Quick quiz: what landmark in India attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal? No, not the glowstick stand at the Goa beach party.
The correct answer is Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple, in Amritsar, in the state of Punjab. The spiritual center of Sikhism – mother gurdwara – attract, on average, 100,000 visitors one day. It is a significant place of pilgrimage, even by Indian standards, and the crown jewel of the city.
Golden Temple, City of Gold
Although Chandigarh is the capital city of Punjab, Amritsar, with nearly 1.2 million people, is the most populous city. As the main metropolis of India’s only state with a Sikh majority, Amritsar is in a singular position. This “City of Gold” is the cradle of culture and, by extension, the cradle of cuisine.
India’s diverse culinary styles are as rich and varied as the country’s linguistic heritage. You can travel from one village to another, let alone one district or state to the next, and experience wildly different interpretations of the same ingredients, or, even, completely different ingredients.
Punjabi and Sikh Hospitality
Punjabi cuisine, like Punjabi culture, casts a wide net. This includes not only ethnic Punjabis, who make up about 120 million people, but various sub-groups, such as Punjabi Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jats, Rajputs, Khatris, Dalits and Brahmins. Moreover, the traditional region of Punjab is between India and Pakistan. An interesting study for any cultural anthropologist, to be sure.
In Amritsar, a city in India’s Punjab, with a predominant Sikh population, hungry travelers can browse for a slightly more focused cuisine. Sikh temples enforce strict vegetarian codes but the religion itself is flexible when it comes to meat consumption outside places of worship (Kosher and Halal type diet rituals do exist).
Still, vegetarian cuisine in town, of the best Amritsar hotels to the humble street cart, suggesting fragrances and exoticism worth pursuing. Especially if you do it in a loud.
The langar, or Sikh temple community kitchen, is a great source of information about the roots of vegetarian cuisine in Sikh Punjab. At the Golden Temple in Amritsar, everyone is welcome to take part. Meals are served twice a day, every day of the year. The food was simple: flatbread cooked on a hot iron plate; seasoned vegetables; nuts.
Some items carry more symbolism and spiritual weight than others – although all food is considered sacred in Sikhism. Kara Parshad is a prominent example. Semolina cakes made of flour, butter and sugar are distributed, in small portions, to all visitors to the temple. Refusing this ancient hospitality contract is a bad move.
One for the Bucket List
A brigade of volunteers prepares food and runs the kitchen at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This is how you serve 50,000 devotees and tourists every day – more than double on special pilgrimage days. No visit to Amritsar, or Punjab, India for that matter, is complete without a vegetarian meal at this holiest of places. It may lack the pizazz of fine restaurant food but more than makes up for it with a genuine sense of spiritual intimacy.
From his recent visit to India, Jarred has brought back lots of helpful tips, tricks and information to help future travelers.