Two days in Punjab, and we came away as believers. Truth is, the much loved cuisine is not about opulence, but about soul
Acres of flourishing mustard, and potato fields, spotlessly clean roads, and not to mention the earthy aroma in the air — Sohian, a village in Malerkotla city in Ludhiana, is what I’d gladly label as ‘the land of the lotus eaters’. It is where time stands still, and it’s extremely hard to say goodbye. Our two-day getaway to this pristine village, 325-odd km from Delhi, was nothing short of spectacular. And not in an ostentatious sort of way, but it was more like a journey towards discovering where the spirit of the country truly belongs — in rural India. And sleeping in the 112-year-old heritage property, Sohian Kothi, surrounded by 70 acres of farmland, added to the charm. Here, over two days, we were spoilt rotten, with food that I doubt we’ll get in any Punjabi restaurant anywhere in the country. I hardly got a few minutes with the 35-year-old chef, Gurpreet Singh (lovingly called GS), as he was constantly scurrying around, to make sure that every meal served was impeccable. Meticulously planned and executed by Lite Bite Foods, the company that owns the chain restaurant Punjab Grill, Rohit Aggarwal, director and co-founder, couldn’t have been more accurate when he said, “Punjabi food goes to the world, but the world rarely comes to this part of Punjab.” And that was the whole idea behind the trip — to absorb Punjab in its truest form.The story is no different for GS, the head chef of Punjab Grill, either. “I am a Punjabi, and yet, I had never seen this side of Punjab. To explore rural Punjab, and to try real Punjabi food — it was like going back to my roots,” he says. Talking of food, and there was plenty of that, GS kept reiterating the fact that real Punjabi food is as simple as it can get. “We stick to basic spices, and ingredients. The real flavours come from the technique of putting them all together, and the slow cooking process,” he adds.
Bird’s eye view
The star dish of all the meals combined was the kot kapure da ate wale kukkad for lunch on day two. The recipe, which originates in Kotkapur, Punjab, is what they call a ‘best kept secret’. Here, a whole chicken is cleaned, pierced, and then marinated overnight in yoghurt, vinegar, spices such as dry mango powder and black pepper, salt, and red bean stew for taste. The meat is then encased in a dough made with wheat flour, and roasted in a tandoor. “It takes about three hours to cook, where the dough hardens and turns black, and locks all the juices and the flavours of the meat and the spices within. And the taste is so pure. I had heard of this dish, but never cooked or eaten it before,” says GS, adding that no Punjabi restaurant will be found serving this dish.
Truth is, unlike what we’re used to at commercial outlets, the curries of Punjab aren’t soaked in oil or spices. “So, no rogan josh for the kunna meat curry that was served. In fact, it’s as basic as it can get. And there is no mix of garam masala in it either. Cooked in an earthen pot (kunna in Punjabi), with just onions, ginger-garlic, green chillies, the USP of this curry is the time it takes to cook. The ceramic walls of the pot, and the smokiness of the cow-dung fuel used to cook the dish, is what adds the real flavour to the food,” explains the chef. Even the hari mirch da kukkad (chicken cooked in green chillies) is cooked in nothing else but green chillies, coriander leaves, lemon, standard spices, and salt. The gravy is thin, and the flavours pack in quite the punch.
A dal day
Two of the most important things GS wanted to talk about were the dal, and the sarson da saag. “What you eat as maa ki dal at restaurants was created in the restaurants. The original version has no cream, and comes from the sanjha-chulha concept when at the end of the day, women would put the dal to boil in water over the remaining embers of the charcoal fire that’s been burning all day. The flame is low, and the dal would cook overnight. It is tempered the following day with onions, tomatoes, and garlic,” he says, explaining that the smoke from the fire is what adds flavour to the dal. Second, the sarson da saag cooked in villages is very different from what we get in the cities. “In the villages, the saag is pureed, and tempered every day. Each household probably has its own recipe; and the taste changes with each passing day!” GS adds, “You literally cannot compare one sarson da saag with another.”
One of the best things to have come off this curated menu was the makhane de kheer — thickened milk with lotus seeds fried in ghee, and sprinkled with nutmeg for added flavour. “What makes this kheer special is the milk that’s used to make it. At restaurants we use packaged milk, which works fine, but to be able to make kheer from the milk that comes straight from the farm is a different story altogether,” says GS.
After putting on a considerable amount of weight over two days, we loaded our bags into the bus, and watched Sohian gradually disappear into the background. A trip such as this, laced with delicious food, memories, and such greenery, always deserves an encore.
— Priyadarshini Nandy
The writer was invited to Punjab by Lite Bite Foods