The best conversations usually take place over a meal. Especially those that revolve around food. These conversations get even better when an eavesdropper from the next table chips in. I'm not surprised this fascinating conversation happened at the Welcomhotel Amritsar. I had just polished off a flaky Amritsari kulcha and was quizzing Executive Chef Navneet Singh on what it takes to craft the perfect kulcha. I couldn't resist sharing my favourite spots in Amritsar for this bread. That was all it took for Prashanth, a true-blue local from the next table, to jump into the conversation. In a city where everyone is a foodie and where everyone has strong opinions about their 'go to' eateries, the Amritsari kulcha provided the fodder for an animated discussion.
My first tryst with what is now my favourite Indian bread took place almost a decade ago. It was celebrity Chef Vikas Khanna who first took me around Amritsar sharing his insider tips on his favourite eateries. This was the same year he released his popular book 'Amritsar - Flavours of the Golden City'. One of the high points of this food trail was a nondescript eatery on Maqbool Road that he then rated as Amritsar's best spot for Kulchas. While locals like Prashanth might dispute that claim, I still make it a point to visit this spot each time I'm in town. Four visits and seven years later, I still feel that this eatery hasn't dropped the ball. There's no signage and the space hasn't been spruced up. Cost-cutting measures or just smart marketing? We'll never know.
The kulcha at the Welcomhotel Amritsar is easily the most delicious I've tried in a fine dining environment in the Golden city. It helps that Chef Navneet is a local and keeps his finger on the pulse of Amritsar's dining scene. His pick outside his hotel is Harbans kulchawala while Prashanth swears by Monu Kulcha Hut and another crowd favourite - Kulcha Land. I've tried all these spots (sometimes within 24 hours) and it's not easy to pick a clear winner. Amritsar's undying love for the kulcha (that has now been passed on to everyone who visits this vibrant food capital) isn't a post Instagram phenomenon. It goes back to the reign of one of the most legendary kings who lorded over this state - Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
I've often maintained that Punjabi cuisine is more sophisticated than we give it credit for. Chef Navneet concurs. He likes to call it 'Aab o hawa'. Local influences shape a cuisine and therefore the culture. We hear a lot about it when Italian chefs create fascinating, almost romantic images of how the land, water and air influence even the most common ingredients like a tomato. Punjabi cuisine is not just about the masalas but the quality of the ingredients. It's probably why Punjabi lassi doesn't quite taste the same in any other part of India.
I'm sure the French might disagree but the Amritsari kulcha is the Indian equivalent of the French croissant. Just like it's almost impossible to find a poorly crafted croissant even in the tiniest boulangerie in Paris, you are unlikely to find an unacceptable version of the kulcha in Amritsar. Just like Prashanth, every local in Paris will have his or her firm favourite spot. It's not just a wild theory, the kulcha was inspired by the croissant. Local experts like Navneet will tell you that the Punjabi cooks learnt the art of layering flaky pastry from the French chefs employed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This was in the first quarter of the 19th century when Amritsar and Lahore were both cosmopolitan centres of cultural exchange. I've asked many local chefs about the key to the perfect kulcha and I almost always get the same response - 'layering'
Although most Amritsari kulchawalas don't sport baker hats, they bring the same baking skills as any Parisian baker, except these skills play out in the high heat of the tandoor. Some of these seasoned cooks like the ones in Navneet's team don't need a temperature gauge, a wave of the hand is all they need to guess the temperature. While cities like Lucknow and Hyderabad do spongier versions of the kulcha, I'm partial to the Amritsar version for its flaky textures. The other differentiator is the stuffing - which can range from paneer to potato or grated cauliflower that are combined with a distinctive masala. This kulcha is almost always served with a spicy chole and a tangy pyaaz ka khatta (tangy spicy chutney). And yes, I forgot a customary dollop of butter; bliss.
You can try making the scrumptious, flaky Amritsari Kulcha at home (See recipe). But I'd recommend making a trip to the Golden city before you do.
How To Make | Amritsari Kulcha Recipe
Recipe courtesy - Navneet Singh, Executive Chef,
Welcomhotel by ITC Hotels, Raja Sansi, Amritsar
Atta 4 Cup
Milk 1 Cup
Water 1.5 Cup
Baking powder 1 Teaspoon
Oil 2 Tablespoon
Ghee 2 Cup
Sugar 1 Teaspoon
Chopped onion 1
Salt To taste
Grated potato 2
Ginger 1 Tbsp
Crushed coriander seeds 1 Tspn
Anardhana seed crushed 1 Tspn
Coriander powder 1 Tspn
Coriander leaves 1 Tbsp
Kasoori methi 1 Tspn
Black salt To taste
Salt To taste
Amchoor powder 1 Tspn
Green chilli 2 No.
Pyaaz Ka Khatta
Tamarind 0.5 Cup
Salt To taste
Chopped onion 1 Small
Black Salt To taste
Red chilli powder 1 Tspn
Mix the Atta. Add all the ingredients except ghee and knead the dough well. Rest for 30 minutes. Flatten the dough and spread the ghee evenly on the dough. Now layer the dough by folding it three times so as to give 6 layers and rest it for 10 minutes. Grate cold potatoes and all other ingredients in the potato. Mix well and keep aside.
Take the potato stuffing and enclose it into the dough. Add kasoori methi and crushed coriander seeds on top. Place in Tandoor or OTG or on Convection mode in a Microwave at 180 degrees centigrade and layer with button. Cook till crisp. Serve hot.
Layer with butter. Mix all ingredients and serve along with kulcha
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.