Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: The kulcha becomes cool

A trip to Amritsar turns into an adventure with Punjabi breads, with a highlight on the city’s undefeatable kulcha
Amritsar kulchas are light, flaky and retain a crisp texture outside, despite being coated with butter (Culinary Culture)
Amritsar kulchas are light, flaky and retain a crisp texture outside, despite being coated with butter (Culinary Culture)
Published on Sep 25, 2021 09:44 PM IST
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It was a lazy morning in Amritsar. I had just ordered a room service breakfast at the Raja Sansi Welcomhotel. The hotel is partly housed in a modern block but at its heart is the old Rajasansi haveli. When I got to Amritsar, Tavleen Singh, the distinguished columnist and author, messaged to say, “If you get a chance you should go and see the Rajasansi Haveli that belongs to my cousin and is now being run as an ITC Hotel. It is the last great Punjabi haveli on this side of the border.”

I replied that there was no need to visit the haveli. I was actually staying there.

“I am so happy that you are,” Tavleen responded. “I remember it from childhood when it was really a magical place full of rooms with high ceilings and quilts made of brocade and velvet. And huge glasses of milk and HUGE breakfasts. I hope it retains some of its personality.”

I replied that it did and decided that while I would skip the glasses of milk, the HUGE breakfast seemed like a good idea. Hence my room service order.

The breakfast, when it came, was not HUGE by Amritsar standards but it was certainly filling. The chef, Navneet Singh, had made some hot aloo parathas and served them with white butter freshly made at the hotel.

Chef Navneet Singh is known for his aloo parathas, served with freshly-made white butter
Chef Navneet Singh is known for his aloo parathas, served with freshly-made white butter

The combination of paratha and freshly-made butter is irresistible so I enjoyed the breakfast thoroughly, took a picture and posted it on Instagram. Lots of people liked the photo, but many kept asking the same question: why was I eating parathas in Amritsar? Shouldn’t I be eating a kulcha, the city’s signature bread?

I responded weakly that while I yielded to no man in my devotion to the kulcha, it was not a home-style breakfast dish in Amritsar. For a start, most Punjabis (in the cities, at least) don’t have tandoors at home. They are happier to eat kulchas at specialist restaurants and make parathas, pooris and the like at home.

But such was the clamour for kulchas that it got me thinking. Almost every time you mention Amritsar to a foodie, the conversation turns to kulchas. And while the kulchas I had in Ludhiana were terrific, it is true that you never get kulchas of the same quality as Amritsar’s in any other city.

Amritsar’s Rajasansi Haveli, the last great Punjabi haveli on this side of the border, is now being run as an ITC Hotel
Amritsar’s Rajasansi Haveli, the last great Punjabi haveli on this side of the border, is now being run as an ITC Hotel

I am now coming round to the view that kulchas are the wheat-lover’s answer to the current biryani frenzy. Consider the parallels. Both biryani and kulchas have been around for a really long time. But it is only in the last ten years or so that they have become national (well, North Indian, at any rate) obsessions. And though we have all had kulchas and biryanis from neighbourhood places all our lives, we have suddenly become picky and quality conscious about both dishes.

Take my own kulcha journey. I had always known what a kulcha was—well, up to a point anyway. I saw it as a kind of North Indian stuffed bread. When I worked in the ABP office in Calcutta my lunch would consist of a masala kulcha and seekh kababs, brought to the office from the neighbouring Amber restaurant.

I liked those kulchas and the other ones I tried at restaurants all over India, but I did not give them much thought. Then I became friends with many Punjabi foodies in Delhi (of whom the most passionate was the late Arun Jaitley) who loved kulchas so much that they would bring down kulcha wallas from Amritsar to cook for Sunday lunch parties at their homes.

It was only after he became internationally famous that chef Vineet turned his attention to kulchas
It was only after he became internationally famous that chef Vineet turned his attention to kulchas

Those kulchas bore only a slight resemblance to the kulchas I had eaten before. They were light, (oh, all right: lighter), flaky and retained a crisp texture outside despite being coated with butter.

I didn’t really understand what it was that made them so terrific till I began travelling to Amritsar. There are two secrets to a great kulcha, I discovered: a warm (rather than hot) tandoor and the eye of the chef. At most restaurants outside Amritsar they make kulchas in the same tandoor where they make naans and the temperature is too high. In Amritsar, a kulcha walla uses a special tandoor only for kulchas, does not let it get too warm and lets each kulcha cook slowly (about ten minutes). Because he pastes many kulchas on the walls of the tandoor at different times, it is impossible to time the process. So, the cook has to know, just by looking at each kulcha, when it is ready. This is a difficult skill to acquire which is why so many restaurants serve bad kulchas.

Chefs with some experience of Amritsari and Punjabi regional cooking understand kulchas better than the rest. Vineet Bhatia had a pioneering way with naans over two decades ago when he was chef at the Star of India, long before he won his Michelin star. But it was only after he became internationally famous that he turned his attention to kulchas.

At his Moscow restaurant, chef Vineet created stuffed kulchas as breads that can be eaten on their own
At his Moscow restaurant, chef Vineet created stuffed kulchas as breads that can be eaten on their own

It happened, he says, at his Moscow restaurant where he was told that guests were requesting more kinds of breads. In most Indian cuisines, the breads are a complement to the food. But Vineet began to think of breads that could be eaten on their own. He picked the kulcha rather than the naan for this purpose and started doing kulchas with unusual stuffings (in Amritsar it is usually aloo, gobi, paneer and not much else). This was not easy because often the stuffings were too dry. So, the trick was to create stuffings that were moist but which did not leak through the kulcha.

Vineet had other problems. He had just one tandoor so how was he going to control the temperature? His solution was to hold the skewer that had the kulcha near the mouth of the tandoor and not paste the kulcha on the hot wall of the oven. It took a little time but when he got it right, Vineet had created a classic which soon appeared on his (and everyone else’s) menus in London.

Manish Mehotra was inspired to create his own kulchas, he says, after visiting Amritsar. But he quickly came to the conclusion that he would not be able to keep a designated tandoor in the Indian Accent kitchen. So, he decided to design his kulchas so that they were a little like Indian pies: they became vehicles for conveying other flavours. Manish started out simple, with applewood smoked bacon (both Floyd Cardoz in New York and Vineet had paired bacon with kulchas) but bit by bit, he began to get more ambitious. Today, his kulchas are 65 per cent stuffing and only 35 per cent flour. Like Vineet’s they are designed to be eaten on their own.

Chef Manish decided to design his kulchas so they were a little like Indian pies (Rohit Chawla)
Chef Manish decided to design his kulchas so they were a little like Indian pies (Rohit Chawla)

That two great chefs should do their own thing with the kulcha is a mark of how trendy the bread has become. Others have taken the trend forward. At Singapore’s smoking hot Revolver, Saurabh Udinia (who started his career at Indian Accent) stuffs small kulchas (kuchettes) with Gruyere cheese and tops them with pulled pork.

So, even though I was berated for eating parathas rather than kulchas in Amritsar, I am pleased to see that the kulcha now has a life of its own. In some ways, it has progressed beyond biryani. Great chefs can’t do much with biryani. But kulchas just keep getting better and more interesting all the time.

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, September 26, 2021

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