Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Punjab Food Trip - Exploring Ludhiana!

“There is no sincerer love than the love for food” – George Bernard Shaw

Punjabi Food holds a distinct place everywhere and also in the memories of a small town boy like me born in 80’s. The idea of luxury food was always synonymous with Punjabi Food as Chinese dishes were yet to be introduced everywhere. The ‘Palak Paneer’ (Cottage cheese in spinach paste) remains my (as well as for many) first encounter with Paneer. Paneer epitomizes Punjab and Punjab epitomizes Paneer. It always used to be a memorable affair to go to a famous local restaurant and feast on the ‘so called’ Punjabi dishes at least once in 3 months. Eating out itself was a luxury that time. While taking every bite, I always wondered that how Punjabis manage to cook this stuff and eat on daily basis. J Super myths! I always looked up and asked, “Why didn’t you send me to this world as Punjabi?” I don’t know but God must have smiled many a times and said, “My dear child, you are a born foodie. You will be in Punjab someday for the sake of food only!”

My love for Punjabi food kept on growing. As I travelled to bigger cities like Pune and Mumbai, I was introduced to the finer versions of this exquisite cuisine. In Pune, I realized that ‘Malai Kofta’ (Fried Cream nuggets in sweet and spicy gravy) is actually composed of ‘Malai’ and not potato. J Mumbai though a den of foodies have few restaurants offering authentic Punjabi cuisine. I loved the spread at ‘Urban Tadka’ and was also disappointed by the ‘Punjab Grill’. My first encounter with authentic Punjabi food happened in the heartland, just outside Delhi on Grand Trunk Road. “Gulshan Vaishno Dhaba” at Murthal is a fab eatery and I can anyday swear by their ‘Pyaaz Paratha’. However, it was just a chance encounter but it further fanned my desire to visit Punjab for enjoying the authentic spread.

Meanwhile, the Gods nicknamed Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma of “Highway on My Plate” were on rampage in the Northern Punjab region, devouring the best of the food and letting it out loudly. It was an awe-inspiring journey through the cities viz. Patiala, Ludhiana, Phagwara, Jalandhar, Amritsar and Pathankot. How I wished while seeing the show that I should also be following the same circuit for food. The dream remained untouched till March 2013. When I was contemplating for a long trip, Anita, my better half suggested me the wonderful idea of exploring Punjab for food. And I was left wondering that why it didn’t click to me. The timing was perfect, the winter was about to over.

Finally, the day arrived, I mean the night arrived. I boarded on the ‘Golden Temple Mail’ on 17th March 2013. The night sky was smiling at me with the wonderful formation of crescent moon and two stars. All the way I was dreaming about paneer, parathas, chole kulche, naan, bhature, kaali daal, gajarela, lassi and the insane amount of white butter added in almost every dish. Finally I reached the Ludhiana junction on the morning of 19th March at 2.45 am. Quite an odd hour! But yes… A solo food trip to Punjab and why, yes, it was happening!!!

Due to arrival at odd timings and thrill due to novelty factor of my food trip, it took a while to come to the terms and I slept at 4.30 a.m. This started my day late but there was no change in the schedule. I was staying at Hotel Maharaja near Clock Tower in the Bhadaur Market Area. Since it was a solo trip, I had all the flexibility to make it as frugal as possible. I got a shared auto from the main square to Apollo Hospital and then a private bus all the way to Doraha where my first food destination was located “New Zimindara Baba Neem Wala Dhaba” As I entered the dhaba, I saw only two patrons partaking lunch. 

New Zimindara Baba Neem Wala Dhaba, Doraha
Being true to the Punjabi dhaba culture, I first decided to sit on a ‘charpai’ but changed my mind and settled on a table. The menu was quickly rendered by the waiter while I asked him to hold on and pulled the ‘Highway On My Plate’ book from my sack to decide what to eat. The waiter was visibly surprised. The choice was simple – kadhai paneer and daal makhani with hot tandoori rotis to be washed down with a big jug of buttermilk! Though the daal was served with a big cube of yellow butter, for me, kadhai paneer was the clear winner. The wonderful spices cooked perfectly and absorbed by the luscious paneer and accompanied by crunchy bell peppers was an absolute delight.  

Kadhai Paneer and Daal Makhani
The daal makhani was subtly flavoured but honestly, I didn’t challenge my palettes. As a tradition, the ‘Zimindara Dhabas’ owned by Zimindars (landlords) in Punjab serve unlimited amount of buttermilk. After finishing the sumptuous lunch, I walked over to have a word with the gentleman owner of the dhaba.  He was impressed after learning that I was travelling through Punjab to taste the authenticity. He took down my number and promised to meet me whenever he comes to Mumbai. Guess this holds some prospects of getting discounts next time I visit his dhaba. Yeah!

New Zimindara Baba Neem Wala Dhaba,  Doraha, Near Ludhiana
Taste – 7/10 Ambiance – 6/10 Service – 9/10 Price – 8/10

I was fortunately staying at a very strategic place and didn’t have to make way to my preferred eateries in the evening through the unbelievably noisy and dusty roads of Ludhiana. These Ludhiana people are terrible honkers. Ludhiana is also supposed to have the maximum density of merc in India but that day, all I had seen were BMWs and Audis. Guess there is a change of taste for Ludhiane de Puttars!

Veg Menu @ Chawla Chicken :)
So my next target was – Chawla Restaurant famous for its chicken dishes. Now what a veggie like me has to do with this restaurant? So there are two Chawla restaurants in Bhadaur House area. I first entered the Veg Chawla restaurant and didn’t find ‘Chawla Special Creamy Paneer’. I asked the waiter and he blabbered all the dishes with paneer and insisted that all are ‘Creamy’. I got up, went to the manager and asked him for the address of the Chawla Restaurant I was looking for. I got the address. It was just a 5 minutes walking distance but helped to build my appetite more!

Chawala Chicken, as the name suggests is indeed a chicken eater’s heaven. It is in fact a take away station. However, I was not taking away anything, I settled at a sparse dining area available on the first floor. The order was no brainer – Chawla Special Cream Paneer with again, hot tandoori rotis. The Chawla Special Cream Paneer is the veg variant of their famous dish – Chawla  Special Cream Chicken. The paneer/chicken is cooked in a special assembly line only in milk and cream using special ingredients at different stages (the main spice being the black pepper) and uses no water at any stage. I found creamy paneer very interesting but not a spectacular one. But the combo of hot rotis, raw onion with green chutney and paneer in thick creamy gravy was indeed a gastronomical delight.

The famous 'Chawla Special Cream Paneer' with Tandoori Rotis

Chawla Chicken, Bhadaur House, Near Clock Tower, Ludhiana
Taste – 7/10  Ambiance – 5/10 Service – 6/10 Price – 7/10

Fruit Ice Cream, Basant Ice Cream
In the last stage for the search of best ice cream of Ludhaina, I landed at Basant Ice Cream. As a guy living in a metropolitan city, I believe that my taste for ice cream has undergone multifold changes. After having tasted Naturals, Baskin Robins, Move N Pick, Gelato and Cocoberry, it was unlikely that Basant Ice Cream would have casted a spell. Yes, it didn’t. Too sweet for my palette. Didn’t like it and somehow I was the only person sitting in the sprawling 2000 sq feet area trying to enjoy the famous (?) fruit ice cream!
The trip had started well! With the exception of ice cream, everything was up to mark! Oye, chak de phatte! J     


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