Punjab’s rich and diverse history bears greatly on its distinct cuisine. Its name panj (five) āb (water) stems from Persian invaders who named it after the five tributaries of the Indus River that traverse the province. The rivers create abundantly fertile land which earns the region its title of India’s ‘breadbasket’ due to ideal growing conditions for wheat, rice and barley crops as well as dairy production, which are the staples of modern Punjabi cuisine. The region’s food is heavily influenced by the agriculture and farming lifestyle of the ancient Harappans, one of the great early civilisations dating back as far as 3,800 B.C.
Punjab dishes are renowned for being rich, buttery and intensely flavoured with aromatic spices. Seasonality also comes into play, as ingredients like warming ginger and cumin combat the winter cold while juicy produce such as mango cools in the summer months alongside yoghurts and pickles.
Punjabi cooking revolves around the tandoor oven, and the large clay bellies are wood- or charcoal-fired at temperatures of up to around 350 degrees Celsius. Following ancient tradition, breads are slapped onto the scorching ghee- or spice-brushed walls to bake while proteins are grilled until tender and smoky. Juices that drip onto the flames allow aromas to be re-introduced via flavour-packed smoke. Tandoor tradition arose as far back as Harappan times, but its popularity was piqued during the Mughal period when the previously predominantly vegetarian focus of the region’s cuisine was shifted to include meat.
The custom of collective cooking around a communal tandoor was particularly prevalent in rural villages, where women prepared dishes at home before congregating around the tandoor to cook. The communal ovens also served as a hub for socialising, bringing villagers together for hours over the slow-burning flames. Tandoor made its way into mainstream consciousness following the 1947 partition, with the migration of West Punjabis into wider South Asia.
Poultry, lamb and goat are the preferred proteins, and are either skewered and grilled in the tandoor or served in rich gravies alongside a bounty of vegetarian dishes such as shahi paneer, leafy greens-based saag, and popular lentil dish dal makhani. Punjab’s five rivers provide a bounty of freshwater fish, commonly catfish, carp and rohu. These are prepared as tikka (skewered, marinated baked pieces) or fried for popular street-style Amritsari fish.
The abundance of wheat means breakfast and sides revolve around breads, from chola bhatura (fried bread of soft wheat maida flour combined with spicy chickpea chana masala) and parathas layered flatbread, to deep-fried halwa poori stuffed with curries (often sold early morning at specially-dedicated bakery stands) and fluffy naans. Cooking method differentiates naan from roti, as flash-baking in the tandoor ensures naan cooks quickly and evenly to maintain a moist, chewy texture, as opposed to the unleavened roti that are typically rolled very thin and cooked on a flat griddle. During Mughal reign, yeast remained a luxury exclusive to affluent households, and naan was served to royalty, but now the beloved breads are ubiquitous and feature not just as accompaniments to mains but also as vessels used to scoop up curries and gravies.
Dairy is prevalent in sweets and beverages. Yoghurt-based lassis are a cooling accompaniment to spice, and meals can be rounded off with desserts such as traditional pudding gajar ka halwar of sweet spiced grated carrots cooked in condensed milk, kulfi ice cream, and rasmalai paneer cakes in sweet thickened milk.
Colonialism imparted a formality to Punjabi dining etiquette that verges on ceremonial. Eating with one’s hands has for centuries been considered the proper way to dine in Punjab, as the experience is a sensual one which should not omit touch (however only the right hand is acceptable to use as the left is reserved for purposes other than eating and greeting). Handwashing is therefore crucial, and neglecting to do so is a major faux-pas. Cutlery is permitted, though, and for serving the use of communal utensils rather than those for personal use is particularly important.
Roti should be torn off in bite-size pieces, using only the fingers. It is then used to scoop up mouthfuls of curry, and must not under any circumstances be eaten dry (to the extent that, towards the end of a meal, an excess of roti left on the plate must be counteracted by another helping of curry). Similar taboos include asking for recipes when enjoying a home-cooked meal because of the immense preparation involved and the passing down of techniques across generations and dialects, as well as comparing regional cuisines. It is polite to compliment each new dish tried, and a meal does not end until guests are physically unable to eat another bite.