For most of us the very idea of Himalayan food is this exciting mesh of some of the finest, most lavish delicacies. A culture where you can find dishes as diverse as momos, dal-bhaat-tarkari, thukpa and cheese, which range from the fresh kalari to the aged chhurpi, the Himalayan cuisine is as extensive as it gets. The food is a celebration of local flavours and produce and often, to the outsider at least, seems to follow the same pattern as the rest of India. Fascinatingly, it isn’t.
“For starters,” says Yangdup Lama, seasoned hotelier and owner of Café Lungta in Gurugram, “we do not have the concept of a thali. The now famous Nepali dal-bhaat-tarkaari- dahi thali is not only a late entry but also belongs to the community that stays on the foothills. For tribes who belong to the Himalayan range, we have food in a bowl available round the year.”
Lama hails from an older Buddhist tribe that once called the extreme cold areas of Tibet and Bhutan their home, and descended to the foothills a few decades ago in search of better opportunities. And yet, every year this seasoned hotelier travels to his home to create the winter stash much like his grandparents and their grandparents before, to “nourish himself and keep the tradition alive.”
The interesting thing about food in the Himalaya is that it has to be acutely functional and nourishing. Given the extreme weather conditions, making something lavish like a thali is a luxury. In fact, most of the traditional meals, including the now-famous momo, are made with local produce and seasoning. The lack of spices in the Himalaya led to a tradition of cooking with fresh and fermented produce.
In fact, Lama states, “There isn’t a concept of winter menu either, as we have to store everything that grows in our ‘non-snow days’ and consume it later. More often than not, our meals look the same throughout the year, the only difference being that the bowl in winters would be slightly more delicious than the one in summer. The cooking is mostly boiling the fermented, air-dried and smoked produce, which are these concenterated flavour bombs.”
Nisar Ahmed, Corporate Chef at Mayfair Hotels & Resorts, finds a striking similarity with regular Kashmiri fare. “If you leave the wazwan, which is a celebratory meal, food in Kashmir is the same in summers and winters. We tend to preserve most of what grows till November to help us survive the harsh winters of four months. Our thali is a three-and-a- half-part series where protein is the mainstay, followed by carbohydrates, greens and fat—nutrients that would give us the energy and ability to carry on during the harsh months.”
Consider tsampa, a porridge made of roasted barley flour, sugar and ghee and a staple in Tibet and Bhutan. Since it is low on the glycemic index, it keeps you nourished for a longer period of time. Another such example is that of Himachali sidu. This wheat flour bread is stuffed with roasted jakhiya seeds (tick weed), or a blend of jakhiya and bhang seeds and is steamed before being eaten with a huge dollop of ghee. It is this functionality of Himalayan food that gives it its uniqueness.
Chaa gosht, a winter delicacy made with fresh meat and buttermilk, is one of the finest examples of ethnic fermented food culture. Greens and fresh produce on the other hand are fermented in Tibet and Bhutan where the leaves are cured in their natural juices before being preserved, while in Kashmir they are either sun-dried or stored fresh.
“This depends on the produce itself,” says Chef Ahmed. “Most root vegetables are stored inside a pit made in a space that would receive very less snowfall, closer to the house. These dried, leaf-lined pits are then filled with the produce with a small hole left on the side to extract it. Since they are two feet under the land, the produce stays fresh for at least four months of extreme winters. In fact, vegetables preserved in this way refresh themselves while cooking and can taste the same—or even better.”
The tradition of preserving or fermenting food isn’t just about ensuring sustenance during the harsh winter months in the mountains; it is also about taste. Himalayan food, says Chef Khemraj Ghimray, Executive Chef at Radisson Hotel Agra, “often gets its flavour from animal lard or the use of one or two local spices that are mild in taste.”
Take the case of jakhiya, for instance. The fragrant Garhwali cumin is used in tempering curries, and vegetables like pinaloo (taro root) and bhadu ki dal (mixed lentils), but needs support when it comes to dishes like jholi—made with rice paste and buttermilk, among other ingredients.
For Tibet and Bhutan, the spice choices were very limited— even chillies like dalle khursani, which is a staple flavouring agent today, came in much later. Thus, leaving fermented food like gundruk (leafy greens), sinki (radish tap root) and gyuma (blood sausage) doing most of the flavour build-up. And of course, the sacred dahi, which found acceptance across the Himalayan palate as a natural probiotic. A good example of how fermented food came together to create delicious, nourishing meals is khaaja, a popular Newari snack made of cheura (rice flakes), radish and carrot pickles, aloo sandheko (spicy potato salad), and batamas ko ledho (roasted edamame with onions). Sukuti is another example: chewy bits of sun- dried meat accompanied with chhaang (Tibetan wine).
The lack of spices in the Himalayan states combined with the tradition of repurposing food through preservation became the foundation of most of the food culture across different states in the region, which earlier relied heavily on local produce like lentils and millets to create distinctive dishes. Like the chainsoo dal. A velvety Pahari recipe made with whole black gram, it has a strong flavour of green garlic and coriander seeds and is known to give an instant boost of energy. Phanu, on the other hand, is made by soaking the black gram and grinding it into a fine paste, which is then slow-cooked with a generous helping of ghee. “The beauty of these preparations is the versatility,” says Chef Gimray.
The Garhwal ka fannah, a famous dish of Mussoorie, is a fine specimen of the adaptability of Pahari dishes. Another such gem is the much-loved momo. Traditionally, Tibetan momos are fermented breads stuffed with minced meat, seasoned with onions and local ginger root paste. This combination, says Lama, “ensured easy digestion and a longer shelf life too.”
Breads, as a matter of fact, were another defining factor of Himalayan cuisine and played a key role in creating meals with longevity. Like the Nepalese sel roti, made from deep- frying fermented rice dough. It can be a snack or a meal in itself with chana ko tarkari or butter tea. The Bhutanese tingmo, which is a form of steamed bun made of cultured wheat flour, goes well with a wide range of stews. The Kashmiri girda, made of fermented wheat flour, comes with a generous sprinkling of poppy seeds and can be enjoyed with kalari cheese and tea. Similarly, the Garhwali kode ki roti, made of coarse ragi flour, keeps one nourished for a long time when served with ghee or tea.
The virtues of fermented bread in Himalayan food culture, says nutri- therapist Sveta Bhassin, “goes beyond their prolonged shelf life or their role as a sponge while eating. Breads have active lactic acid that aids in easy digestion and absorption of other nutrients in the body, while keeping the gut healthy. In other words, making food like meat, dal, soup, butter and even cheese effective and functional.”