While Amritsar is synonymous with the Golden Temple, it is also it's fondness for good food that brings in a herd of tourists from near and far. Seeking blessings from the Almighty almost always follows with food indulgences, starting with langar at the Gurdwara and moving on to Amritsari kulcha, maa ki dal, laccha paratha, lassi, mahi tikka, Amritsari fish fry, butter chicken and other favourite Punjabi treats at numerous eateries dotted across the city. The eateries located closer to the temple serve 100 percent vegetarian fare. So if you are meat obsessed, you need to head to Majitha Road, Hathi Gate or Ranjit Avenue where you will find some of the most loved dhabas of all-time, but not without visiting the most iconic eatery in Amritsar - Kesar da Dhaba.
Located in the narrow lanes of Chowk Passian, finding the dhaba is easy because everybody knows about it and can point you towards the right direction. You don't even need to bother with mobile navigations. We make our way through the market area to find the eatery tucked away in one corner. There are some places where time literally stands still, giving you a glimpse of the old world. Despite its enormous fame, Kesar da Dhaba wears a simple look. The seating area looks as though an extension of the original eatery to accommodate the never ending crowd that flock the eatery everyday. How soon you find a table depends entirely on your luck. We wait for 20 minutes before finding a place to settle down.
Started by Lala Kesar Mal and his wife Parvati in 1916, Amritsar wasn't the original location of the eatery. It was set up in Sheikhupura, near Lahore, where the Punjabi Hindu couple sold dal and roti. It was after the partition in 1947 that they shifted base to Amritsar, and worked their way up to create a cult following, having famous personalities like Lala Lajpat Rai, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and many Bollywood celebrities dine at their humble eatery. Their most hot-selling dish is the Kali Dal or Dal Makhani or Maa ki Dal, which is slow-cooked in copper vessels overnight, for almost eight to 12 hours.
The Thali at Kesar da Dhaba
Going by people's recommendations who had earlier visited Kesar da Dhaba, we already had a list of dishes to order before we stepped into the eatery. As we browse through the board menu hung on the wall to reconfirm those dishes, a college student taps me on my shoulder and says, "Don't bother going through the menu. Just ask Panditji to serve you the best dishes and sit back and enjoy your meal. That's what we all do."
We decide to follow her suggestion and go for a thali, but replacing Palak Paneer (which was highly recommended) with Malai Kofta Curry, which is more of a favourite. All the dishes at Kesar da Dhaba are made using desi ghee, so you can be certain that it's going to be a rich and greasy affair. A big appetite is a must, so we skip breakfast and stick to sharing a thali between us two.
We are served a big plate with portions of the iconic Dal Makhani, Malai Kofta Curry, Punjabi Chole, Cucumber Raita, Salad and Lacha Paratha. The Dal Makhani is delightfully creamy, and the creaminess isn't because of excessive dollops of desi ghee but letting the lentils slow cook to beautifully bring together the flavours. It's not excessively spicy either, being made with only a handful of ingredients. We enjoy the dal with crispy and flaky Laccha Paratha, smeared with ghee. The Malai Kofta is delicate and crumbly, teaming well with the curd-based gravy while the Punjabi Chole is home-style, and we see many customers go for second helpings of it.
"I have visited this eatery several times, yet I am here again to try their delicious food. They are so good with their flavours and that's what makes visiting the eatery worth every minute. They may be vegetarian but you just don't miss meat here. And even if you go to other vegetarian restaurants, somehow they never match up to the experience of eating at Kesar da Dhaba," says Arjun Singh, a businessman based in Delhi, who was visiting Amritsar on work. His words were true, as we discovered when we tried other vegetarian restaurants and couldn't help but draw comparison to Kesar da Dhaba.
At Kesar da Dhaba you can even walk through their open kitchen and watch the skilled workers make parathas in the tandoor, curries in iron pans, stack plates after plates of the thali to fill them up with the orders, or try and make a cook spill the secret behind making the famous Dal Makhani. They are all more than happy to answer your questions and even pose for pictures, probably being accustomed to the stream of journalists and bloggers who visit the eatery from all corners of the world.
We end our meal with the light and nutty Kesar Phirni, set in earthenware, which has just the right amount of sweetness, before heading out to make space for others. We now know why this eatery is famous, and we are certain that it will find us coming back for more in the near future.