Any visitor to the Holy City will tell you that the moment you hit the ground, you are running, like a spring chicken out to sample the diverse cuisines of the city. One cannot fault the gluttony of the tourist; it is the notoriety of this town and its succulent aromas that sets the mood way before the journey up North begins. Friends and relatives start sending you recommendations. It’s as if heavens will fall if you do not succumb to the temptations of the palate. And then when you do walk the streets, the fragrances hit you like a gastronomic tsunami, kicking up your metabolism like never before. The more you hog, the more you want. Even the diehard food celibate gets bowled over as the smells start a salivatory deluge in the mouth and a constant rumble in the belly. You are done for.
In fact, despite all the recommendations the visitor has received, and the lists made on mobile phones, soon enough the sniffs of gourmet take over. Dhaba after dhaba kill your resolve for being sensible. What can you do when the brass cauldrons start churning with black lentils at four in the morning, where tandoori paranthas to palak paneers and pakora kadis are cooking ceaselessly? Not to miss the sarson ka saag and makki ki roti, with rich dollops of desi ghee. Even a normal walk in the park entails catching the flavors in the breeze, a potent combo of pots on the boil in the kitchens of adjoining households, setting the senses afire.
But the fragrances are more than just mundane curry. Just the other day I happened to visit Majith Mandi, once the leading dry fruit and spice market of the peninsula. The pungence of seasonings, and that of exotic herbs, cast a literal spell upon the senses. It reminded you of the seductive term, Mistress of Spices. Such is the bewildering assault on the olfactory assemblage of the body. Just as the mind registers the strong smell of dried ginger, you get a hit of heeng, the magical Asafoetida or Devils Dung to some, a remedy of flatulence and more, and thus finds its obvious way to Ambarsari cuisine. Then flies across the redolence of cloves mixed with a hint of pushkarmul, from the ayurvedic armory. Heady with exotic sensations up my nose, unable to curb the desires of the palate, I succumbed to a treat of choley bhaturey like a moth to a flame. My chauffeur was aghast. He could not imagine what the mandi had done to the staid old sardar of the salad and fruit variety.
It is these appetizing odours that define the habits of the Ambarsari. Most traders of the city do not carry lunch (they have a parantha breakfast at a leisurely eleven anyways). They however declare a lauda-wela, an afternoon repast, the moment they sniff the shallow fried potato marvel passing by. An alu-tikkiwala or some such hawker is on his rounds with his griddle on four wheels. The juices flow aplenty and the product thus sold to a hypnotised bazaar full.
The ladies left behind at home in the walled city also respond to the hawkers’ calls or the sniffs thereto by lowering baskets onto the street from many floors above. Steaming hot samosas swing through the air right to the third floor within the safe confines of a cane basket, the aromas melting resolves floor upon floor as they work their way to the top. The hawker is pleased as more heads pop out of windows and more empty vessels on strings float downwards signifying hunger pangs above.
The lure of spiritual tranquility and solace takes you sooner than later to the Golden Temple. The moment you dip your hand for amrit, the divine nectar, at Dukh Bhanjani Sahib, a whiff of the langar wafts across, glorious odours of lentils and vegetables cooking in humungous cauldrons for the constant hordes that flow in. The magical savories conjured in the community kitchens usher you to witness and taste this wondrous factory of goodwill. As if in a trance you swallow the fare of the day, simple and delicious as can be. The fact that you are serviced with such passion, course upon course, till you stall, is enough to call upon you to come back again, and again.
With a full stomach and a taste that lingers, you walk back into the circumambulatory and boom, the olfactive of karah pressad breezes through the air. You are a goner once again. And this is a bouquet for the senses like none other, a medley of pure desi ghee, burnished wheat flour and sugars coming together in complete harmony with tons of love and prayer. Something like a Holy Communion, yet way more wholesome. You have no option but to partake a heart full of it, Chakko ji dil khol ke.
Just as you step out, there is a religious procession on the move. With folded hands, you revel in the religious fervour, while your mind joins into the singing of the hymn of the moment, nudged equally by the festive fragrance of many a marigold. A fine spray of rosewater is being sprinkled across the sangat, the faithful, recognizing their presence and sanctifying the air with a perfume to remember. Almost feels as if a few of your sins have been washed away as you are ready for dipping into mortal pleasures once again.
Take a right and down the lane, you pass by the mandir and the fragrance of pure motia (jasmine) and rajnigandha (tuberoses) tugs at your thoughts. Take a left and you hit Bazar Mai Sewan with its bounty of pappad-wadian, the pungent delights to liven up the broths back home. Head on straight and the finer fragrances of fresh teas, the lissome greens for kahvaa or the robust black blends catch you in the nose. Further still, down Katra Ahluwalia, the pakoras are drowning in the boiling whirlpools, emerging only for air and to show you their browning textures and give you a flavorsome punch of the potent mush inside. As if in tandem the chap next door has these succulent fried breads, bhaturas and competing puris, bobbing up and down in their oils, urging a gorging with tangy chickpeas, the laungi potato-curry and tamarind chutney to match. Your mind is in a tailspin. No hallucinations these, just dreams coming true all at once.
It’s not just the tourist but the citizen as well who succumbs. My sis was soon to visit from her home down South. As I drove from a store after picking up a warm cap to face the winter chill, the thoughts were on what all she would like to eat during her trip. This is how the Ambarsari is wired. Food is the end-all, the ultimate hospitality, the generous show of affection, the magnanimity, and the pride. As my mind drifted from the vegetarian fares to the curried meats, from malai kababs to tandoori chicken, I got this sudden urge for spice and sour. It was the golgappa moment for me. One which got me slurping while I drove home. Before I knew it, I had crossed my house and was heading for the closest chaatwala. In just a couple of minutes, just by myself, I had already placed the order for a plateful of this paani-puri. The server brought me a tray full of deconstructed DIY pleasurable and lip-smacking condiments to match, the tangy green and burgundy sauces. Such is the fatalistic call of gastronomy.
Once she is here it is a virtual free for all. Everything gets her going, the call of the moongi dal ke laddoowala, the baked lentil morsel, served with pickled black carrots, the super whiffs of fresh bread baking in mud-caked ovens, the Amritsari kulcha. Of course, whiff the real killer is the chungi, the old octroi post crossing, where you get a barrage of smells in one go, an odorous cocktail of sorts, of mutton chops on charcoal, the fish Ambarsari in the wok and the tikkas cooking away full steam on chargrills. Add to that the sounds of the steel spatulas striking repeatedly the flat griddles in this array of shacks. The flirtation of iron striking iron repeatedly, purposefully. Enough to wreck a sensible diet to a pulp. Bubbling still are the incredulous curries, melting pots of sensory temptation. These sumptuous pungent rogues are combined with the “stinky” kulchas, high yeast bread, available nowhere else in the world.
This is the kingdom of gluttony, the empire of gastronomy. So do your slimming at home and come here hungry lest you suffer the consequences of a digestive system under duress. Be prepared so you smile willingly at your warm host when he offers you more… Thorah hor lavo ji… light!