What cuisine did they have here? In Manali? Oh, nothing!” Mr Sud waves his right hand dismissively. “They were uncivilised, jaahil people. And anyway it was too cold for anything to grow here. Isn’t that so?” He looks for confirmation at his headwaiter, who nods gravely.
Neither Mr Sud or his headwaiter — both of Mayur Restaurant on Old Mission Road — are from Kullu, the mountainous district of which Manali is part. The two men from Kangra confer briefly over whether there’s such a thing as local Manali food. A long description of something called phamra follows, in which an elderly British woman sitting at the next table actively joins. It’s a breakfast dish, apparently, involving a small-grained local dal called baat, a red millet called sil, and a leafy vegetable called sukhi saag, which grows in sub-zero temperatures, all simmered together for several hours. Just when we’re beginning to get our hopes up, though, he brings the topic unceremoniously to a close. “But nowadays you won’t find it anywhere. Not in town, anyway. The locals think that’s peasant food.” The old restaurant owner quakes with silent laughter. “They all eat tourist food now.”
Tourist food. It’s a term that one might think conveys nothing at all, but in fact it’s surprisingly descriptive. In India, at least, it conjures up a vision of pasta in white sauce (usually stodgy), chocolate banana pancakes (definitely stodgier) and mango lassi (often stodgiest) in an uninterrupted chain all the way from Kovalam to Pushkar.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m as fond of chocolate banana pancakes as the next Indian-tourist-adventurously-following-firang-backpacker-trail, and when I last passed through Manali on my way to Spiti in July 2006, I ate more than my fair share. Four years later, though, I’m back in town to find out if having a food-centric holiday in Manali is possible without entirely clogging one’s intestines with maida.
So, of course, the first thing I order is pancakes.
We’ve driven into Manali on a sunny April morning, ravenous after a 13-hour drive whose high points have not been culinary (though insanely sweet dhaba chai at 4am can assume an epic quality when you’ve finally found the right road to Ropar). An hour after Kullu, our nostrils are reluctantly letting go of the fragrant damp smell of pine forest when New Manali begins to sprawl around us, its uniformly squat ugliness relieved only by an explosion of signage: ‘Gujarati Thali, Marwari Thali.’ ‘Shere Punjab.’ ‘Kalinga Restaurant.’ ‘Madras Hotel.’ ‘Delhi Chaat Bhandaar.’ ‘Annapurna Bengali Restaurant.’ As the road curves up to Old Manali, the national diversity display of the honeymoon hill-station gives way to an exhibition of bohemian tourist fashion, interspersed with budget hotels in all shapes and sizes.
The sunny first floor balcony that serves as the outdoor café of Drifters’ Inn (10am-midnight; 98050-33127) looks out over the Old Manali bazaar. You can also look up, up and away for a glorious view of sky and snow-capped peaks. Once the food arrives, though, there’s no looking anywhere else. The chicken stroganoff (Rs 220) is a bit heavy, though the creamy sauce with bell peppers and mushrooms will please those with a taste for Raj-style comfort food.
Our other main course is even more directly Raj: a whole Manali trout served with boiled vegetables and plain white rice (Rs 280). British anglers introduced brown and rainbow trout into the Beas in the early 1900s. A cousin of salmon, trout thrives in icy cold mountain streams. An abundance of wild trout still draws anglers to Manali, but the government is keen to up commercial cultivation. In 2009, there were 81 trout farms in Himachal Pradesh, with production slated to cross 100 tonnes by the end of the year.
The trout is grilled to garlicky perfection, but it’s the buttermilk pancakes (Rs 90) that steal the show: two perfect golden discs generously smeared with butter and maple syrup. The 32-year-old Nishant Singh, who runs Drifters’, tells me he has only recently switched to thick American-style pancakes. As I gratefully put away my second pancake, satisfyingly solid and gloriously fluffy at the same time, I ask why. “Because my menu is for a cosmopolitan crowd,” says Nishant. “Not the typical hippie tourist.” It’s a revealing answer. A Mumbai-based brand manager with Vodafone who decided that what he really wanted was to run a hotel in the hills, Nishant is equal parts dreamer and businessman.
He’s also part of an ongoing process: as Old Manali becomes more popular with North Americans, Europeans and upper middle class Indians, it has less of the doped-out hippie haven about it. Israelis, while still the largest single nationality among Manali tourists, have reduced in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the tourist population. Correspondingly, Israeli food, ubiquitous until two or three years ago, is less so now. You can still find it easily enough, at older budget places like Dragon Restaurant (7.30am-midnight; 01902-252790), where among others, there’s an ‘Israeli breakfast’ of pita, hummus, chips and salad (Rs 80), shakshuka (a spicy fried egg sandwich, Rs 90) and herbed zatar bread listed as ‘jatar naan’. The decent hummus (Rs 80) comes with a plate of fluffy pita that’s a lot like naan (“naan-like pita, pita-like naan,” agrees the genial waiter).
But newer establishments are making a statement by having sophisticated, highly selective menus rather than catch-all lists — and not including Israeli items. Other than Drifters’, there’s the Lazy Dog Lounge (10am-11pm; 254277), set up in 2008 by the spiky-haired Gopal, a chatty 30-something Delhi boy who abandoned a 15-year career as a television producer to do this. If it’s a cold evening, the cosy wood-panelled interior is the place to try their classic rosemary grilled chicken (Rs 170) or the more quixotic pineapple fried rice (Rs 170). But if the sun is out, get a table in the rocky outcrop of a garden out back and watch the Beas roar spectacularly past below you. The bibimkuksoo (Rs 130) — chilled noodles, thinly sliced vegetables and boiled egg, with a Korean hot sauce on the side — is served with ice cubes to keep the noodles cold and is fabulously refreshing on a warm afternoon.
The other hot-weather speciality here is the Vietnamese fresh spring roll (Rs 120) — a delicate rice flour parcel packed with chicken and slivers of carrot and cabbage, with a Thai sweet-chilli sauce. The veggie version (Rs 100) is almost as good.
The transformation of Manali’s culinary experience from generic ‘tourist food’ to a variety of specialised cuisines owes a great deal to the non-local who settles in Manali and decides to make a living selling his or her kind of food. Gopal’s Korean partner has much to do with the Southeast Asia-inflected menu at Lazy Dog.
That night, we follow the Korean food trail to Yun Café, a lovely old Himachali wooden house run as a restaurant by a local man and his Korean wife. There is traditional low seating all along the creaky wooden balcony, but it’s cold outside so we decide to move inside and warm ourselves, first with some splendidly potent soju (Rs 250 for 200ml) and then miyeokguk baekban (Rs 130), a flavourful soup full of dark green seaweed, which comes with white rice and four side dishes (the fried zucchini is superb). The tangy bibimbap (Rs 150) is a satisfying one-dish meal, as is the dongas (Rs 180), a fried pork cutlet in a sweetish sauce that’s a lot like the Japanese katsu-don. If it’s the trout trail you want to follow, try the maeuntang (Rs 250), a spicy Korean fish soup given a local twist with Manali trout.
The oldest and best-known of these establishments owned by non-locals is the Italian restaurant and pizzeria Il Forno (12.30pm-10.30pm; 9816922481). Located on a picturesque bit of hillside on the way up to the Hadimba Temple, Il Forno, too, runs out of an old wooden Himachali house. Paolo, a small man with wispy hair and a nervous energy that makes him seem a little like the White Rabbit, started it in 1995 with his wife Roberta, when the USP was (as it still is on the card) ‘Imported Ingredients Italian Chef’. Today, much of what they use is local, and the acting chef is a Nepali who’s trained with them for 15 years.
The saffron mushroom risotto (Rs 210, but you can’t order less than two plates) is fragrant and flavourful and creamy without being too dense. The chicken escalope with lime and brandy sauce (Rs 240) is succulent and perfectly marinated, though one finds oneself wishing it were veal. The wood fire-oven-baked pizzas are, without exception, superb, though my pick is the ham and mushroom pizza (Rs 230). Do not leave without dessert — the tiramisu (Rs 90) is moist and lovely, but for sheer decadence you can’t beat the fiametta (Rs 50): a large disc of biscuit, with a huge dollop of dense chocolate mousse atop it.
Of course, the authenticity of a restaurant’s food doesn’t always depend on the owners being born into the cuisine. Il Forno and its Nepali chef are paralleled by Pizza Olive and its Tibetan owners/cooks. An atmospheric little place in a garden set back from the road, Pizza Olive (9am-11pm; 9816191541) serves high quality pastas and pizzas. Then there’s People Café (10.30am-11pm; no phone), a family-run Russian establishment whose Russian items can be terrible — give the fish salad a wide berth. The food is otherwise unremarkable, but the ambience is cheerful and welcoming, with guests given crayons and invited to draw something for the wall collage.
My search for ‘local food’ has gone nowhere since my lunchtime conversation with Mr Sud at Mayur (8am-11pm; 252316). His restaurant’s perfectly executed aloo palda (Rs 70), potatoes in a light but somehow creamy yoghurt gravy, and the excellent sepu bada (Rs 80), dumplings made from a combination of soaked chane ki dal and mah ki dal and cooked in spinach with fennel and garam masala, are adapted from Mr Sud’s family recipes — which means that they are from further south in Himachal.
The sleepy and bureaucratic staff at the Kunzum Hotel (253197) say the Himachali food on their menu would need to be pre-ordered a day in advance. I say, fine. They look a little alarmed at my persistence, and now say it would need to be paid for in advance as well. I laugh, but don’t call them.
My final meal is at the magnificently laid-out Johnson’s Café (8am-11pm; 253764). Touted as Manali’s first trout speciality restaurant, it certainly has the largest range of trout dishes in town — from tandoori trout with kachumber and apple chutney (Rs 300) to wood oven-baked trout fillet with sage and butter sauce (Rs 350), not to mention Jimmy’s crispy fried trout with green apple salad and chutney (Rs 300).
The eclectic menu displays a mix of culinary influences, but with a focus on fresh ingredients and an inventive use of local produce, like trout — and also Himachali apples. Try, for example, the rucola, apple and parmesan salad (Rs 160), with the rich, mellow flavour of the parmesan beautifully set off by the crisp tartness of the apple.
Just when we’re about to leave, we discover the Manali local trout curry thali (Rs 350) — a stellar meal of red rice called ukhara chawal, a lovely local green called madara palak, paneer ki sabzi and a large bowl of flavourful trout in a wonderfully full-bodied haldi-mirch-dhania gravy.
As I mop up the last of the famed local lingri fern pickle with a superb fermented local flatbread called bhaturu, I think to myself, if this is tourist food, I’m glad to be a tourist.
And there was more
Dylan’s Roasted and Toasted Started in 2006 by Rajan Nalwa with two friends (who went back to Israel the next year), this relaxed outdoorsy space serves a variety of well-made coffees (Turkish, Rs 40; French Press, Rs 60), melt-in-the-mouth chocolate chip cookies (Rs 20 each) and perfectly good snacks (cheese and olive toast, Rs 70). Dylan’s rapid cult following got them an invite to run the café at Israeli House in North Goa in 2007. There is now a branch in Arambol. It’s a true travellers’ café, with even the signature Bob Dylan mural attributed to the collective efforts of tourists down the years — when we went, there were two English girls adding their own touch. 8am-11pm; 9816054041
English Bakery and German Bakery Several different shops that attempt to distinguish their wares from each other along imagined national lines, but sell more or less the same cakes and pastries. Try the gloriously decadent bhagsu cake (Rs 30): a layer of pure, buttery chocolate set atop a biscuity base and chilled.
Shesh Besh This ageing hangout advertises itself as a “Fresh and Funky Restaurant”. The outdoor seating area is lit with low, hanging lamps by night and has a relaxed vibe that makes it popular with all kinds of visitors. The owners have a bit of a Mickey Mouse fixation: there’s a large Mickey Mouse illustration on a board propped up at the back, and every bill comes with a painstakingly drawn Mickey Mouse face with the words, “Keep Smiling, Stay Happy”. 9am till late; 9882337320
Open Hand Cafe A newly-opened outlet of the sophisticated café chain that opened in Varanasi and also has two branches in Delhi (in Paharganj and at the American School). Run by a South African partnership, which decided that selling Indian-made home furnishings to tourists would be made easier if they had their own cafés-cum-display showrooms. They sell high quality coffee, cakes and sandwiches, with a few carefully chosen South African dishes like bobotie (spiced minced meat baked with egg topping, Rs 180) and sosatie (grilled marinated meat with apricots, Rs 220). 8.30am till late; 9871909777, www.openhandonline.com
New Manali New Manali is generally filled with eateries that cater to middle class Indian tourists who’re used to their own kind of food and might wish to avoid culinary adventures. Often the owner is local, someone who used to serve standard North Indian restaurant fare until he realised that there was a niche market for Gujarati food, or Bengali food, or whatever. The Himachali owner of Himalayan Dhaba (9am-11pm; 9418719313) reels off his eatery’s Bengali options (rui maachh thali, Rs 70) at top speed and with accurate pronunciation, then reveals he has had a Bengali chef for 10 years. Aashiana Family Restaurant (7.30am-11pm; 252232) serves a Gujarati thali (arhar dal, aloo tamatar, seasonal vegetable, rice and two tawa rotis for Rs 99). The addition of khichdi, karhi, papad and a gulab jamun makes it a special thali (Rs 150).
There are also such long-serving standards as Chopsticks, an extremely popular Tibetan-Chinese restaurant, known for its superb momos and large portions (The Mall; 11am-11pm, 252639) and Khyber (The Mall; 11am-11pm), which does a good job with North Indian non-vegetarian staples and serves Himachali fruit wines as well.