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The bean that rules Amritsar

Chhole' with 'kulche'? Or 'bhature'? With 'tadka' or without? Lounge deconstructs the Punjabi staple

Masala is key to a great ‘chhole’ dish. Photo: AFP
Masala is key to a great ‘chhole’ dish. Photo: AFP

What feijoada is to Portugal and hummus is to Israel, chana is to Punjab. While Amritsar is unquestionably one of India’s most alluring food destinations, offering experiences from fresh batter-fried singhara to ghee-soaked kadha prasad, I made chickpeas my focus on a recent visit.

For Amritsaris, a bowl of chhole (or chana) is the taste of home—deep, comforting, primal. They can’t get enough of its irresistibly robust and nutty flavour or texture, which can run from crunchy to creamy. As I discovered, chana is more of a genre than a single dish in this city of the Golden Temple. From spicy snacks to tangy sides to hearty mains, the legume shows up everywhere. There’s a chana dish to appease the gods, another to cure the sniffles, a third to serve as a party snack and a fourth to eat as a gluten-free salad. Most dhabas, or roadside eateries, offer a long list of options: Amritsari chhole, chana masala, palak chana, aloo chhole, chawal chhole.

The cardinal rule, I learnt, while eating with Amritsaris, at home and in restaurants, is the church-and-state separation between the chana you eat with bhaturas and those with kulchas. Plain or saade chane are eaten with kulchas. The chickpeas are simply boiled and tossed with masalas, without any ghee or oil. Bhaturas, luchis, puris and samosas, on the other hand, are eaten with tadkewale chane: Boiled chickpeas are tempered with tomatoes, onions and garlic and spiked with masala. The logic is simple: Fried bhaturas work better with tadkewale chane, while kulchas, which are baked, pair well with the saade chane. Fried with fried. Baked with non-greasy. Makes sense.

As with everything integral to local culture, Amritsaris have strong opinions on their chhole. For instance, my friend Gayatri Peshawaria, a former food and wine journalist who owns a gourmet catering service in Amritsar, swears by Bahadur’s, a hole-in-the-wall outlet famous for its stuffed kulchas. As I tuck into my meal, I can think of nothing but the warm spice of the chana and the way they play against the crisp-yet-moist kulchas.

Apart from the type of kabuli chana—the two main varieties are called “double" and “triple", based on their size—the key to an exceptional dish of chana, explains dhaba-owner Bahadur Lal, lies in the masala blend. His mix includes Catch garam masala, coriander powder, red chilli powder, cumin powder and carom seeds, among other spices. “I get the spices from the shop and mix them myself. Kasuri methi is a must," he tells me.

‘Chhole kulche’ is ubiquitous in the older parts of Amritsar. Photo: iStockphoto

Neerja Khanna, an erstwhile caterer I meet in Amritsar, agrees that the chana god is in the detail. Her go-to store is a spice shop called BDH. “They blend and package their own chana masala powder. It’s different from the usual stuff," she says. Others I spoke to were partial to DPS masala, retailed by the renowned Dharam Pal Chhole Wale at Namak Mandi.

At Kanha Sweets on Lawrence Road, famed for its puri chana served with a tangy aloo launji (a sweet and sour potato relish), the puris are larger than usual, and crisp, with a thin layer of masala stuffing. As elsewhere in Amritsar, the chana here is mild, not too spicy.

But what stands out is the matthi chana at Basant Avenue: Hand-crumbled matthi (flaky flour biscuit flecked with cumin seeds) topped with tadkewale palak chane, finished off with mint chutney. The final touch is a sprinkling of raw amla (Indian gooseberry). The result is crusty yet mushy, tangy yet herb-y, a genius marriage of textures and flavours.

At the Vaishno Bhojan Bhandar, I finally get to try bowale kulche, a novelty I had first read about in Vikas Khanna’s book Amritsar: Flavours Of The Golden City. The chef, who grew up in Amritsar, recalls visiting his father’s shop on Basant Avenue just so he could drop in next door for the “stinky" kulchas: The distinctive smell is rooted in the double fermentation of the dough, which uses a special yeast called khameer.

The bowale kulchas are dropped into a large pot of chana for a few minutes and then served doused with the chana. Again, it’s the spice mixture that makes the dish sing. Surinder Sharma, who runs the dhaba, identifies a few: black pepper, rose petals, nutmeg, coriander powder, bay leaf, dried fenugreek leaves and red chilli powder. The trick, he tells me, is to slow-cook the chana for 6 hours on a wood fire. “We start at 5am and keep making batches through the day," he says.

Home cooks like Saroj Kapoor are just as besotted with the chana. Kapoor treats me to palak methi chana, a dish she learnt from her mother. She first fries onions, garlic and ginger together and then adds tomatoes, followed by methi and palak and, finally, the boiled chana and masalas. Next, she adds whole coriander and cumin seeds and tawa-roasted CTC tea crushed to a powder, a common enough “secret" ingredient, usually added for colour and a subtle smokiness. Large chunks of fried paneer (cottage cheese) finish the dish.

Simmered slowly and gently, the chickpeas take on a velvety, creamy consistency. We polish them off with freshly fried puris. According to Kapoor, chana with paneer is an “it" combination in Punjab. “We love our chana and we love our paneer. Give us a dish with both and we’re twice as happy," she laughs.

For a bean that’s so much a part of the cultural fabric, the kabuli chana is a fairly recent import. As food historian K.T. Achaya writes in Indian Food: A Historical Companion, while Bengal gram or kala chana is native to India, the larger kabuli chana came in “perhaps (in) the 18th century AD from the Mediterranean region by the overland route".

However, kala chana, which has a drier, slightly harder texture than the larger, creamier kabuli variety, continues to be very popular, especially as the first meal of the day. In a predominantly agricultural state, as Peshawaria points out, the bean was primarily consumed as breakfast food by field hands. A simple bowl sharpened with mustard seeds and garnished with ginger juliennes makes for a nutritious, energy-packed start to the day.

Kala chana with amchur (dried mango powder) is also served along with halwa-puri or luchi, as prasad on Ashtami, the eighth day of the Hindu festival of Navratras. Other iconic preparations include curry-style kala chana and kale chane ka shorba, a flavoursome Bengal-gram broth credited with magical healing powers.

Hara chholia, or fresh green chickpeas, which you can peel and cook quickly, add another dimension to the Punjabi obsession with the legume. They go into everything from pulao to aloo-wadi sabzi, a Punjabi staple of spiced potatoes and moong dal nuggets. My favourite is a simple plate of steamed chholia with a tempering of ginger, salt and black pepper.

While tradition continues to hold strong, the chana is not unaffected by new trends. Influenced by TV shows like MasterChef, many young home cooks are adding their own flourishes to old favourites and coming up with such innovations as chana masala hummus and chhole crostini.

On my last day in the city, Peshawaria makes her own version of her granny’s recipe, skipping the onions, glazing the chhole with white wine instead of water and adding a bit of mascarpone and fresh basil, and topping it up with cherry tomatoes. It is a wonderful dish, inventive and zesty. Yet, after a few spoons, I find myself longing for the original. My friend reads my thoughts. “It’s not your fault. No matter how much I experiment, I always come back to the old recipe. It’s hard to improve on perfection," she smiles.

I couldn’t agree more.

Photo: iStockphoto

Top 5 ‘chhole’ haunts

1. Sitaram Diwan Chand, Delhi

Started as a pushcart near DAV School by the late Sitaram in the late 1950s, this revered Paharganj eatery is regarded by many as the Capital’s best ‘chhole bhature’ outlet. Cooked with potatoes, the ‘chhole’ are spiced with a secret in-house garam masala blend and served with crunchy pickled carrots and onions.

2. Lotan Chhole Wala, Delhi

This Old Delhi gem in the heart of Chawri Bazaar sells ‘chhole’ in three different varieties—mild, medium and hot. The final touch: a big dollop
of butter.

3. Kesar da Dhaba, Amritsar

This Amritsar icon that goes back to 1916 is tricky to navigate, but the walk through the old city’s labyrinthine alleys is well worth the effort. Awash in ‘desi ghee’, the ‘chana plain’ makes a delicious accompaniment to stuffed ‘gobi’ and ‘aloo parathas’.

4. Sai Sweets, Chandigarh

Famed for its ‘samosas’ and endless array of ‘mithai’, Sai Sweets also serves up a mean plate of ‘chhole bhature’. The ‘chhole’ taste sublime when doused in the two knockout chutneys—sweet mango and spicy mint—available here. Their ‘samosa-chhole’ rocks too.

5. Sardar ji ke mashoor chhole bhature, Lucknow

A tiny eatery located in the Lalbagh area, Sardar Ji offers terrific ‘chhole bhature’ as well as ‘chhole kulche’. The thick, medium-spiced chickpea curry pairs perfectly with their potato and ‘paneer kulchas’.

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