There isn’t a defined Indian cuisine. Every region (based on how you define it) has its own flavours and textures. The fish cooked in the South is completely different from the fish cooked in the North. The use of bamboo shoots is prevalent in states of the Eastern Himalayas like Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. The use of bamboo shoots is unheard of in Rajasthan. The staple cereal varies largely as you move from the South to the North. The cuisine around the Himalayas also varies as you move from North to South. Varied geographical conditions contribute to the variety in the cuisine and delving beyond the butter chicken or the chicken tikka masala opens up a whole different world.
Uttarakhand. in the Northern Himalayas, holds its own among this plethora of options. Like the people, the grains are different and there is some commonality and some difference in the spices used. The cuisine is perfectly suited for the mountains – with enough protein and fibre but not too many carbohydrates. Even after a heavy meal, you’ll feel energised than the need to take a nap. Like all village food, the food is slow too and requires hours of preparation. While there are quick fixes now, the authentic fare is still prepared using ingredients crushed by hand and cooked over a slow fire.
Eating well in the Himalayas
This state of the Northern Himalayas is divided into two regions – Garhwal and Kumaon. Garhwal is the more rugged where most of the treks are present. Kumaon is known more for the agriculture and the soft hikes. Cuisine from both places has some similarities and some differences. It is interesting to see how the two complement each other but still stand with their own local identity. It seems that there a few main ingredients that define the cuisine of Uttarakhand.
The lentils of Uttarakhand are different from those of the plains. The extreme conditions of the Himalayas have ensured that only the hardiest of lentils survive. As a result, you have a variant of the Rajma (kidney beans) that is hardier and has more protein and iron. Other lentils include the Gahat or Horse Gram Seeds. Found to have antihyperglycemic properties and the ability to increase insulin acceptance, it is used as a filling in flatbread and as a black lentil gravy cooked in an iron work.
Another black lentil is the Urad or black gram. Dals are cooked in their whole or mashed and cooked as a thick grainy gravy. There is also a small black bean known as Bhatt that is widely used to make gravies. It is interesting to see that most lentils in Uttarakhand have a rich black colour as opposed to the brown or yellow colours of the lentils of the plains.
The iron wok
These hardy lentils of the Himalayas need a lot of time to boil and have to be cooked slowly. The iron wok or kadhai thus comes into play as it can withstand very high temperature. Cooking in an iron pot also has health benefits as it increases the iron content of the food. It is said that food should be cooked atleast 15min in the iron vessel. In a country where 70% of children below 5 have anemia, the iron kadhai acts as a great help – especially in regions that were earlier quite remote. It has been seen that there was an increase in haemoglobin content in children who had food cooked in an iron vessel.
Apart from regular condiments like the chutney and the achaar (pickle), various types of “salts” are also used as condiments. Various ingredients are mixed into rock, black and sea salts and form an assortment of salts including Lehsun ka namak (garlic salt), Hara namak (green salt including coriander and green chillies), Pudine ka namak (salt mixed with mint leaves), Heeng Jeera (including asafoetida and cumin seeds), Kadi patta namak (wit curry leaves) and the quintessential bhang ka namak – or salt made from cannabis seeds. Cannabis seeds serve as an important ingredient in Himalayan food. They are not halucinogenic and aid in digestion. Bhang is made into chutneys as well and consumed with stuffed flatbreads.
The Rhododendron or Buransh is the state flower of Uttarakhand and for good reason. The flower and the leaves are used extensively as snacks and delectables of their own. The nectar of the flower is made into a naturally sweet juice. The flower is mashed into a chutney. Local wines are produced from the nectar. The leaves are fried with gram flower and served with tea. The leaves are also used as stuffing in flatbreads. The flowers broom between January and March and it is common to find bright red carpets in the green jungles. The rhododendron is rumored to have medicinal properties including the ability to cure headaches arising from altitude sickness or the change of weather.
Hikes in the hills
While not directly contributing to the cuisine, a hike or walk on the slopes of Uttarakhand are great appetisers and make the food all the more delicious. Moreover, the winter sun makes for some beautiful long hikes and locals love embarking on such “picnics” through the hills and then setting down under the bright winter sun to savour some sana hua nimbu. The large hill lemon is mixed with curd, cumin seeds and cannabis seeds and is best when served with turmeric rice and vegetables after a long walk through the hills. It is a good life and the people enjoy the winter sun to the fullest.
It is interesting to see that wholesome food isn’t a new trend but knowledge that our ancestors already possessed. In most of the places where these age-old techniques and recipes are followed, people are healthier. The food in Uttarakhand has its distinct texture and flavour and is one that is worth preserving. The extreme conditions have built up some very hardy crops and as a result, very hardy people. The mountains of the Himalayas are a treat for the eye. But once you have climbed them, if you are hungry, you now know what to eat.
Featured Photo by paulhami