When the American coffee chain Starbucks expands its product line in India, they often give it a desi spin. In January, they collaborated with chef Sanjeev Kapoor for a limited edition menu featuring chole paneer kulcha. Their kulcha is nothing like the Amritsari version, which is crispy, tangy, and filled with a delicious potato stuffing. The Starbucks kulcha can be compared to a stuffed bread, such as Bierocks of eastern Europe or German stuffed rolls.
This brings us to the question, what is kulcha? And, to go deeper, what differentiates kulchas in Amritsar, Bihar, Lucknow, Delhi, Jammu, Kashmir, and Lahore? Broadly put, they have textural variations and are usually paired with a gravy dish or tea.
The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson defines kulchas as small Indian bread made of leavened white flour dough, pressed into rounds, deep-fried and often filled with spiced vegetables. However, this definition is not consistent when one delves into regional food. Kulchas in Kashmir and Bihar are unlike the softer ones you are familiar with. They are like biscuits or cookies. My father, who is now in his late 60s and grew up in Bihar, has been having these kulchas since he was 12, and at that time they were sold for ₹5 a kilo. These kulchas are a specialty of Patna, and during my father's childhood, there were two naanbais (bread-makers) in Patna’s Sabzibagh area selling kulcha, sheermal, and other kinds of Indian breads. These days you can get these biscuits everywhere in Patna, but its flavour has changed. My father recalls that it used to be crispier and had a caramelised surface, which is now missing. The dough of the biscuits is similar to any kulcha, loaded with ghee for a crispy and flaky texture, but they are cooked like biscuits on a very slow flame. For many Biharis, mornings usually start with kulcha and piping hot chai.
YouTube has several kulcha recipes of the Amritsari variation. In the lockdown, with restaurants closed, kulchas gripped our imagination as we tried to make them at home in pressure cookers or ovens. Chefs like Ranveer Brar and Kunal Kapoor promptly uploaded these recipes for the benefit of their viewers.
Further up north in Jammu, kalari kulcha is a famous street snack. Kalari is a local Himalayan cheese indigenous to Udhampur made of full fat cow or goat milk. Chef Ajay Siotra from Jammu says, "It is called maish krej in Kashmiri and has a mozzarella-like flavor and stretchy texture. It is an integral part of Dogri cuisine. For this kulcha, golden and crispy grilled kalari cheese is stuffed between buns with some chutney, green chilies, chopped onion, and tomatoes, and you can enjoy it for around ₹50." When I had it, the chef in me thanked the lord. Chef Siotra said that often people like the older or more mature kalari for its addictive tangy flavor.
Across the border, in the old city of Lahore, there's the popular das kulcha, paired with laung chide (besan pakode) and chole. Early morning, devotees wake up for fajr namaz (around 4 am), while a few bhatiyar (bread makers) rush towards a shop located in Chauhatta Mufti Bakar Chowk near Masjid Wazir Khan to start working on breakfast, which is served by 8 am. The shop doesn’t have a name, but it is a food institution.
The origins of das kulcha can be traced to pre-partition Punjab. It is believed that Ram Das, a cook during Maharaja Ranjit Singh regime, developed a recipe with the fermented water of chickpeas infused with fennel seeds and some secret masala to knead the dough and bake it in the oven, not in the tandoor. In restaurant terms, this water would be called flavored aquafaba and used in making vegetarian or vegan bread such as challah, croissant or even banana bread. In pre-Partition Punjab, groundwater was harsh, so perhaps that explains the use of all these ingredients to help keep the gut healthy.
Post Partition, many bakers who were skilled in making das kulchas, left Lahore and crossed the border. Now, there is just one shop operated by Zahid Butt. The process of making it is time-consuming because fermenting the dough and water requires a minimum of 12 hours. Although it's popular, the bakers say the time taken to make this bread can prove to be challenging and hinder profits even though they are the only ones specialising in das kulcha in Lahore. And strangely, although the bakers migrated from Lahore to India, we don't have das kulchas here.
It would be haram (a sin) to not talk about Amritsari kulcha, my favorite. Amritsari kulcha is traditionally stuffed with potatoes or cauliflower. It has a unique tangy flavour because of anardana, coriander seeds, and kasuri methi. It’s typically paired with pickles and curd.
The gastronomic cities of Lucknow and Delhi are known for their kulchas too. In Lucknow, the tastiest kulchas can be found at Raheem’s Nihari Kulcha near Akbari Gate run by Mohd Zubair Ahmad. Lucknowi kulchas are fluffy and kneaded with milk and ghee. In Delhi, the kulchas are thin with a stretchy texture and are accompanied by matar chole. Try Lotan ke Chole Kulche in Old Delhi for its divine flavour.
There are so many commonalities in kulchas within and outside of India, perhaps that’s why people say food acts as a unifier. It does not consider borders or religion, but as we say in Hindi, bus zuban dekhta hai, loosely translated as, it’s best left to the tongue.
Sadaf Hussain is a chef and author of the book Daastan-E-Dastarkhan. @hussainsadaf1