Kulcha, a spicy flatbread made in a tandoor (clay oven) and stuffed with mashed potatoes or other veggies, is ubiquitous in most towns in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. However, there is one kulcha that is made only in the holy city of Amritsar: the Pathi Kulcha.
Also known as the Bread Kulcha, the Pathi Kulcha is prepared in bakeries that rely on wood and is crafted from simple ingredients such as white flour and water. The taste is bland since no salt or sugar is added to it, but the blandness doesn’t matter since it is meant to be enjoyed with different kinds of foods.
The ingredients may seem basic, but the process required skill and patience. It begins the night before; the first stage is to prepare the dough with water. Then water, which has been soaked with aniseed and black gram for nearly 8 hours, is added. It plays the role of yeast. Some cooks boil this water first and then add it early in the morning to the dough instead of the soaking process. After that, the dough is shaped into small buns.
“These are then placed on mustard oil-greased steel trays, which go straight into the wood-fired ovens made of bricks,” says 60-year-old Bal Kishan, who has been baking the kulchas for the last 40 years. “We lightly smear mustard oil, using a cotton cloth, on the trays to soften the kulchas and also to prevent the dough from sticking to the tray,” he says, adding that makes them daily at Kulcheyan Wali Gali (street of kulchas) at Lohgarh Gate in the Walled City. The street currently houses five large ovens where nearly 30 bakers work.
These kulchas are also made in many other parts of the city, such as Putligarh, Batala Road, Hakima Gate, Hathi Gate, Lahori Gate, Garhwali Gate, and Jora Phatak, to name a few, which make up about a total of 40–45 units, employing hundreds of young and old men. In most places, the new generation has been taking over from the older generation. They start as early as 4:00 AM and continue until 3:00 PM. These old-fashioned bakeries have no sign boards; instead, they are known by the names of the bakers.
“In the summer months, making pathi kulchas can be arduous, as sitting near the burning wood for hours isn’t easy. We take turns to make it tolerable,” shares forty year old Arun Rana, who bakes them on a street in the Putligarh area. He adds, “But we don’t want to switch to electronic ovens because they can’t do justice to their authenticity. Only the fire from the wood and the brick oven can make it the way it should be, soft. In winter, we use blankets to keep the oven room covered to ensure proper heat.”
“I like to call it Pathi Kulcha, as ‘pathi’ instantly and aptly defines where it comes from. The city has been producing it since the 1920s when it originated in the Namak Mandi near the Golden Temple. But no one imagined the popularity it would soon attain,” says Surinder Kochar, a local historian and food critic. He adds that these baking houses bake more than 35,000 such kulchas every day, a large number of which are also exported to many cities in Punjab and beyond
The reason for the demand is natural, as the kulcha pairs with almost anything — chicken, fish, pakoras, soya, and the most common curry of all, chhole (chickpeas), garnished with onion rings, green chili, and slices of mango pickle. A wet version called ‘bhijja kulcha’ is also quite popular, which simply involves pouring chhole curry on top.
Once the baking is done, batches of several hundred kulchas are ferried all over the city to numerous small and big food shops to cater to crowds assembling for breakfast and lunch there, and also in the evening hours for a snack. There are many who simply eat it with butter and salt, as well as with their masala chai.
“Many visitors to the city label it the ‘smelly kulcha’ owing to the use of black gram water in it, but I love that aroma,” shares Naresh Johar, an octogenarian food connoisseur and writer. He adds, “The best part is that it is not laced with chemicals. I have been enjoying kulcha meals since my childhood, which dates back to the 1950s, mostly with chole or pakoras.” He adds, “There’s no need even to warm it up. It tastes good as it is.”
Interestingly, it also makes the cut for one of the city’s cheapest meals, given that it is priced between Rs. 5 and 10 apiece or Rs. 50 per dozen when bought in bulk directly at the ovens.
While in the summer their shelf life is about two to three days, in the winter they last for nearly a week, which is why NRIs from the city take them abroad. “If you ask me what I really miss the most from Amritsar’s food scene, it would be the pathi kulchas. Whenever I go to Amritsar, they are my priority,” says Chef Vikas Khanna, who hails from Amritsar and has been living in New York City for many years. “I wish I were in Amritsar today.”