging. I rang the biggest and whoa…the echo was in the atmosphere for at least a minute. That was one amazing experience with sound (Generally we attribute it to the BOSE sound systems! J) Ashish braved and removed his shoes to enter the temple which had snow everywhere and I followed the suit.

Tungnath is the most beautiful temple I have ever seen. Probably absence of human beings took this experience to different level. We could feel the cold surface but we were simply admiring the temple and the surrounding beauty. Built in a typical Garhwali style, where the smaller structure provides the entrance to the main sanctum sanctorum has a striking similarity to the Kedarnath Temple, the main temple of the Panch Kedar group. The doors of the temples (known as ‘kapaats’ locally) were closed and are scheduled to open in the second week of May 2013. We said our prayers. We took a while to sink in the peace and tranquility of the surrounding. However, the fading light and the numbing peak started to give us the signal.
Evening glory on return, Tungnath

Chandrashila was another 1 km trek, very steep and arduous. Time was not on our side.  It was 5.30 pm in the evening. The weather had just improved and the distant snow peaks of the Himalayas which were little invisible due to haze appeared clearly. I would love to postulate and time and again it has been proved “There is nothing as beautiful as the Himalayas in this world”. We decided to start our return journey with a promise to ourselves that we will soon be standing at Chandrashila.

Nothing as beautiful as Himalaya!
Luck was on our side. We spotted a movement up in the snow. A slightly bulky silhouette of a bird. It was joined by a similar bird and both hid beyond a rock covered with snow. I was surprised to find such a bird at this altitude. Then one of them took flight right in front of us and went on another side towards valley. From that height we could see the span of the fluorescent blue wings and the brown tail. We were amazed by the beauty of that bird which looked like peacock. We were also taken aback by its ability to fly steadily looking at the bulky size. We had found the state bird of Uttarakhand, The Himalayan Monal. Similar to the peacock family, this pheasant is found only at an altitude above 7000 feet and is endearingly beautiful.
Himalayan Mouse nibbling in the snow!

We were little slow in descending. The tiny and cute, Himalayan mice were braving us, sometimes posing well to click a good shot. In the last phase of our descent, we were in dark, walking through the forest alone. Finally, at 7.30 pm we reached the starting point of the trek and straightway headed to the hotel serving tea. The tea in this situation feels better than the heady mocktail for which you may end up spending 1000 bucks. And once you start wandering in the Himalayas (Upper and Greater) then you don’t need anything to get high. But one should remember that even at the summits you have something to bow to and we bowed at the top!