Himachal on a platter

While enjoying the sunshine on the snow capped peaks of the mountains or while taking a closer look at the picturesque valley, I could smell the ethnic aromas emanating from a local dhaba or from the kitchens of the nearby homes. After staying for a week in Shimla, I could make out that by and large, food in Himachal Pradesh consists of all sorts of meats, pulses and cereal preparations. But it is also true that the flavours of Himachal Pradesh are as varied as its regions. An everyday meal is typically north Indian with rice, pulses, roti and some variety of vegetables. But I tasted some special dishes as well, meant only for special occasions.

Dham is a special festive meal, which is cooked only by hereditary chefs know as botis. Usually dham is cooked in marriages. Preparation for this special meal takes time, therefore, chefs start preparing the previous night. In Chamba region, a typical dham would start with rice, moong dal and a madrah of rajmah cooked in yogurt. In the second course one would be served boor ki kari and a dark lentil (mashed dal) with sidu. Sidu is a kind of bread made from wheat flour. It is kneaded with yeast and the dough is allowed to rise for 4-5 hours. With a stuffing of fat it is first browned over a slow fire and then steamed. Sidu is normally eaten with ghee, dal or mutton. Topped by khatta (sweet and sour sauce) made of tamarind and gur (jaggery), the dham ends with the mittha (dessert) sweet rice, liberally mixed with raisins and dry fruit.

In the barren regions of Kinnaur and Lahul-Spiti, emphasis is on locally grown coarse grains like buckwheat, millet and barley. In this region, people are mostly non-vegetarians because of the extreme cold and dry conditions. In Kangra region, a sweetmeat nasasta is popular, while in Shimla badi, ghaunda and bada or poldu are quite popular. Patande (a sort of pancake) is a specialty in the Sirmaur area. A dish common to all regions, is chutney of til (sesame seeds). Like most hilly regions’ local food, Himachali food too has very strong aroma of Indian spices and hill herbs. Different parts of a herb the root, seeds, or leaves are used to add distinctively different flavours and aromas to the finished dish.

Tasting the meals at a local reastaurant, I realised that long and close association with Punjab and large-scale migration of Tibetans has greatly influenced the cuisine of the state. In the area closer to Punjab, the typical Punjabi food sarson da saag and makka di roti is popular along with non-vegetarian dishes, preferably chicken. In the upper regions, typical Tibetan food has become the flavour of the state. Local hits include hot favourite such as momos steamed meat filled dough dumplings served with a spicy chilly sauce; thukpa, the typically Tibetan noodle soup, thick bread and barley porridge or tsampa food that is wholesome and filling. A very special kind of tea is available, which you would want to taste only if you are too keen on having everything or anything in the name of “local” food. This special tea, made with salted butter, is an all time and any time of the day beverage that was once made with yak butter. In fact, in areas with a pastoral tradition, milk and its products are liberally used in cooking.

Whatever the region or whatever may be the dish, what touches one most while in Himachal Pradesh is the hospitality of the people. They still treat their guests like gods and try to feed them with utmost sincerity, love and affection. Basically, it is the taste and flavour of their warmth and love more than that of the ethnic food that one carries back home and relishes for a long time.

About Jack K. Harris

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