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Sarson Da 'Saga'...

Friday, February 19, 2016

Take a bunch of foodies, put them on a bus and whisk them off on a rural adventure in Punjab through sarson-saturated Sohian. Then, spice it all up with great hospitality, culture, delicious food and lashings of lassi! Now, that’s the perfect recipe for the ultimate food-fuelled saga, says Raul Dias

He’s eying me with all the wrath his kohl-lined eyes can convey in a quick coup d’oeil that seems to take it all in. Summoning the latent stealth of a lion stalking his prey, he launches his attack as the double-edged sword in his right hand — now gleaming in the dappled mid-day winter sunlight — cuts a chasm through the cool breeze towards me in one fell swoop! As if on cue, the viscous, luridly red liquid spills from my hand forming a meandering little stream in the dew-anointed blades of grass. I gasp; For, that’s all I can do…

If you’re wondering how I survived what can only be perceived as a lethal attack, let me clear the air. The ‘attack’ was one that had all my senses teetering on the brink of euphoria, for it was my very first experience of Gatka (see box). And, my aforementioned ‘attacker’ was a cute, ferocious 8-year-old tyke, wielding his kanda sword in the traditional Sikh martial arts performance. As for the red liquid, it was a glass of refreshing kanji — a North Indian winter drink of fermented black carrots, black salt and mustard seeds!

The back story
I had never been to Punjab before, so I lapped up (pun intended!) an invite from the people behind the Punjab Grill chain of fine dining Punjabi cuisine restaurants across India to travel with them on what they called “A mystic journey through the culinary by-lanes of palatable Punjab”. We were to journey en masse in a pimped-out bus from New Delhi into the heart of Punjab. Our destination, the lush, verdant village of Sohian, was close to India’s hosiery capital of Ludhiana. After an almost six-hour journey, broken with stops en route for stuffed pronthes and foot-tall glasses of creamy lassi, we reached our destination — the bucolic 112-year-old Sohian Kothi homestay. Our welcome party? A posse of bhangra dancers and musicians paying traditional Punjabi instruments like the dhol and the sarangi that I recognised and not so familiar ones like the gharah (earthen pot) and the chimta (a long metallic tong-like instrument with seven pairs of metallic jingles mounted on it) that I soon got acquainted with. Our welcome drink was a warm buffalo milk called taudi da doodh, which takes on a blushing pink hue thanks to the earthen pot it is served in.

Food mad
Personally ‘lorded’ over by Chef Gurpreet Singh Gehdu, Punjab Grill’s affable corporate chef, my first ever meal in Punjab was a regal repast of Kunna Meat named for the kunna earthen pot the lamb is cooked in, Smoky Baingan da Bahrta and Hari Mirch da Kukkad — on a mound of fragrant Hara Choliye da Pulao. All this, accompanied by unusual non-vegetarian pickles such as the kukkad da achaar and the mouth-puckering achaari lamb. Desserts were a procession of rural Punjab specialties, such as the ghee-drenched Cheeni Wale Paranthe, Lauki da Halwa (bottle-gourd fudge) and another foot-tall Kullad (earthen glass) of sinful Rabri Falooda. Post that repast, we all literally waddled off to our rooms in the various parts of the kothi (mine was on the terrace!) that is today owned by the Phulkian family, descendants of a clan that traces back its ancestry to the 12th century King Jaisal.

New Dawn, New Experiences
Breakfast the next day was almost a theatrical (in a good way) performance where we were treated to saffron tea, kacchi (raw) lassi and generously stuffed aloo/ mooli/ paneer parathas slathered with lashings of the softest, whitest and tastiest butter I have ever had the honour of savouring! No great surprise then when I spied a wizened old lady huddled in the corner hand churning the white butter or makkhan in a time-consuming, but oh so rewarding activity called makkhan ridakna, employing the use of a traditional butter-churner pot called a madhani, that my mother, who was raised in North India, had told me fond tales about! Speaking of debut experiences, a post-brekkie ride in a tractor to the neighbouring fields was a real treat to us city slickers as we sloshed around the wet fields, stopping every now and then for a  forage of the peppery and yummy-when-raw mustard greens called Sarson da Saag and new potatoes for lunch later that afternoon. Sipping the cool, sweet water off a borewell pipe, while some of us had our very own DDLJ moment, running through the mustard flower redolent fecundity. Still having a field day, or as I put it ‘a la khet’, lunch was laid out in the middle of the Kothi’s jade green fields with the nip in the air doing precious little to quell our ravenous appetites. It was here that we devoured succulent Kot Kapure da Attewala Kukkad or Clay BakedRoast Chicken, with other dishes like the fiendishly good Pind da Saag and its plate fellow Makki di Roti giving us all food memories of a lifetime to cherish. 

Fully ‘Fun’jabi!
Ah, memories… As it was our last night in Punjab; our Punjab Grill hosts whisked us off to the historic Bagrian Fort and Haveli for a Lohri celebration like no other. However, before that, a little bit about The house of Bagrian. The house is closely linked with the spread of Sikhism in the Malwa region of Punjab when Guru Arjan Dev Ji and then later Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji baptised the successive descendants of the family. It is also believed that the first ever free communal meal concept of langar originated in this house. Around a bonfire that is the purpose of the festival, Lohri is celebrated on the winter solstice day, which is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Our evening was punctuated by performances of the graceful and hip-swaying gidda by the women, and the more robust bhangra, which is an all-male dance. And while not typically Punjabi, our night ended on a soulful and romantic note with a special qawalli performance under the stars with the mighty Bagrian Fort standing guard as if daring us to leave once the night was through…

FACT FILE
Getting There

The nearest airport to Sohian is Ludhiana Airport, also known as Sahnewal Airport, which is a little over 35 kilometres away — your journey there should last about an hour. It’s easy to hire vehicles for to and fro travel, as well as to visit places like Bagrian.

When to Visit
The best time to visit Sohian is from October to March, especially during the Lohri Festival that generally takes place in month of Magh (January 13 to February 11). It is then that almost all of rural Punjab wears a lush, verdant cover with the cool winter breeze doing its thing in the sunshine yellow-topped mustard fields!

For more information visit www.punjabgrill.in and www.lbf.co.in

WHAT IS GATKA?
Gatka is an ancient Sikh martial art which has been thoroughly battle-tested and has existed in northern India for thousands of years. It is considered to be a spiritual as well as a physical exercise. The art of Gatka involves a series of integral combat training systems that include several systems of duels, both armed and unarmed and the use of weapons of defense and offence.

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