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Lahori vs Amritsari: A comparision between Punjab’s two great cuisines

The two foodie cities are less than 50 km apart, separated by an international border. But despite common Punjabi roots, the cuisines are distinct

By Anoothi Vishal

“Everything is Allah’s karam and the blessings of my mother,” says Babur, a cook from the Lahore Gymkhana club. It is a sentiment that touches the right chords – and one that may well be echoed on this side of the border, with the same earnestness. At the end of the day, political boundaries cannot neatly carve up the ethos of a region, or its culture; and the truth of this gets underlined once again as I meet a contingent of cooks from Lahore at the ITC Maurya last week and sample their cooking.

On the other hand, food, like everything else in the Subcontinent, is a complex matter. Each region has its distinctive flavours. But even within the same region, cuisine is a product of both caste and religion.Which is why, nothing can be more fascinating to study the food of two of our biggest gourmet cities—both less than 50 km apart, known for their street food, hearty appetities, culture, hospitality and the warmth of their people, but separated by an international border. Yes, I am talking about Lahore and Amritsar. Here are some observations and analysis after sampling the creations of the visiting Lahori cooks:

? Lahori food is more subtly spiced that Amritsari food: This is a surprising discovery. One reason could be the different varieties of chillies used. But, commercial Indian cooking (and even home cooking) tends to use many more spices too. The use of chaat or garam masala, for instance, seems more pervasive in our cooking than in Pakistani food.

Lahori food also seems to be less dairy rich — despite shared Mughal roots. While ghee was the cooking medium traditionally, the use of yoghurt as a souring agent seems much less frequent. Richer preparations such as qormas use it, but, by and large, lemon is the souring agent of choice (including in the Sindhi biryani that I try, that has crossed over to this Lahori menu because of its popularity).

My analysis is that while commercial/restaurant cooking in northern India is closer to the courtly Avadhi, Mughalai styles (and therefore also incorporates expensive ingredients such as nuts and dried fruits in the dishes), in Pakistan, Punjabi food, is still closer to its rustic roots.

? Amritsari vs Lahori fish-fry: Think Amritsar, and you think chickpeas and, well, fish. These are also stars of Lahori food but taste completely different. I tried the Lahori fried fish, which is a subtler, simpler version of the batter-fried Amritsari one. For its marination, it incorporates red and green chillies, garlic and onion, cumin and lemon juice. It is not batter fried like the Amritsari counterpart wrapped in besan; instead, it is fried in “burnt oil”— oil that has already been used for frying something (never mind the health warnings)! The Amritsari marinade is more seasoned (with ginger, ajwain, and sometimes even curd for more tartness) on the other hand.

Chole-kulche is a popular breakfast in Amritsar; nihari kulche is the Lahori special. And chickpeas, when they are cooked are stewed in chicken and coriander stock.

? Contemporarised Pakistani: If we have basil chicken and paneer tikkas, Lahore has an equivalent in “Jalawat kebab” that I try courtesy Babar. These are your average seekh kebabs that are grilled first, cooled, filled with Feta cheese and cream, dipped in egg-white and deep-fried! No, not cuisine at its most pristine, but a popular, high-calorie snack alright.

? Give us our breads: The most striking thing about Lahori naans is the way they look! If I can be excused the generalization, Islamic (or, more correctly, Persian-inspired) cultures tend to have an ornate sense of design evident in, say, embroidery or architecture. Here, the dexterity comes across in breads. The naans could be topped with kalaunji or sesame or garlic but all have a pattern made by fingers on the dough. It looks so pretty that you are almost afraid to disturb the symmetry.

? Karahis: Needless to say, Lahori food is a carnivore’s delight; all vegetables are cooked with meat. I had a regular cauliflower subzi cooked with chicken. And Butt Karela, bittergourd stuffed with mince, fried, curried and steamed, is a special from the region. But there are also the various karahi, or “wok” dishes, that are more robust, spicier and more rustic than kebabs or formal qormas. Black pepper and curd along with ginger juliennes and tomatoes all seem to go into these; the cuts of meat are smaller. And when I think about it, either the Indian Butter Chicken finds its genesis in these Karahi roots or vice versa.

? BBQ sparrows…: So what are the dishes you should look out for across the border? Bbqd sparrows from Gujranwallah are a rage apparently. You should try the chargah (Lahori style roast chicken), paya and zuban. Also kunna ghost, curried, sliced-off lamb shanks with the central bone intact.

(The article appeared in the Sunday Financial Express)

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