Five-course meals, Chef’s tables and Michelin star restaurants are the focus of a conversation on food, but when it comes down to it there’s nothing that hits the spot like a home-cooked meal.
I like to call it soul food, food that nourishes from the inside out, that fills the void, that calms the nerves, food that mends a broken heart and warms you on a cold winter night. A region in the Indian Himalayas, known for its snow-capped mountains and green valleys, serves just that, food that makes you whole.
Much more than meunière
Himachal Pradesh’s cuisine has never gotten its fair share in the spotlight. It’s morrells haven’t been featured in an aioli as a gourmet recipe, freshly caught rainbow trout has never been served as meunière, fiddle head ferns haven't been noticed like wild asparagus, its red rice has never hankered for an organic certification despite its pedigree.
A Dham, the traditional local feast served at celebrations and occasions features a minimum of seven to eight dishes, cooked in traditional copper vessels by specialised chefs known as 'Botis’. However, sitting on the floor, eating with your hands does not quite qualify as indulging in a slow-cooked seven-course meal for many.
Botis are always from the Brahmin community, an Indian caste-based categorisation based on birth and social functionality. Each village boasts of its own set of Botis, who are called at times of celebration and mourning, at times of harvest and when winter turns to spring. Those living in towns and cities have generational associations with a lineage of Botis from a particular family.
Decades ago, the Dham was restricted to dishes made from lentils and dairy, as the tradition of the festival is traced back to 1500-year-old Aryan techniques. The introduction of vegetables and meat to the feast is a relatively new concept. “The food is prepared in an open-air Rasoi (kitchen) using wood fires and the slow-cooking technique. We cook in large pot-shaped copper vessels called ‘charoti’ and start early in the morning. And we use the technique of smoking the food by pouring mustard oil over a piece of burnt coal, and then pouring it into the food. This is called Dhuni, which give the dishes its uniquely smoky flavour,” reveals Chef Skandhu, a Boti who hails from Haripur, in Himachal.
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A festive meal served on leaves
Another key aspect of the Himachali cuisine is ‘Madra’, a combination of spices that is added to dishes.
The menu for dham features red rice, kidney beans, a mix of three lentils cooked together called Maash Dal, chickpeas in yogurt, Khoya or reduced milk, yoghurt and Kadhi or a gram flour infused curry amongst many. It is served on dried leaves of Sal and Banyan trees. The recipes are praised for its rich flavours and high nutritional value.
The world recognises Indian favourites like ‘Butter chicken’ and ‘Nihari’, but Himachali ‘Chha Gosht’ made of marinated lamb cooked in thick gram flour and yoghurt gravy, with ginger-garlic paste, cardamom, red chili powder, and coriander powder still hasn’t got its day in the sun.
At home, families usually gather in a kitchen, the tandoor or clay oven at its heart, sharing the love and warmth over a meal prepared by the women of the house along with their happy helpers. Meals include the ‘Pahadi’ (of the mountains) version of a pulao, which includes lentils, yoghurt, and raw garlic. This is ‘Tudkiya Bhath’ usually served with dal or lentils, lemon slices and ‘Phamda’ a stew of lentil, millet, and dried roots.
Home cook and food-preneur Reeta Thakur, said: “I enjoy making ‘Phamda;’ which is a vegetable root stew lentils, while morrell and red rice pulao also tops my list, along with my own version of Siddu. This is a stuffed patty made with whole wheat, which takes four to five hours of preparation time and uses three to four different cooking techniques, including basting and steaming. I use walnut and poppy seeds along with a generous portion of ghee or clarified to give it that edge.” A local favourite, Siddu, can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion, it’s served homestyle with a side of vegetables or in its fancier avatar like how Thakur cooks it, for ceremonial times.
“There are a lot of traditional recipes, which have been handed down to us from our mothers and grandmothers; each family has its own unique way of preparing them with their own secret ingredients.” She is from the region’s Kullu valley, famous for its fruit produce like apples, pears, plum and apricots. “I love making apricot and plum jams, stinging nettle chutneys and preserves. I was constantly making them on request until I decided why not make it a home business and now I retail at local stores.”
When one has guests over, the food is often cooked in or served with a garnish of what is locally referred to as ‘Desi or local ghee’ or as I prefer to call it liquid gold. Although ‘ghee’ or clarified butter is rich in fat, it does contain high concentrations of monounsaturated Omega-3s, which support a healthy heart and cardiovascular system. Studies have shown that using ghee as a part of a balanced diet can help reduce unhealthy cholesterol levels. But then again, no one ever blamed the French for cooking in butter!
No trout about it!
Speaking of French food, rainbow trout is a favourite in Europe. Just as the French make Trout a la Meniere or Trout Grenbloise, in the Kullu valley too, trout is common to most restaurants.
Lubdh Ram Thakur, who owns the restaurant Oven in the Garden in Manali, said: “The key to making great trout is how you clean, slice, and cook it. Unlike what you would think, our version of trout is not too different. I serve a wood oven baked trout with a choice of herb and butter sauce, roast almond sauce, or an orange ginger sauce. Pan seared trout with a butter garlic sauce, or a butter and capers sauce is quite popular. And finally, one can always request for a local trout curry!”
When it comes to dessert, rice sweetened with jaggery and cooked with a generous helping of saffron and raisins ensures you don’t exceed your daily sugar allocation. Of course, the same can’t be said about the many cups of chai or tea you sip along the way, as you walk through the rugged mountain trails.
A traditional dham ends with Mitha Bhaat or sweet rice flavoured with raisins, almonds, and coconut shavings. Reeta Thakur added, “My kids love Aksu, a dessert made with rice flour baked in stone moulds and dipped in a gravy of milk and jaggery, Gicha which are rice balls dipped in sweet milk or Babroo, which is the Indian version of sweet pancakes. Although I must admit I usually get them to do all the prepping in the kitchen.”
“Many who tried the traditional Himachali food for the first time, come back asking for more,” says Chef Nand Lal Sharma, chief chef at the Hotel Holiday Home in the Kullu district.
Describing the cuisine of Himachal Pradesh as slow-cooked, organic, farm-to-table might just put it on the world food map.
Speaking of which, Shimla-based chef, Sanjay Thakur from Kufri, had represented India at the prestigious Bocuse d’Or or the biennial world chef championship in Singapore with a dish featuring fiddlehead ferns infused in oil and Himalayan pink salt from the region. Fiddlehead ferns are comparable with asparagus and are a local delicacy. Himachali cuisine is finding its way, ever so slowly, to become part of global palates.
For now, until that day arrives, let’s just say the use of local ingredients, minimal and raw spices, soft flavourings, fresh and organic produce make the cuisine unique and some of the healthiest and most nutritious food you can get your hands on.
We have a few recipes for you to try at home and experience the cuisine. Here is a recipe for Himachali Channa Madra or chickpeas in yoghurt Madra gravy.
Recipe for a Himalayan cooking base for curries - Himachali Madra recipe
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
2 to 3 tbsp mustard oil
1/4 tsp asafoetida or hing
2 to 3 cloves or laung
1 inch cinnamon stick or dalchini
1 black cardamom or badi elaichi
3 to 4 whole black peppercorns
1-1/2 tsp cumin seeds or jeera
1 onion, chopped
3/4 tsp garam masala powder (store bought or we have a recipe)
1 tbsp coriander powder or dhania
1/2 tbsp turmeric powder or haldi
Red chilli powder, as required
Salt, to taste
2 to 3 green chillies, slit
This basic cooking base is used in numerous recipes and used as per a specific recipe’s steps.
- The writer is a journalist based in India
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