Maska Maarke with Kunal Vijayakar: Get the asli Punjab experience

Forget tandoori chicken and sarson da saag. The true dhaba meal is full of surprises — many are vegetarian; others offer kheema, offal, and mutton cooked in ghee.
Quail, mutton, pakodewali kadhi, paneer bhurji, choliyewale chawal and missi roti made up the delicious thali at a recent pop-up in Mumbai by Punjabi home chef Sherry Malhotra and Bittu Meat Wala of Amritsar.
Quail, mutton, pakodewali kadhi, paneer bhurji, choliyewale chawal and missi roti made up the delicious thali at a recent pop-up in Mumbai by Punjabi home chef Sherry Malhotra and Bittu Meat Wala of Amritsar.
Updated on Jan 25, 2019 10:22 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByKunal Vijayakar

It was my first time driving anywhere near the Punjab, and though I was only heading from Delhi to Chandigarh, and actually still in Haryana, I was most exuberant about finding a roadside Punjabi dhaba and ravaging some hot parathas with some mutton, chicken, daal and lassi. After having been on the road for hours with my neck stretched out of the car window, Sonipat, Panipat and Kurukshetra flying past me, all I could see were pure Vaishno dhabas, with not a single non-vegetarian rest stop in sight.

That’s when I realised that everything we think we know about Punjabi food, outside of the Punjab, is probably untrue. I’ve always pictured the Punjabi as a lovable, tandoori-chomping, Patiala peg-swigging, meat-eating happy uncle, called Ponty, Puppy or Lovely. But for one thing, most Punjabis, as with their dhabas on the highway, are Vaishno and vegetarian. A vegetarian dhaba can be spotted easily. The highway front displays huge steel or aluminum vessels lined up in a row. The food is served in thalis — typically spicy, wholesome Daal Makhani, Mutter Paneer, Rajma Chawal, Bharwan Karela, Subz Korma, all floating in the most welcoming amount of oil; with Tandoori Rotis and Aloo Parathas. The rajma will be buttery and sharp, the paneer fresh and soft, the roti hot and crisp with dollops of white butter, and the lassi thick and sweet.

But I don’t give up that easily. As my car reached Ambala (still in Haryana), I went in search of the iconic Puran Singh ka Dhaba, where I was promised meat. The only problem is that the road that leads from the highway to Ambala Cantontment has a Puran Singh ka Dhaba every 20 yards. There is a Puran Singh Da Dhaba, Puran Singh ka Original Dhaba, Puran Singh ka Vishal Mashoor Dhaba, Puran Singh da Ambalawale Dhaba and it goes on and on.

The real, original Puran Singh’s dhaba, which was until a few years ago run possessively by his old wife, is in a lane off the highway. Here I got my fill of meat. And when I say meat I mean mutton, because meat is what they call mutton, chicken or fish in Punjab. Mrs Puran Singh, with a face as craggy as the dusty land, with a white beard that would make a hirsute man coy, sat over hot cauldrons simmering on a wood fire, stirring in spices and meat.

Mutton in a flaming oily gravy cooked in spices postulated by her late husband. In another tub was a kheema distinctly green in colour, packed with whole green chillies. In a smaller pot, chicken liver and gizzards cooked in a dry black masala. That was it for the menu. Accompaniments included coarsely chopped onion, wedges of lime and a hot, hot tandoori rotis. I sat under the tin roof, sweat coming out of every pore, gourmandising.

But that’s only one small aspect of Punjabi food. Like most, I too have been to Amritsar and had the Amritasri fish tikka at Makhan Fish and Chicken Corner, hot makki di roti and sarson da saag at Bharawan da Dhaba, mutton chaap at Adarsh Meat Shop, All India Famous Amritsari Kulcha at Chungi Crossing, kheema naans at Pal Da Dhaba. 

I’ve also travelled across fields of sunflower into farmers’ homes, and even enjoyed a community Sanjha Chulla. But the soul of Punjabi cooking lies in the hearth of the langar. The free meals originally laid out at gurudwaras for the poor and destitute, are now served around the world to whoever walks through their doors. The cooking of the food is community service. The meals are simple — a mah ki dal, some pulses and a vegetable, served with hot chapatis, and one sweet.

The best langar I’ve had is at the Golden Temple, tasty and austere. Roti, rice, dal, one vegetable dish, and kheer. And the Karah Parshad, an atta halwa so rich that your hands are full of ghee long after it is gone. All cooked simply, with all the usual ingredients except one: Ego.

This week, I was at a tribute to Asli Punjabi Khana that goes beyond rajma chawal and mah ki dal, at a pop-up by Punjabi home chef Sherry Malhotra and the iconic Bittu Meat Wala of Amritsar, at Mustard in Worli.

I cannot resist offal, so we started with Pashtun-style Pota Dana, also known as Kabuli Kaleji — kid liver wrapped in fat and skewered over charcoal in a clay oven. There’s something about the texture of liver, that gently taut skin and creamy meat, that if marinated in the right masalas, is otherworldly. Next came Meat di Tikki, soft mutton mince and almonds bound together, flattened and pan fried, complemented with sakarkand or sweet potato chaat.

Then Kulche Chole, like off the streets of Amritsar, the golden kulchas filled with a buttery potato-onion mix. Mutton Barra, Bittu Meat Wala’s iconic kabab. Soft juicy pieces of mutton, mellowed in a marinade of spices and then fired in charcoal. Straight out of the wild, meat-eating stories of Peshawar and Pashtun warriors.

Next, the thali with samplings of the mains — Bater Makhanwala, gamey quail meat in a rich gravy, served with a Sukki Dal and Mukkewala Pyaaz (onion smashed with the fist); Tariwala Meat, the first onion-tomato gravy of the evening, the mutton cooked in ghee and strongly spiced; Pakodewali Kadhi, also doused in ghee; Paneer Bhurji; Choliyewale Chawal garnished with fried paneer cubes, and Mah ki Dal, all served with Missi Roti and generous helpings of white butter.

That was an asli Punjabi meal, but I was missing something. Damn, I forgot all about the Patiala Peg!

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