All About Punjabi Cuisine - The Food from Punjab, India
Panjaab (Punjab), the land of the five rivers - Beas, Satluj, Chenab, Ravi & Jhelum, is also called the land of milk and honey.
Panjaab (Punjab), the land of the five rivers- Beas, Satluj, Chenab, Ravi and Jhelum, is also called the land of milk and honey. Hence, it is appropriate to call Punjab the land of plenty. Punjabi food cooking and eating is just like the Punjabis themselves – gregarious. I am a proud Punjabi as well.
Evolution of Punjabi Cuisine - The Food from Punjab
Punjabi cuisine has evolved by being strongly influenced by the Mughals.
The staple food of Punjab is wheat, being an agricultural state. Punjab is also major producer of rice and dairy products and their presence shows in the food as well.
Punjabi cuisine has always been strongly influenced by Mughal invaders who brought with them the tradition of the great tandoor. Now, Punjabi tandoori cooking is celebrated as one of the most popular cuisine throughout the world.
Punjabi Cuisine - Evolution, Dispersal & Acceptance
Punjabi cuisine is known for its rich, buttery flavours along with the extensive vegetarian and meat dishes.
The local cuisine of Punjab is heavily influenced by the agriculture and farming lifestyle prevalent from the times of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation.
Punjab may have been India’s pride, it was also the envy of its neighbours – judging from the number of invasions it bore the brunt of over the centuries.
While those ancient caravan routes from Central Asia to Punjab left their lasting stamp on the Khyber Pass in the Hindu Kush mountain range also became the established route which allowed raiders to enter the subcontinent’s northern frontiers to raid and plunder the region.
On they came, Mahmud of Ghazni in the 10th century (he made 17 raids in all), Timur from Central Asia in the 14th century, Darius and Alexander of Greece, the Scythians, Turks, Afghans and Mughals from Central Asia. Each invader left its mark on the land and its people.
And then came the British by sea and they too left their imprint as they pursued the Great Game with the Russians, while dealing with the likes of legendary Punjab ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh with his capital in Lahore.
While the Mughal empire started with Babar in 1526, but the Persian Cuisine was introduced to India over three centuries earlier and had a profound influence in evolution of the Punjabi cuisine and then some more took place.
Thus, Punjabi cuisine today is a mélange of Indo-Mughal-Persian-Afghani nuances. With the fleeing Punjabis from Pakistan came the tandoor, which opened up a whole new world of barbequed fare for the rest of India.
From Persia came the samosa, which was embraced and localised with a spicy potato filling instead of the traditional minced meat filling of Iran, and also cottage cheese (paneer).
With the cross cultural winds from the North West Frontier arrived the simple but robust flavours of a nomadic people. Tandoori meats, fish, mutton tikka & slow cooked mutton burra – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Peshawari cuisine, with its Afghani influences and the minimal use of spices, was the great legacy of undivided Punjab.
Spices used in these are turmeric, pepper, mustard seeds, hing, ginger, garlic and onions. With the influence of the Arabs, cumin and coriander were added to every spice box.
These cross-cultural influences were reflected in the embracing of fresh and dried fruits and a wide range of exotic nuts, from Afghanistan and Central Asia – badaam (almonds), chilgoza (pine nuts), pista (pistachio), apricots, khubani (dried apricot), muskmelon, sarda (galia melon), and the like.
Sourness to a dish was added with amchur (mango) powder, dried plums & imli paste as tomatoes were introduced later by the Portuguese.
Basic but robust fare dominated the dining tables, including game birds, leavened & unleavened flatbreads made of barley and wheat, cheeses, vegetables – and rice and fish in the coastal areas.
All this became as integral to the repertoire of India’s Punjabi cookhouse as sarson ka saag, makki di roti, maash dal, parathas and aam ka achar. The evolved cuisine today is well known for its rich, buttery flavours along with extensive vegetarian and meat dishes.
A basic though classic Punjabi meal consists of a wheat roti or rice, sabzi (vegetable) served hot with a dollops of butter or desi ghee accompanied with a plate of onions, green chillies, lime and a glass of lassi or chaach (buttermilk).
Though wheat forms their staple food, Punjabis do cook rice on special occasions. Basmati rice is the indigenous long-grain variety of Punjab, and various meat- and vegetable-based rice dishes have been developed using it.
Each city in Punjab has a varied preferences for food. For example, people in Amritsar are particularly fond of layered Amritsari kulche, stuffed parantha and milk dishes & desserts. Fish tikka is also an Amritsari speciality.
In the preparation of Punjabi food, onion, ginger and garlic are used extensively to enhance the taste of the food.
The spice content can range from minimal to pleasant to high. Indian subcontinent based spices are used in Punjabi cuisine which are ground in the mortar and pestle or the food processor.
Etiquette of eating is considered a major part of the Punjab cuisine. By far family dining is a norm in Punjabi culture. Today, the Punjabi food is globally famous & is enjoyed by people of all communities.
Tandoori dishes are not only popular in India but also all over the world today. Classic breads like Tandoori Roti, Naan and dishes like Malai Tikka, Tandoori Chicken, Dal Makhani are typical Punjabi tandoor dishes.
Tandoor style of cooking became popular throughout India after the 1947 partition when migrating Punjabis resettled in places such as Delhi, Rajasthan & Mumbai.
What Kind of Food Do Punjabis Eat?
Punjabi food is world-famous & is enjoyed by people of all communities and not just Punjabis.
At the heart of it is the seasonal bounty, which marks the daily menus of the Punjabi household – because freshness and purity, rather than complicated cooking techniques is the core essence of traditional Punjabi cuisine.
Food was essentially prepared with desi ghee (clarified butter), butter or sunflower oil.
Punjabi breads – Flatbreads and raised breads are eaten on a daily basis. Raised breads are known as khamiri roti. Sunflower and flax seeds are also added in some breads occasionally.
Since Punjab is flush with harvests of grains, rotis, naan, stuffed parathas of gobhi, aloo and mooli – baked on a tawa, or cooked in a tandoor are are usual on the Punjabi thali.
In the winters, rotis made from maize (makki) marry well with saag (mustard greens) – a huge favourite.
Punjabi vegetarian dishes – Sarson ka saag and makki di roti with a dollop of white butter, maa di dal (slow cooked on a clay chulha), rajma chawal, chana chawal, kadhi chawal, mattar (peas) paneer, gobhi (cauliflower) aloo (potato), baingan (brinjal) ka bharta, palak (spinach) paneer, chana bhatura/ puri/ kulcha have made their way into the menus not only in India but also around the world.
Punjabi non-vegetarian dishes – The table is dominated by chicken, lamb, goat and fish in various forms – tandoori chicken, kadai chicken, chicken tikka, mutton curry, mutton burra, keema mattar, pan-fried Amritsari fish and more.
Punjabi desserts – Popular ones are considered to be kheer, gajar ka halwa, panjeeri, seviyaan, malpua, kulfi and jalebi amongst others.
Punjabi beverages – Amongst the beverages served with a meal, lassi and chaach (buttermilk flavoured with herbs and spices) rate very high.
In winters, the ladies of the household make a spicy drink called kanji from black carrots. Shikanjvi and neembu paani drinks are especially preferred during the summer. Jal-jeera is also common as well.
Tea time meant home-made mathri accompanied by mango, green chilli pickles, pakoras (sliced potatoes or onion rings dipped in gram flour and deep fried) and sweet shakkarpara served with hot masala chai.
Potato chips, vadi (sun-dried lentil cakes) used in a curry with potatoes – and of course pickles – especially mango pickle and gobhi-shalgam-gajar ka achar were also made at home and so were murabbas (sweet relishes).
What are the cooking methods for Punjabi Food?
Traditional and modern methods are both employed for cooking Punjabi cuisine.
Kitchen Equipment for Punjabi Cuisine – The traditional stoves and ovens used to cook Punjabi food include:
Chulha – The traditional name of the stove in the Punjabi language is chulha. Traditional houses also have ovens (wadda chulha or band chulha) that are made from bricks, stones, and in many cases clay.
Angithi – Angithi is a traditional brazier used for space-heating and cooking in Punjab. It usually generate heat from burning coal and, when in use, have glowing coal or charcoal pieces but few or no flames.
Bhatti – A masonry oven is known as a Bhatti. Outdoor cooking and grilling have many different types of Bhatti.
Tandoor – The tandoor is traditionally made of clay and is a bell-shaped oven, set into the earth and fired with wood or charcoal reaching high temperatures.
Okhal aur Moosal and Sil Batta – Spices would be ground/ crushed with the traditional mortar and pestle (Okhal aur Moosal) and grinding stones (Sil batta).
Handi, Degchi, Patila, Karchi, Kadai, Tawa – For cooking & serving, these iron, brass and copper utensils, believed to be beneficial for health, are still used in the Punjab for both ritual and utilitarian purposes.
Modern equipment – This includes pressure cooker & griddle.
Dining Etiquette of Punjab & Punjabis
Punjabi households follows a similar or slightly varied dining etiquette. Family dining is a basic norm.
Though certain dining etiquette varies regionally, there are many practices that are common throughout Punjab. Family dining is an established norm in most Punjabi families.
Bringing and sending fresh fruits, sweets and food items as gifts to family members is a common practice in Punjab, particularly during the spring season. Food items are distributed among neighbors as well on special occasions and as a sign to show hospitality.
Invitation for meals – Invitation to a meal or tea is generally distributed few days beforehand & denying or not turning up for the invitation for no major reason is considered a breach of etiquette.
- The invited guest or elder person is given special respect and attention.
- The invited guest are requested to start the meal & it is considered rude if the host starts eating without taking into account the attendance of all guests.
- Table setting is done before the arrival of the guests.
- Family members or any occupants within one home make sure to eat together during the dinner.
- It is considered rude to start eating food without asking others to participate in a meal.
- Chewing food with one’s mouth open and burping in front of others is considered rude.
- The bread is eaten with the hands. Rice and desserts are eaten with spoons. Soup spoons are used for consuming soup and forks are used for eating noodles.
The Rise of Punjabi Dhaba
The iconic dhaba culture evolved out of need for survival for the displaced peoples of Punjab.
All of the road trips I have done in India have always involved a pit stop at a roadside dhaba for hot highway chai and a quick but clean & tasty meal. A dhaba is a testament to the fact that simplicity and freshness are the cornerstones of a comfort meal.
The origins of dhaba is synonymous with Punjabi cuisine because they are said to have sprouted in the northern region of India, specifically on the stretch of highway that connects Kabul in Afghanistan through to the major Indian cities.
Dhabas sprung up first on Grand Trunk Road which ran from Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore through Amritsar, Ludhiana and further to Delhi and Calcutta.
In India and Pakistan, today highways are dotted with these local highway restaurants popularly known as ‘Dhabas’, providing local cuisine and serving as stops for truck drivers.
Dhabas are traditionally characterised by casual seating on cots (called charpai in Hindi) and food prepared in and over clay ovens (tandoor). Over time Dhabas have come to define a culture, centered on food.
Real Punjabi food has been influenced by the diverse culinary cultures of Persia, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Punjab provided a conduit to caravans from Bukhara, Kabul & Kashmir.
The wonderful frontier foods intertwined with the rich stream of Hindu, Sikh, Pathan, Muslim and Kashmiri migrants enriched the Punjabi cuisine.
The dhaba culture also perked & evolved out of need for survival for the displaced peoples of Punjab, who fled their homes both sides of the border with the Partition of India.
The fare they offered to people was basic Punjabi comfort food – rotis, parathas, dal, sabzi.
The food was fresh, the turnover quick and there were no leftovers because everything that was cooked was sold. These dhabas became the lifeline of truckers and the Grand Trunk Road was the fertile ground upon which they flourished and became as popular with a common man as they were with the elite.
For example, Kesar Da Dhaba is a famous Dhaba in Amritsar. It was founded was laid by Lt. Lala Kesar Mal and his wife Lt. Smt. Parvati in 1916 in Sheikhupura, Pakistan. After partition, the dhaba is shifted to Amritsar. They have served food to Lala Lajpat Rai, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru and Smt. Indra Gandhi.
Dhaba roadside eateries are a common feature on national and state highways in India and are spread all across the country. Earlier frequented only by truck drivers, today eating at a dhaba – urban or roadside – is a trend.
Dhaba as a word has come to represent cuisine of the Indian subcontinent so much that many Indian restaurants in Asia (Bangkok), Europe and Americas (Trinidad and Tobago) have adopted it as a part of the name.
More Punjabi Food, Punjabi Cuisine
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