The tone of the trip was set by our taxi driver ten minutes into the trip. When asked whether there would be places offering palatable and sort of hygienic food (the hygiene part strictly for the sake of my daughter) along the highway and in the countryside of Punjab, he replied, in a typical Punjabi accent ”Madamji, no one ever goes hungry in Punjab. We love our food and make sure our guests are happily stuffed!You will not find anyone going hungry any part of the day or night!”.We spent three days in Punjab, and came back a couple of kgs heavier and very much happier! I have truly seen food heaven!
Punjab was one of those places I dreamed of visiting since when I was a teenager. Being an avid hindi film buff, the portrayal of Punjab in our movies, the countryside with picturesque mustard fields, the concept of Sikhism, the stories of partition, the joie de vivre and hearty laughter characteristic of Punjabis, their accent and the fact that I have had at least one extremely dear Punjabi friend all through my educational career had made the prospect of visiting Punjab very exciting.
After eating multiple varieties of South Indian made Punjabi looking(but most times, non Punjabi tasting) food in our so called “North Indian restaurants”, I was curious as to how the real non adulterated stuff actually tasted. I am a self confessed foodie, and hence names like baingan ka bharta, sarson ka saag, amritsari dal, halwa……always had more potential to induce drool than say a Ryan Gosling or Hrithik Roshan!And therefore, our driver’s words made me very happy.
Punjab by way of being very close to the border and also being very fertile, has been invaded and influenced by many cultures Greeks to Mughals to the British.Through all this, the ethos, the culture and especially the cuisine of Punjab seems to have retained its uniqueness.
Chandigarh, on first sight looks like an upmarket place where you need to mind your Ps and Qs. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised when we were exploring the city and happened to find that people love street food, and how! Shastri market,in Sector 22, is a mind blowing place. Mind blowing in all senses and in the sheer idea of the stuff involved. The roads are filled with people who are shopping in such a frenzy that you worry whether there would be anything left for you! The street vendors sell everything from cello tape to sweaters to pajamas to hi fi handbags! And in between all the haggling and screaming, people are tucking into varied varieties of street food with shopping bags dangling in one hand and food in the other. There are ATMs between tiny street shops where you draw money, shop, eat and then repeat the cycle! What fun! Through with our small amount of shopping, we decided to try the eating!
We tasted channe ke kulche, which has a soft totally non oily kulcha which is cut into half and stuffed with some concoction made out of chanas. Really tangy and yum! There were huge tavas with ragada patties(small boiled potato patties) to be shallow fried and eaten with masala chaat. The sizzle in the tawa, being the added attraction to stand as close to the cart as possible, so you can ward off the mild chill! There were Punjabi burgers, with huge dollops of amul butter in between!You got full just looking! Even boiled American corn had a special masala on it to make it ‘chatpata’!End of the day,I definitely knew how a stuffed turkey would feel, would it be alive!
Next day, we traveled to Amritsar after a hearty breakfast of aloo paranta, daal, curd, pickle and you guessed right, amul butter!
Amritsar is a place which makes you calm despite the chaos around you.The golden temple is located in the old part of Amritsar whose congested lanes contain tiny but awesome smelling tea stalls and saffron jalebis. Once inside the Golden temple, a sense of awe descends on you. Though it is filled with thousands of people, you do not feel the rush, and there is a sense of calmness which prevails. All the sounds of the external world wash away, and you only get to listen to hymns being sung on the loud speaker.The sparkling white external edifice, the contrast of the gold, the tranquil lake-all make for a wow experience! I have never felt so much at peace before. I can vouch for this, as my usually fidgety daughter was surprisingly quiet for the entire one hour that we stood in line to enter the gurdwara, and meekly agreed to cover her head with the head scarf given(given that on regular days, it’s a battle to even get her dressed for school!).
The prasad in the golden temple consists of a mouth watering halwa made of semolina, sugar and enough ghee almost to drip down your fingers! Any number of times that you ask for the halwa, it is given with equal grace and no zero irritation!The langar of the temple apparently feeds about 30,000 people on any given day! Despite hordes of people sitting and eating their roti, kaali daal and ghee rice, there is no noise or chaos. In a time where we discriminate based on caste, religion and status,it feels good to see people of all types, colors and faiths sit together and receive their meal with humility and reverence.
Of the two disappointments I had in Punjab, the first was not being able to sit and eat in the langar, because we were short of time to reach the Wagah border and Jallianwallah bagh. Jallianwallah bagh is about 10 minutes distance from the golden temple. The minute you enter, you feel all suffused with a sense of patriotism which you did not know existed in you. One minute sad, and another really thankful for our independence and democracy, however corrupt it may be!
Outside of this place, there are again loads of street shops selling imli lollipops(tamarind and sugar lollipops), fritters of moong daal and channa, boiled sweet potatoes with a dash of lime juice and lashings of imli and chilli chutney and multiple varieties if bhel puri which seem to be popular. What is amusing is that one the one hand if there are people who are thronging to these vendors and eating, in between all this there is Macdonalds, Dominos and Pizza Hut which are eually crowded and thriving despite the only vegetarian menu. I had no trouble believing that punjabis and the visitors to punjab, do really love food!
The second disappointment was the fact that though we reached the Wagah border to watch the ceremony of “Beating the Retreat”, we were not allowed in to the stadium owing to an enormous crowd of 40,000 who had assembled before us! We hence used the time to have a stroll in the fields of mustard a’ la Kajol in DDLJ and have some popcorn and later had our claim to fame when we clicked snaps with black cat commandos and their AK47s. Seriously, I have never been that close to a real gun before, and it gave me goose flesh!
We finally had a fantastic meal of true Punjabi food in one of our friend’s home on the last day. A fitting finale to our food, oops good holiday!In a way, probably not getting to see the border or eat at the langar was God’s way of letting us know that we would come back to Punjab again…hungry and hopeful!