Why you should care
Because Punjab has more to offer than just chicken.
On a pretty forgettable road in Amritsar, a city of about 1 million people in Punjab in northern India, where the dust kicked up from auto rickshaws, buses, scooters and cars settles on shop fronts, you’ll find a restaurant with an eye-catching shiny exterior. With its over-the-top decor — the ceiling is covered with large brass bowls shaped like upturned umbrellas — Makhan Fish and Chicken Corner has come a long way, and in more ways than one, from the original dhaba on Majitha Road.
But the restaurant is still just as well-known for its fish, self-described on their menu as “world famous.” Harjit Singh, the 33-year old owner backs that claim. He tells me that Amritsari fish — which includes both Sangara and Sohan, two species of freshwater fish found in the five rivers of Punjab (which actually means “land of the five rivers”) — is “the most-ordered item on our menu.” Yet you’ve probably never heard of it. The spice mixture is such a closely guarded secret that not even the chefs know the recipe. And to add to the intrigue, there’s a second restaurant at the center of a family drama.
When my order of fried fish Sangara arrives, it smells of heaven.
Don’t expect the usual fish and chips. The crispy Sangara ($6) comes with a side of khameeri roti (spongy bread made with yeast, believed to be a staple of the former Mughal kings in Delhi), and dipped in mint chutney. The roti is slightly tangy, not like its more famous cousin naan or bakarkhani. When my order of fried fish Sangara arrives, it smells of heaven. As I savor a bite of crispy fried fish wrapped in the roti and dipped in mint chutney, Singh tells me, “We have a special mix of spices that we marinate the fish in before frying.” Not even their chefs know the measures of the different spices used. The mixture is prepared at the Singh home and brought in each morning.
Makhan Fish, as it’s known locally, has been in its current location, near the Amritsar railway station, since 1992. Before that, Makhan existed as a “dhaba — a roadside, tiny kiosk,” a few miles away, explains Singh. In 1962 his grandfather, Sardar Sucha Singh, started “selling fish and chicken to voracious Punjabi foodies.” That dhaba has grown to a full-fledged restaurant and a banquet hall with a CEO — Sardar Malkit Singh, who is Harjit Singh’s father — who still hand-picks the fish every morning from the mandi or wholesale market. Harjit Singh says that he “can tell which one will taste the best just by touching it.”
The Amritsari fish recipe has stayed the same all these years, Singh says. But to cater to youngsters who like everything with a dollop of mayonnaise, Makhan now serves this sauce along with the more traditional mint chutney. And to keep up with growing competition from other restaurants in the area, the Makhan menu is being revamped — they’re now serving Chinese food too.
There is also competition closer to home. After a family dispute last year, Harjit Singh’s uncle opened a similar restaurant about a mile from the Makhan Fish and Chicken Corner. It’s called Makhan Fish and Chicken Hut. “We have filed a case,” Singh tells me. “There is only one Makhan and that is ours.”
The original Makhan has drawn fans from far and wide (as evidenced by the guestbook) and some big name celebs — from famous Punjabi singer Daler Mehndi to current Bollywood star, Aditya Roy Kapur — are in rotation on LCD screens in the restaurant.
What draws them? Perhaps it’s the fish’s near-perfect outer crispiness, or how each bite practically melts in your mouth. Or that tastebud-tingling spice concoction that keeps you guessing. Which Singh finally reveals — sort of. The recipe uses “carom seeds, flour, red chili powder, ginger and garlic paste and others — the basics,” he explains, but he’s also quick to point out that it’s the amount of each spice that makes the dish. And that’s remaining a secret.