Shirin Bhandari

Shirin Bhandari is a food and travel writer from Amritsar, a city in Northern India in the state of Punjab. Located on one of Asia’s oldest and longest passages, the Grand Trunk Road, it is a city of pilgrimages where food and God are equally revered. Shirin’s work has been featured on the travel and food journalism publication Roads & Kingdoms, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, Food52, CNN and VICE to name a few. She is currently an editorial consultant for UNICEF. She splits her time between Amritsar and her adopted home in Manila, the Philippines.
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A City Of Pilgrimages And Bread

Amritsar is a city in Northern India in the state of Punjab. It is located on one of Asia’s oldest and longest passages, the Grand Trunk Road.  It is a city of pilgrimages, whether that be nourishing your spirit with the beauty of the Golden Temple, or packing into the succulent ghee-infused goodies found in its famous dhabas. You may leave a few pounds heavier, but that is the ultimate Punjabi blessing. Ghee is a staple in Punjabi cooking and the local clarified butter is found in hot naans, dals, curries and desserts. The spiced tandoori tikkas and naan, kulchas and curries are habit-forming. You’ll find yourself scouring the streets for the next chilli-masala fix. Punjab is India’s bread basket. Due to its geographical location and climate, Punjab’s land is abundant with fields of wheat, basmati rice and vegetables. It is famous throughout India for its dairy products such as paneer (cheese) and desi ghee (local clarified butter). What the West recognises as Indian food hails primarily from the Punjab, from the rich curries to tandoori-cooked chicken and naan. 

The Truck Drivers Know The Best Places To Eat

A dhaba is a Punjabi term for a roadside restaurant. The best food in Amritsar is not found at home but on its streets. Truck drivers delivering trade through the Grand Trunk Road have made Punjabi pit stops famous. Meals are cheap and served fresh, fast and hot. Amritsar is a city of specialised cooking: no one dhaba can do it all. Visit two of the oldest and most famous dhabas, starting with Kesar Da Dhaba. Established in 1916, it is famous for its ghee-infused Punjabi thali (platter) consisting of two parathas (flatbread), dal makhni (lentils in butter), chole (chickpea curry), salad and a raita. Bharawan Da Dhaba was established in 1912 and is know for the North Indian winter favourite, sarson ka saag (mustard leaves) teamed with makki ki roti (corn flour bread). This heating meal sustains farmers during the colder months – generally October to March, which is also the ideal time to travel – so you might have to skip this in the summer.

Ghee-infused Punjabi Thali at Kesar Da Dhaba

Skip Dinner The Night Before If You Must

Start the day with the filling bhature chole at Kahna Sweets. The savoury and spicy chickpea curry is paired with fluffy fried bread. The crunchy refined dough is fried to a golden crisp in a massive cauldron.  Served with a side of pickled vegetables and a tangy potato curry, the bhature chole will keep one fuelled for the rest of the day. 

My Weekend Shopping  – And Ice Cream – Ritual

I start every weekend with a trip to Hall Bazaar. Fresh fruits, vegetables, ground spices and the best dry fruit and nuts can be sourced in this busy market. Fabrics are another story. Before leaving make sure to drop by Ramesh Milk Bar. It is an underrated hole-in-the wall ice cream shop that was established in 1944: a few years before the partition. The milk bar provides me with a week’s supply of kulfi (Indian ice cream). The northern Indian kulfi was developed during the Mughal Empire in the 16th century and consists of a heavy condensed milk mixture frozen with saffron and pistachios. For decades, my grandmother insisted on sending her own metal moulds. The shop packs each container with the sweet and creamy kulfi concoction which is later set to be frozen at home. When my grandmother lost all her teeth, the shop obliged with no nuts.

Fresh Punjabi produce at a roadside stall.

The City’s Favourite Stuffed Bread

The go-to lunch for the city’s working class is the Amritsari kulcha: no visit is complete without sampling this delicacy. I go at least once a week to splurge, more often when there are visitors in town. A dough made of maida (refined flour) is stuffed with your choice of savoury and spicy potatoes, grated paneer (Indian cheese) or cauliflower. It is then flattened in a shape of a roti and baked in a cylindrical clay oven (tandoor). Before serving it is drenched in ghee and presented with a fiery chole, a fresh mint and coriander chutney. Crusty on the outside, soft and chewy in the middle, the kulcha is a sensory overload of flavours. The shop is so famous it does not have a name, just mention Maqbool Road. The dusty surroundings are not for the faint of heart. Kulcha Land in Ranjit Avenue is a good second.

Two Amritsari Non-Vegetarian Favourites

While restaurants with air-conditioning and newly developed 5-star hotels also offer Punjabi fare, diners could be in any Indian restaurant in the world. In true Amritsar form, a dhaba crawl is in order for special occasions. The best non-vegetarian options are still found on the streets. The city may be miles from the sea but our river fish makes up for it. Amritsar is known all over India for its sweet water and quality of its sole and singhara, which are sourced from the Beas and Harike rivers. At the Makhan Fish Shop on Majitha Road, the Amritsari machi (fish) is marinated in spices and coated with chickpea flour before it is fried in a piping hot cauldron of mustard oil. Fillets are served with a special white slaw or mint chutney, pickled onions and a slice of lemon. A stone’s throw away is Beera Chicken House. Try the succulent charcoal-grilled chicken and tandoori specialities like keema (minced meat) naan, kebabs and chicken, fish or paneer tikka. You can also get a meal delivered to you. Alcohol is not served, but a wine shop is close by and you can bring your own bottle and party in true Amritsar style.

Chicken is marinated in yogurt and various spices before it is grilled to perfection at Beera’s Chicken House.

Giving At The Golden Temple

Leave your sandy shoes at a designated locker and cover your hair before entering the holiest site of the Sikhs: The Golden Temple. The quaint but achingly beautiful temple is surrounded by the pool of nectar which imparts a sense of tranquillity that is hard to find in busy Hindu temples across the country. The Golden Temple also houses the world’s largest community kitchen. The langar (communal kitchen) has been serving devotees and tourists for over 300 years. All religions and races are treated equally. Each day, volunteers prepare 100,000 free meals consisting of a tasty spiced vegetable curry, dal, roti and rice. If you’re not hungry, volunteer to wash the metal plates or help peel and chop vegetables: the fragrant smells, sounds and clatter of the preparation are an experience in itself. The temple not only offers a free meal but a safe place to stay for the night. Communal dormitories are built inside the premises. The amenities are basic but clean. If you’re not cut to rough it out, stay for the palki sahib: a night-time ceremony that brings out the holy book of the Sikhs from the main temple for safekeeping. The Golden Temple illuminated by the moon and reflected in the pool of nectar, is equally breathtaking at night.

Volunteers prepare the day’s vegetables inside the world’s largest community kitchen at the Golden Temple

A Photographer’s Dream

Amritsar is the birthplace of Sikhism, the monotheistic religion that originated in India during the 15th century. Guru Nanak, its founder, taught believers to practice equality and selfless service towards others. Kesh is the process of growing one’s hair naturally to honour the integrity of God’s creation. Turbans are used to keep everything in place. The vivid colours of a sea of turbans in an Amritsari bazaar are a photographer’s dream. 

Know Before You Go

Your Auto-Wallah Is Your Friend. “What is your good name?” It’s a common question you’ll hear across India. You will then be plagued by which country you come from, your civil status and how many children you have. There are over a billion people in India, so privacy is not an option. The most important dost (friend) to make during a trip, however, is your auto-wallah (man). The automated rickshaw is the best way to get around the city. The distances may be short but Amritsar bazaars are busy and narrow. He will also know the best masala chai or lassi (yoghurt drink) stall in town. If you’re more adventurous ask for your lassi with bhang (cannabis).

Walk On The Border. The border to Pakistan is half an hour away. Amritsar became a border town during the British India partition in 1947. The Wagah Border Ceremony showcases the lowering of flags from both sides of the border before sunset. Soldiers in crisp uniforms put up an elaborate show fit for a Monty Python episode.

Take A Train To The Himalayas. The last stop at the railway station along the plains is Amritsar. Use the city as a portal to Himachal Pradesh and the rest of the Himalayas. 

Our guides are fact-checked and updated regularly. Read more here.

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