Food ‘moments’ and why I can never leave India

A few months ago, Dean and I spent some lovely times in Old Delhi introducing American food writer Joe Ray to the wonders of Delhi street food.  Joe was a charming companion and enthusiastic devourer of  everything we put his way.

We worked our way through chaat, jalebis, japani samose, fruit sandwiches and a vegetarian thali at Adarsh Bhojanalaya.  But it was while we were polishing off korma at Ashok and Ashok in Sadar Bazaar that Joe confessed  he was ‘having a moment’. Dean, too, looked distinctly emotional as he savoured the melting meat curry. We all agreed it was one of the finest meals we’d eaten for some time.

Joe’s  lovely article  about his time in Old Delhi appeared in the Boston Globe yesterday and while I was reading it I started thinking about  the moment when my eating life was transformed by Indian street food.

It was a couple of years ago, on the second morning of a trip to Amritsar with the Eating Out in Delhi group. This picture was taken as I was about to taste my first chhole kulcha; it records the precise moment I was bitten by the street food bug.

It was a chilly February morning and we had arrived at a tatty, nondescript dhaba, the All India Famous Kulcha,  in Maqbool Road.  We were cold and famished and distressed to see dozens of people already ahead of us in the line  for breakfast.

As we waited we had plenty of time to watch crispy kulche being lovingly shaped and baked in the tandoor and bowls of steaming chick peas making their way to the lucky diners already seated at the few plastic tables.

As you can see from the expressions on Supratim, Hemanshu and Ashwan’s faces, by the time our food arrived, the anticipation had reached devotional levels.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that the first mouthful of Amritsari chhole kulcha is the reason I will probably never be able to leave India.   The chick peas were wonderful; soft, savoury, spicy – just right.  But  it was the kulcha  (parantha-sized crispy bread, dripping with salty Amul butter) that was the revelation:  perfectly crisp, flaky, buttery layers worthy of a French pastry chef.  And the two together? Well, let’s just say I can’t envisage living anywhere that would take me out of striking distance of Maqbool Road.

We lost count of the plates we devoured as the winter sun warmed our backs. I’ve had similar experiences since (some of them later that day in Amritsar) but you know what they say about your first time.

When we really couldn’t eat another crumb, we wandered round to the business end of things to chat to the owner Kawaljit Singh, whose family has been dishing up ‘All-Famous’ kulche for over 45 years.

kawaljit singh

He spent about two hours explaining the family’s history and the detailed preparation of the Chhole Kulche. ‘Baba’,  the man who has been making the bread dough  for the past 30 years showed us the way ghee is  repeatedly layered into the kulcha dough to give the exquisite flaky finish.  I’m fairly certain he didn’t train at Lenotre but I’m sure he  could have taught the famous French patissier a thing or two.

kulche in the tandoor

Jaginder SIngh master kulcha maker at work

the millefeuille layers in the kulcha dough

This was the moment a whole new world of food opened up to me.  A world where unpromising-looking roadside shacks produce world-class food; a world where generations of a family slave over their one prized recipe – sometimes their only possession as they fled at Partition; a world where the expertise handed down through the years is apparent in every mouthful.

Just flicking back through my journal of the Amritsar trip makes me feel emotional –   notes on a trip that changed the way I think about food, the day I discovered food I would cross continents for.  Maybe not for a while though  –  I’m not going ‘home’ anytime soon.

All India Famous Kulche, Maqbool Road, Amritsar


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29 thoughts on “Food ‘moments’ and why I can never leave India

  1. Beautiful post. I had the pleasure of spending a day in Old Delhi last week sampling street food with an Indian celebrity ‘chef’ and food writer, it really opened up worlds to have a guide. I’ve written about it but not at length so I don’t give too much of the story away!

  2. Inshallah…I am sure you would never leave India !!! and I would get many more opportunities to eat along with you and beat you into it with my appetite !!!

    And yes the Amritsari Kulchas are divine indeed…I like the Kulwantian more (the one near The Golden Temple)

    Cheers…
    Che

  3. Hi! I am from Amritsar and I grew up eating these kulchas.

    So I totally understand how you could be hooked.

    Come back to my city and I’d show you some more hidden treasures 🙂

  4. So happy you are not going “home” anytime soon. I would miss your wonderful blog. Never fails that every time you write about your street food adventures my mouth waters. I would sign up at a heartbeat if you should desire to host a chandi chowk field trip on food here in Delhi!

  5. Kavey, notyet100, Sarah, Desiderata, Marina, Sangeeta, Maybelles Mom, Kiran, Shayma, Zeevie, Preeoccupied – thank you so much for your lovely comments
    Nishant – perhaps we need another trip to Amritsar to double check! x
    Vintagemacaroon – Come on over!
    Simran – you’re on! 48 hours of non-stop eating in Amritsar was nowhere near enough – see you soon I hope
    Elephantprints – thanks – I’m very happy to host ‘field trips’ – always looking for an excuse to go to Old Delhi

  6. Hey Pam…… I believe I am born to eat and drink
    I dnt know how many places/restaurants u have visited in Amritsar
    bt Amritsar has one unique special super duper shop in the world for every North Indian dish….. be it food (veg or non-veg), sweet dishes
    Kesar da dhaba, kulche (u have posted), phirni, jalebi, gulab jamun, keema nan, butter chicken, amritsari fish, marwari ki thali, matka kulfi, bheja fry, nutri kulcha
    believe me its just too awesome
    I would definitely like u (which includes ur group) 2 tk 2 all the eateries in Amritsar…… jst in case u can mk ur way 2 amritsar once more during winters

  7. Arun – we only had 48hrs in Amritsar – although most of that was spent eating – but we did manage to visit quite a few places. Highlights were Kesar, Surjit, Giani ki Lassi, Balbir SIngh on Majitha Road. I’m really hoping to come back soon – will definitely take you up on your offer. Thanks Pamela

  8. Thank you Pamela from the soul. I’m from Amritsar… spent many summers growing up there and eating our way through but Kulche chole and other stuff. We live to eat there. My mouth waters even now. Just got back from eating Choole puri at Haridwar on a nostalgia trip for my husband. Gorgeous but Amritsar any day for the channas and kulchas.

  9. Hi Pam, you are indeed lucky to be where you are and what you do. I made the journey the other way and miss all the flavours from back home. I read the post and it brought tears to my eyes, thinking of those old times. Thankyou for taking me back there.
    What prompted me to write was to say, if you have been given the full recipe, why not share it with us, especially ones who have had the pleasure but can’t get there anymore. Much as I have tried, I have failed to replicate that absolute simplicity and perhaps end up over-garnishing and over spicing. I, for one, would be utterly grateful if you could kindly have a go at reproducing the recipe. I look forward to the revelation.

  10. Rahat – thank you for your lovely comment, I really appreciate it. I do count my blessings daily – I know just how lucky I am to be here in India living the life I live! As for the kulche recipe, I will definitely try and post it. It’s funny, I love when these guys give me their recipes but I’m always a bit hesitant to try them at home as I know they’ll be a pale imitation! I promise to try soon, though. All the best, Pamela

  11. hey dude nice material man.
    i am working on a research on street food of amritsar your data has helped me out in many ways.
    i would love to take your interview for my research
    i would love too talk toyou one

  12. Pam, brilliant article…i would genuinely want you take a look at this http://letsspot.com.

    I am pretty sure you would find it very useful. This is a dish based search portal where all famous and recommended food dishes have been consolidated at a place.

  13. Dear Pamela,

    Recently visited Amritsar for the first time for two days. I regret could not visit all the places but some of them. Being a die hard Dilli wallah (born, brought-up and lived many years in old Delhi), I could not find non veg food in Amritsar extra ordinarily tempting. But rest were just outstanding specially the dal at Bhranwa Da Dhaba.

    What is your take on Golden Temple and Jallian wallah Bagh as i strongly believe that heritage of a city is intervened with food, history, religiosity and other cultural roots.

  14. Recently I visited Amritsar. Amritsar called Guru Nagri, is famous for its food especially Lassi and allo wale kulcha. All the Lassi shops in Amritsar are famous for its Perra ki Lassi which has now become extinct. There, I visited to a shop i.e. Gian Chand Lassi wale, famous Lassi wale in Opp Regent Cinema, Katra Sher Singh, Amritsar. The Gian Chand Lassi wale focuses on family culture to create an ambience that provides a wholesome family environment, where young and old meet and mingle. Drinking out Lassi and enjoying as a group has always been of great appeal to the younger generation. It was tasted divine, nourishing and cold, almost what I would drink had there been a beach in Punjab. Okay sorry bad joke. It was lovely! Don’t miss it, it’s really delicious, service is decent and informed and most importantly, it comes very close to tasting like tasting the divine.

  15. I am indian. Never gone to delhi. Never had a kulcha (I think) in my life…at least not in delhi. You are damn lucky!

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