Kids Corner

Cuisine

Punjab: Where People Live to Eat

by ROSALIA SCALIA

 

 

 

On a recent trip to Punjab, it baffles me that Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, fails to consider India as a place to eat. (Or love, but that’s a different story.)

As an Italian-American inculcated with the notion that life is just one long gastric event interrupted by other stuff, it seems Gilbert misses the culinary boat. Why not pray first, then eat?  Or visa versa?

Although I visit only a handful of cities in Punjab, I definitely eat my way through them and find myself wishing I could eat my way through the entire subcontinent.

And why not? 

Considering the sub-continent's long-held position as the land of spices and its role in the Greco-Roman spice trade, Indian spices - particularly black pepper - have played a major role in influencing cuisines of a multiple of nations, including those in Europe. Where would France’s boeuf au poivre be sans the poivre? Where would Italy’s Fra Diovolo (hot like the devil) dishes be without its use of pepper and bold spices?

Like Italian cuisine, the sub-continent's cuisine is regional.

And like Italians, for Punjabis, food equals love, love in the preparation and serving of it, in the delight of nourishing family and friends with it. Perhaps Gregory David Roberts says it best in his novel Shantaram when his character Didier, a Frenchman who’s lived in India for a long time, says of both Italians and Indians, “For them, food is music inside the body.”

Although my trip to Punjab proves too short, the food I encounter in every city plays its vibrant rhythmic music inside me, regardless of dining at a restaurant or at someone’s home.

For instance, within the first five minutes as a guest in the Shergill home in Chandigarh, host Dr. Gagandeep Singh presents me with perhaps the best cup of cappuccino I ever had - homemade, minus a fancy steam machine and made like my grandmother’s, by steaming the milk in a pot atop a stove.

Preferring tea - -I’m not a habitual coffee drinker - -this exquisite cup of cappuccino with its frothy top rivals any I’ve had in the past. The perfection of Gagandeep's cappuccino prompts me to ask him to teach me how to make chai masla. In his kitchen, he demonstrates the recipe, step by step, and I can tell that when he’s in the kitchen making anything, he’s a man in love, and anything he touches will be delicious.

He lovingly handles the ingredients and the cooking tools, is precise with the measurements, and allows me to break open the cardamom seed pods. I regret not taking notes because the only thing I remember is breaking open the cardamom seed pods and watching them drop into the milky liquid in the pot.

Gagandeep's focus in the kitchen reminds me of my brothers and son who inherit the cooking gene, which almost comically, has skipped both my sister and me. My sister who strives at improving her culinary skills gets by, even as she tries to sneak pizza covered with bottled sauce past my mother, who sniffs it out without having to taste it, whereas in my family, in the kitchen, I’m comic relief.

The vibrant Punjab cuisine performs its spicy rhythmic arpegios in India’s restaurants, too. Although my trip keeps me in the north - mostly in Punjab - my well-traveled foodie friend and Indian native Rachita Bansal and her husband Sudhanshu Gaurav introduce me to a restaurant called The Spice Route, located in the famous and old Sikh-owned Imperial Hotel in New Delhi.

Rachita, who could probably star on her own cooking show, wants me to experience the diversity of Indian cuisines, explaining that seafood dishes are more prevalent in the south than in the north.  One of the top 10 restaurants in the world, The Spice Route menu reflects the journey of spices from Kerala’s Malabar Coast through Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia to Thailand and Vietnam and includes entrees such as Kerala shrimp stir-fried with coconut, curry and black tamarind.

They also introduce me to fine dining restaurants located in Delhi’s Trident hotels as well as other more casual places in and around Gurgaon, specifically Punjabi Grill in the Ambience Mall that offers only Punjabi dishes such as chicken butter masala and Amritsari macchi (fish), among others.

Because of its status as an urban center and the capital region, Delhi restaurants may be expected to offer a certain standard, but even in the less fancy restaurants geared to locals in Amritsar, Jaipur, Chandigarh, Patialla, and Gurgaon, I never encounter a less than stellar meal and savor the tastiest yellow dal, basmati, and paranthas in a casual, low-key tablecloth free eatery in a small shopping strip in Chandigarh in Punjab.

This unassuming spot stands across a small lane from a gelato store where we cap the yellow dal dinner with a cup of tiramisu gelato. In Jaipur, my friend Dr. Taranjit Singh introduces me to a saffron-pistachio ice cream known as Kesar Pista Kulfi that tastes so light, airy and flavorful, I want another one the next day, throwing calorie-counting care to the wind.

For me, the catered trains offer the most astonishing meals and snacks, and that’s when it feels as if I’m truly eating my way through the country.

A subsidiary of the Indian Railways, a company known as Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) handles both on-line ticketing and catering services on the catered trains. Meals correspond with the time of day - e.g., breakfast at  breakfast time, lunch at lunch time, and dinner at dinner time - and passengers are asked if they are vegetarians, or not. Hardworking railway employees distribute snacks and meals on trays, collecting the dishes in an orderly and efficient manner after they’re consumed.

The meals consist of decent-sized portions of basmati rice, dal or lentils, or chick peas (channa masala), hot tea, yogurt,  and sometimes even a small packaged slice of cake or a cookie or ice cream for dessert, for vegetarian passengers.

Non-vegetarian passengers receive the same, except the tins include chicken. Depending on the duration of the ride, snacks and hot tea are served a few hours prior to the meals, which are far better than any Indian restaurant entrees I eat at home. The hot tea is hot water in thermoses big enough for two cups. What’s even more astonishing is that ticket for riding the catered train is far less than the cost of a three-hour bus ride from Baltimore to New York City and far more pleasant.

In Punjab, eating, praying and loving take on heightened meaning in a land where numerous cuisines representing a diversity of cultures and numerous worship places subscribing to a variety of beliefs co-exist sometimes in clusters - like bunched grapes - giving rise to a unique music, melodious enough to nourish both body and soul.

 

 

 

December 22, 2011 

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), December 22, 2011, 12:21 PM.

Rosalia, you lucky lady! So you've been to the Sikh-owned Imperial Hotel in New Delhi. It has been voted the 4th best designed hotel on Earth ... and is my second favourite for tea! ... after the Ffort Radisson in Bengal (best cardamom tea on earth)! Food is always the greatest way for humans to get together and to share food is a religion in itself.

2: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), December 22, 2011, 9:40 PM.

'Baba hor khaanaa khusee khu-aar, jit khaadhai tan peerhee-ai mahen mai chaleh vikaar ...' [GGS16.14] - 'Believing all tastes are sweet. Hearing the salty flavours are tasty; chanting with one's mouth, the spicy flavours are savoured. All these spices have been made from the sound-current of the Naam. The thirty-six flavours of ambrosial nectar are in the love of the one Lord; they are tasted only by one who is blessed by His glance of grace, O Baba, the pleasures of other foods are false. Eating them, the body is ruined, and wickedness and corruption enter into the mind."

3: Christine Kaur (Houston, Texas, U.S.A.), December 23, 2011, 10:04 AM.

Ohmygosh, I completely agree. I'm reading the book `Eat Pray Love` right now and I'm so sad that Elizabeth never ventured out to Punjab for eating, praying, or loving! She truly did miss out, but I'm very happy to read your article and to see that there are still many people of different backgrounds and cultures who appreciate Punjab's lovin! :)

4: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), December 23, 2011, 1:25 PM.

Instead of all the wasted langar in gurdwaras, we need an additional hall in each gurdwara for the local 'hungry and needy'. Food is something we all need to survive regardless of sectarianism!

5: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), December 23, 2011, 2:13 PM.

In a lighter vein: A doctor was addressing a large audience at Oxford ... "The material we put into our stomachs should have killed most of us sitting here, years ago. Red meat is full of steroids and dye. Soft drinks corrode your stomach lining. Chinese food is loaded with MSG. High transfat diets can be disastrous and none of us realizes the long-term harm caused by the germs in our drinking water. But, there is one thing that is the most dangerous of all and most of us have eaten, or will, eat it. Can anyone here tell me what food it is that causes the most grief and suffering for years after eating it?" After several seconds of quiet, a 70-year-old man in the front row raised his hand, and softly said, "Wedding Cake!"

6: Jan Kaur (Santa Cruz, California, U.S.A.), December 23, 2011, 2:45 PM.

A separate langar for the poor, Baldev Singh ji! I don`t think you`ve thought this one out. The very idea behind the langar was to have ONE langar for ALL people, seated without segregation. You can`t create a new problem or destroy the very raison d`etre, while trying to solve another problem!

7: Rosalia (Baltimore, Maryland. U.S.A.), December 25, 2011, 10:25 AM.

Many thanks for reading! Loved the joke about the wedding cake! Baldev - if I ever get to Bengal, I hope to remember Ft. Raddison for tea! Totally loved the food in India - and hope to return to sample the regional cuisines of even more areas of the sub-continent!

8: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), December 26, 2011, 2:24 AM.

If you do go to Bengal, Rosalia, then 70 miles from Calcutta is a town called Burdhwan where Guru Nanak visited in 1510 and there is an extraordinary little gurdwara dedicated to this visit. The diwan Hall upstairs is beautiful and the 'granthi' (attendant) is an extraordinary non-Punjabi gentleman.

9: Veronica Sidhu (Scotch Plains, New Jersey, U.S.A.), January 14, 2012, 6:20 AM.

Loved your article, Rosalia (my great-grandmother's name too). Punjabi food is so diverse and so delicious; it ranks right up there with the great cuisines of the world. In my cookbook, "Menus and Memories from Punjab", I mention the Imperial Hotel as my favorite in the world. We must be on the same page!

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