As our train staggered into the last junction, a portly steward brought out a cart filled with trays of food. “Veg or non-veg?” he asked, wobbling his head from left to right. In India, this is a standard query at any restaurant or roadside stall. He repeated the question through his dark, bushy moustache, this time louder. The coach was engulfed by the smell of masala as the passenger with a bright blue turban uncovered the foil from his curry. He tore a piece of his roti and dipped it into a bit of mango pickle. Some version of this welcome always happens every time I visit my vibrant hometown of Amritsar, a city in the north Indian state of Punjab.
Amritsar is situated on of one Asia’s longest and oldest trade routes, the Grand Trunk Road, which was built during the Maurya Empire in 322-185 BCE and links South and Central Asia. The city is most famous for the Golden Temple, a holy site for the Sikh religion, the core tenet of which is seva (selfless service towards others).
The striking building is surrounded by water and only reachable via marble pathway, and is home to the world’s largest community kitchen. Volunteers at the temple dish out up to a 100,000 free meals for tourists and devotees daily as part of a religious service called langar. The menu is completely vegetarian, consisting of a lentil and vegetable curry, rice, and chapati (whole wheat rotis).
Though I was born in the Philippines to a Filipina mother and Indian father, I pay an annual visit to Amritsar to see family and friends. I love coming back to our spacious, ancestral house—a stark contrast to the diminutive apartment that I currently live in Manila.
In the 1950s, my grandmother converted our red bougainvillea–surrounded, colonial-era home into a guesthouse. The two-story building holds countless doors that open to a view of sprawling gardens, an architectural feature that makes the house ideal for hotel use. Downstairs, our family has kept the parlor, breakfast room, study, dining room, and living rooms intact with a mix of Indian and Western-inspired art deco furniture.
My grandmother was eccentric; she often wore a full white salwar kameez with gold buttons, her 4’11” frame engulfed by fabric, and say sharp-tongued things like khao, piyo aur maro (eat, drink, and die). Her jokes were often mixed with some profanity. Her loud laugh was infectious. Every Sunday, she sent the guesthouse manager into town with shiny metal tiffin carriers, to collect some of the city’s best street food.
When he returned, they were filled with makki ki roti (unleavened bread made from cornstarch), saag (a slow stew of spinach and mustard leaves), tandoori chicken, and kulchas, an Indian flatbread stuffed with fiery potatoes, smothered in ghee and chole (a potent chickpea curry). However, my favorite street food by far is the Amritsari macchi (fish fry).
While there are enough potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, and tomatoes grown on the property to keep us and our guests happy, this has not hindered anybody from seeking out the city’s famous dhabas—a type of roadside restaurant that’s ubiquitous in Punjab. It is normal to hop from one dhaba to another in search of the best Punjabi fare, as one restaurant might be known for its succulent tikkas while another might be famous for naan served with ghee-infused curries. What they all have in common is that the food is served fast, fresh, and hot. No longer exclusive to truck stops, these dhabas have often been managed by the same families for generations.
In Hall Bazaar, one of the city’s oldest markets, you’ll find an array of dhabas and fish fry shops selling Amritsari macchi. It is the most popular street food in the city, especially during winter. You won’t find (the proper version of) it anywhere else in Punjab because the institution's fish market is abundant with fresh river fish. The dusty bazaar is crowded and loud from the constant sound of honking scooters and cars. It is not for the faint of heart.
Everytime I go into town, the first thing I notice is the pungent aroma of mustard oil, which makes my eyes water. Men in greying cotton shirts stand over large black cauldrons that appear singed from years of use. You may notice splatters of oil along the walls of the fish fry shops.
The stalls prepare fillets of sole or catfish sourced from the Beas, Ravi, and Sutlej rivers—according to local lore, these rivers’ “sweet” water is what makes the fish firm yet moist. They marinate the fish in a mixture of spices and toss it into a chickpea batter, which is what gives Amritsar Fish Fry its distinctive flavor. It is then fried to a golden crisp. Some shops fry the fish for a few minutes and put them back on display inside a glass cabinet. When an order comes in, they fry it again before serving. Usually the fish comes sprinkled with chat masala and a squeeze of lemon, and I think it is best paired with pickled onions and mint-coriander chutney.
Locals often say that the best food is found on the streets of Amritsar, not at home. And while that may be accurate, I think my grandmother—who passed away at the grand old age of 101—was onto something. The guesthouse kitchen, under her command, endlessly adapted simpler versions of street food staples, focused on the purity of ingredients rather than an oversaturation of flavor; that’s why we’ve been sourcing the fish for our version of Amritsari macchi from a local purveyor for the past 50 years.
My grandmother’s version is lighter than what you’d find on the streets, so it makes for a pleasant snack with a cold glass of beer; and she insisted that all the remaining fish bones and heads be packed into a separate bag to serve as a base for a comforting fish head curry. Nothing went to waste in her household.
I’m sharing our guesthouse recipe below, because it’s the next best thing from catching a plane to Amritsar.
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