Gourmet Traveller

A Discovery of Punjabi Cuisine in the Mustard Fields of its Heartland

Posted: January 27, 2016 at 1:08 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

A group of journalists from across the country, hosted by Punjab Grill, savour the depth and diversity of the Punjabi table beyond the stereotypical butter chicken

THE world believes butter chicken and daal makhni are the two poles of Punjabi cuisine, with chhole-bhature somewhere in the middle of this sea of butter and cream. I too laboured under this impression till a couple of chefs from Lahore, with whom I spent a delicious evening some years ago, explained to me that butter chicken and the creamy daal makhni were restaurant dishes that hardly ever made an appearance on the traditional Punjabi table.

Now, of course, it is well-known, because of the history pieced together by senior journalist Pankaj Vohra, that a dhaba-turned-restaurant owner named Mokha Singh Lamba invented butter chicken in Peshawar in the 1920s to give leftover tandoori chicken a longer shelf life, and his two namesake waiters, Kundan Lal Gujral and Kundan Lal Jaggi, brought it to Delhi after Partition, when they re-established Mokha Singh’s Moti Mahal restaurant at Daryaganj. Mokha Singh, sadly, was by then 90 years old and parted with the name of his restaurant without taking a paisa for the favour. Those were simpler days.

Memories of these conversations about ‘real’ Punjabi cuisine swirled in my head as I boarded a comfortable bus with a group of gregarious journalists from across the country on a chilly early morning in Delhi. We were setting off on a culinary tour across Punjab — a tour that turned out also to be an unforgettable cultural experience — organised by Punjab Grill, the flagship chain of restaurants of Lite Bite Foods (LBF).

Our tour leader was the ebullient Rohit Aggarwal, the company’s co-founder and director, who’s one of the happiest worker bees I have met with in the food and beverage business. And his idea of organising this cultural-culinary immersion, curated by fashion merchandiser and pickle-maker Kiran Dhillon (whose transition from the agricultural heartland of Bhatinda to Delhi, Paris and back to Delhi is a story by itself), was so much more absorbing than a standard invitation to review one of his many Punjab Grill outlets (I have lost track of the number!).

My fellow travellers included Odette Mascarenhas, award-winning writer with an encyclopedic knowledge of Goa’s heritage cuisine; Ameeta Agnihotri, another well-known writer and journalist from Chennai; Sameer Malkani, founder of the Food Bloggers Association of India; Pune’s Minoti Makim, who writes forUpper Crust magazine; Priyadarshini Nandy from Eazy Diner, Bangalore; Sankalp Vishnu from Hyderabad, a blue-blooded food writer and natural entertainer who has quite an imposing royal name, but is better known as Sankalp Thee Foodie; Raul Dias, a brilliant writer and editor from Mumbai; and the free-spirited Isha Sharma of the Indo Asian New Service (IANS). Taking care of us were Aggarwal’s three aces — Deepak Bhatia, Chef Gurpreet Singh Gehdu and Puneet Nagpal, and a phalanx of their colleagues who waited upon us and fed us uncomplainingly — and my dear old friend, PR Pandit’s Arpana Kumar Ahuja, and her young colleague, Swati Daga.

From Zhilmil Dhaba to Sohian Kothi

THE six-hour bus ride was made smoother by the wine and beer service, which started early, and the box of goodies from The Artful Baker (another LBF brand, which is being shepherded by the young and talented Sahil Mehta). We couldn’t contain our praise for the paneer pesto sandwich, the chocolate brownie with a hint of orange, and the salted caramel macaroon. Then came the stopover at Karnal’s Zhilmil dhaba, where we dug the stuffed paranthas (gobhi, aloo-pyaaz and paneer, each more flavourful than the other) rubbed with white unsalted butter, accompanied by glasses of hot milk exploding with robustness. We were all set for what turned out to be two days of gluttony and good company.

Our first stop was the 112-year-old Sohian kothi, located in a 70-acre estatein the village in Ludhiana district from which it takes its name. The sight of the kothi took me back to the days of the Raj through the misty trails of history, when district collectors, out in the country on inspections, would spend nights at such sprawling rest houses. Built by Sardar Niranjan Singh Phoolka, chief jagirdar of the Ber Estate, this showpiece of colonial mofussil architecture was originally a shikar lodge that was restored in the early 1990s, with its vast bedrooms, old porcelain and copies of English paintings on the walls, Edwardian furniture, stripped brick fireplaces, and antique four-post beds to inveigle the weary traveller into the warm embrace of nostalgia.

It was in this historical setting that we got our first taste of authentic Punjab, starting with the pink-hued taudi da doodh, which is heated in porous clay pots. Clay, we learnt, is alkaline, so it purifies milk by neutralising its pH balance. The first lesson of our visit. The wholesome pour revved us up even as the sun struggled to peep through the lingering remnants of the early morning fog.

Another earthen pot called the kunna — thick, embellished and a native of Pakistan’s Chiniot district — had been pressed into service to make an unforgettable braised and stewed mutton cooked in mustard oil with onions, chillies, ginger and garlic. And then we savoured the same flavoursome simplicity in the Hari Mirch da Kukkad, where chicken is first cooked with turmeric and coriander powders, ginger and garlic fried in white butter, and then finished off with lemon, yogurt and a green bean stew. I have never tasted anything like this.

We dug these delicacies with hara chholiye (green chickpeas) da pulao and as the conversation built up, and Sankalp got into his elements, we had laal lobiya (spiced black eyed peas), a smoky baingan da bharta, sukki daal urad wali minimally cooked with onion, ginger, green chillies and tomato, and paneer di bhurji. I asked Chef Gurpreet where he got his inspiration and he said it came from his grandmother and mother’s cooking. What we were served was exactly what we would eat at a Punjabi home, right down to the gobhi shalgam da achaar (the queen of Punjabi pickles), gajjaran da murabba (carrots have never tasted better!), and the sweet and crunchy cheeni wale paranthe.

Feasting at a Bollywood Location

EVEN BEFORE we could digest our lunch, we were back in the bus on our way to Bagrian, a village in Malerkotla tehsil, Sangrur district, with deep roots in Sikh religious history. We were going to visit the heritage house, built in 1904 for British colonial administrators, that has been featured in television serials and Bollywood productions such as Son of Sardar and Singh is Bling. The sprawling house belongs to Bhai Jujhar Singh, heir to a tradition of spiritual leadership that goes back to Bhai Rup Chand, who was blessed by the sixth Sikh Guru, Hargobind Singh (1595-1644).

The ancestors of Bhai Jujhar Singh, in fact, started the institution of the langar much before it became a part of Sikh religious practice. Bagrian should have been a part of the Malerkotla princely state, which was the only enclave in Punjab that did not see any communal violence in the blood-soaked days leading up to Partition (it is now famous for its vegetables), but because of its spiritual status, it stayed within British India. Though, as Bhai Jujhar Singh explained to me, not one important event in any of the five Sikh princely states would be considered complete without the exalted presence of his ancestors.

Bhai Jujhar Singh is a cultured, hospitable man with land and property scattered across Punjab, Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh; his wife, a Congress loyalist, is a former MLA of the area. They are grooming their younger son, Narpat, who’s ex-Bishop Cotton and Symbiosis, and is also training to be a pilot in Canada, to take over the family’s political mantle. In the evening we spent at the colonial villa that has seen Bollywood stars like Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar in action, alcohol flowed in copious quantities and the deejay kept pumping up Honey Singh after the tempo was raised by a group of local Bhangra/Gidda dancers (Kiran explained to me that men dance the Bhangra and women do the Gidda). The star of the evening however was the dinner spread.

It started with the rejuvenating kharodeyaan da shorba (a spiced soup stock made using the trotters, ribs, bones and feet of goats and chickens), which wasso much more effective than the rum grog I was swigging away in forming a protective ring inside me against the cold. Then came the Lahore delicacy, the pan-fried Charga Kukkar, followed by the delicate tandoori bataer (quail); the under-rated Punjabi jewel, keema matar (minced mutton and sweet green peas) cooked with cinnamon, cloves and cadamom; lachcha palak paneer cooked with ghee (the first dish where I saw cream being used); and the unputdownable potato curry, Malerkotle de Aloo. For dessert, we had Dhodha (the celebratory sweetmeat made with sugar and milk), Paneer Jalebi  (prepared with cottage cheese) and ghee-soaked Moong Dal Halwa (another winter speciality made with green grams). It required some serious dancing to digest this feast.

Atta Chicken in the Granary of India

THE NEXT DAY, after a breakfast where we had freshly made mattha (buttermilk) and grainy white butter with stuffed paranthas and eggs, we set out for the neighbouring farms where we got a sense of the rural economy that has given Punjab the reputation of being the “granary” of India. After driving around in Mahindra and John Deere tractors, picking potatoes, and pretending to be shooting for a Yash Chopra film in a patch of mustard, we heard a local farmer explain why his potatoes don’t have any sugar content. The strain had been developed for Lays, the potato chips produced by Pepsico, and the farmer had sold five to six tonnes of the tuber to the MNC before Makar Sankranti.

Potato is followed by wheat, then by sugarcane, and finally by mustard. Sometimes, he manages to fit in a fifth crop of maize. In neighbouring Bhatinda, wheat and cotton are the favourites. And underground water sources are not more than 12 to 60 feet deep. We were in the heart of agrarian prosperity and the teenage boys of the village, sporting mohawks and oozing good health, were advertisements of this fact as they zipped around in tractors and motorcycles. It was time to return to Sohian kothi.

After an energetic Gatka (martial arts) performance by an award-winning local group of boys aged 12 to 18, we were ready for the al fresco lunch that Chef Gurpreet and his team had laid out for us in the middle of the fields. I took deep swigs of the blemish-free air that caressed my cheeks on yet another bone-freezing day. We talk about farm to fork, but here was an instance of the fork coming to the farm.

We started our meal with Atta Chicken, the famous dish of Kotkapura, the historic town in Faridkot district that was once the country’s largest cotton market and is also well-known as the birthplace of the Dhodha. The Atta Chicken, Punjab’s answer to the Chinese Beggar’s Chicken, turned out to be a whole chicken, packed inside with a marinade of cream or yogurt, tandoori masala, salt and a red bean stew, wrapped in an atta dough and roasted in a slow-fire tandoor. When the wrapping hardens and turns black, you know you have your Atta Chicken. We did not have to go to Kotkapura’s Royal Atta Chicken, one of Punjab’s gastronomical landmarks, to savour the treat; Chef Gurpreet brought it to our table.

After we ensured nothing was left on the bones of the late lamented chicken, Chef Gurpreet presented the Punjabi winter staple — sarson da saag and makki di roti — but the rustic sarson da saag was light and watery, compared to the thicker, creamier restaurant version, which had spinach and bathua (wild spinach) to add flavour to the uni-dimensional sarson da saag. Then came the smoky maa-rajma daal, where the addition of soy beans changed the complexity of the dish and gave it body. The daal had us licking our fingers and so did the Khoya Paneer, which was a dynamite of flavours. We were in heaven, and after having the Makhane di Kheer made with fox nuts, laced with nutmeg powder and saffron, we refused to descend to terra firma. We wanted to continue to dwell in this universe of flavourful temptations.

Mesmerising Qawwali Night in the Lap of History

It wasn’t long before we were back in the bus on a journey to the Bagrian quila (fort), whose simple-looking gurudwara, which dates back to Guru Hargobind, has been running a langar for more than 300 years. The Guru, who was the first to militarise the Sikhs, was the first to enunciate the philosophy of piri-miri, that is, the confluence of spiritual (piri) and temporal (miri) powers in the gurus. He advised Rup Chand, the founder of the House of Bagrian who was originally from Jaisalmer and had been baptised by the Guru, never to deviate from the path of piri and serve the people, and nurse the wounded when wars broke out.

In deference to the Guru’s diktat, Bhai Jujhar Singh said at least 150 people continue to be served roti and daal twice a day at the langar. Contributions in kind from the villagers have kept this tradition alive without a single day’s break. His wife took us on a tour of the zenana, painted pink, with an embellished fireplace in the living room and historical knick-knacks on the walls. Then we went past ornate doors with stained glasses into the cheerily lit ‘darbar room’, which has seen Maharaja Ranjit Singh paying homage to the then head of the Bagrian family, Bhai Sahib Singh, in 1807. As we sat under an old painting of Nurjehan meeting Guru Hargobind at Gwalior Fort, where he was imprisoned in 1611-12, and apologising for the excesses committed by her husband, Emperor Jehangir, we learnt a little more about the family and the people in the fading pictures on the walls. We also saw a rare fan that runs on kerosene.

We couldn’t be in Malerkotla and not spend an evening with the famous qawwals of the area. And we were fortunate enough to have Javed Irshad Rehmat, grandson of the legendary Haji Rehmat Ali Qawwal, keep us riveted to his performance. Dinner that night consisted of circulating ‘snacks’ — melt-in-the-mouth mutton boti, methi murgh tikka, sarsonwali machchi, prawn de pakode, tandoori gobhi and pudina paneer tikka. For those who still had room in the stomach, there were some more Punjabi jewels waiting to be savoured — tave da bheja (for brain lovers), sukka kukkad, a delicious anda curry, paneer khurchan, methi malai matar, moth ki daal and gobhi matar pulao. For dessert, we had oh-so-yummy gajrela (carrot halwa) and kala jamun. The menu was a parting reminder of the depth and diversity of Punjabi cuisine.

Our immersion was coming to an end. The next morning, although some of us came back to Sohian kothi at 4 a.m., we were all up at 7:30 for breakfast, where we were woken up with freshly squeezed beetroot-carrot juice and slices of bread wrapped in cheese and masala omelette. As if two days of ODing on food weren’t enough, platefuls of dhodha and aam papad were waiting to be emptied, and jars of Kiran’s pickles, packed into neat bags, accompanied us back on our journey to Delhi.

Mid-way, we had whoppers from Burger King, as if to make us value even more the treasures of the Punjabi table. And guess what, we hadn’t been served butter chicken!