From the mountains

From the mountains

From the mountains

On a recent trip to Shimla, there were several firsts for us as a family – a hill station up north, the single digit temperatures, handcarts with steaming chole bhature every 100 metres and landscapes that can only be described as slices of paradise. The cold did take a little getting used to and one of the ways in which we did this, was to eat.

When it wasn’t aloo tikki and chole kulcha, it was khatta (sour) meats of different kinds with bhaturu, a traditional fermented bread. Khatta meats may be mutton or chicken and the souring agent is usually a generous amount of buttermilk or curd. There are vegetarian
versions as well. A traditional Himachali dham (spread of food on festive occasions) is cooked in copper vessels and on wood fire. In fact, these are equipment commonly found in pahari (hillside) cooking. Two days of such indulgences and we had had our fill and hoped to go easy till we were introduced to the Himachali vegetarian food – a whole world of delicious dishes that demand nothing but complete attention when at the table.

Tour the length and breadth of India and you find that a region’s cuisine changes every 200 km or so, to take on the local influences. Himachali cuisine has similar variations to represent various districts of the state. The Kullu Valley region uses a lot of pulses, meat and lamb. If you head towards Mandi, closer to the Punjab region, you find the Punjabi influence. Lahore Valley has heavier and richer food with the use of yak meat and a liberal use of fat. Each region of Himachal has an influence on its food.

When in Himachal

The cooking medium is generally mustard oil in Himachal, for it helps conserve the body heat. A lot of desi ghee is also used in preparations. A traditional Himachali meal begins with the meethi dal, which has a lot of dry fruits soaked in sugar syrup. This is served at the beginning of a meal along with steamed rice. Also placed alongside is some shakkar – powdered jaggery and hot, desi ghee. The two are to be mixed together to a paste and eaten with rice. This is followed with pulses and other vegetables, with breads and, of course, some more rice. A meal is rounded up with a sweet like meetha bhaath (sweet rice).

A traditional dish is the gucchi (mushroom) pulao made from wild mushrooms that sprout only when lightning strikes. There are particular regions where this mushroom grows and thanks to its rarity, it sells for a premium. The selling price begins at Rs 18,000 to Rs 20,000 a kilogram. It is usually sold in the dry form, so that it can be easily stored and used in food. The earthy flavour of the mushroom is intense and seeps into the rice it is cooked with. It gives the dish a robust flavour and does not need any accompaniment to enhance it in any way.

Lingri, a popular green vegetable of the region, belongs to the wild asparagus family. These are found growing in abundance next to the local streams and in forests. It tends to grow without much tending to and has several medicinal values to boast of. It is cooked as a side dish and tossed on its own with a tempering. It is also combined with other vegetables. Lingri can be turned into pickles, with mustard as the dominant base.

Also regularly found on tables in this region is the sookhi dal or dry dal, which is urad dal cooked with whole spices. The dal is cooked just enough to retain its bite and take on the minimal seasonings and masalas that are added to it.

Native flavours
The madhra is another staple on Himachali tables. Usually made with rajma, it is also made here with chickpeas or sepuwadis (dal/lentil dumplings).

Instead of the usual bhuna masala (fried tomato-onion-garlic), the base of the gravy here is yogurt – thick and tangy. It is seasoned with a range of local spices. The end result is luscious gravy that makes your taste buds sit up in attention. It is also quite tangy, pairing well with rice or breads.

Siddu is a local bread made of wheat flour. The dough is fermented with yeast and resultant bread balls are stuffed with poppy seed paste and steamed. The same dough, minus the poppy seed filling, is made into bhaturu, deep fried. These are eaten with a range of chutneys as well as homemade ghee.

Sepuwadis are another versatile preparation. Mashed dal is shaped into chunks and then deep fried. Once done, these sepuwadis may be eaten just like that or added into a yogurt-based gravy. It can also be tossed with some greens like spinach. Of course, the cooking here is influenced by the seasonal availability of vegetables, many of which have medicinal properties. But considering agricultural systems now, the regions have most of the common vegetables available through the year. Himachali cuisine has its share of great meat dishes, but the vegetarian fare is not to be missed either. Dessert always is a heavy affair; the most popular option is the meetha bhaath made with coconut, dried fruits, sugar and rice. A truly sweet way to culminate the scrumptious journey.

Rajma palda
(Kidney beans in yogurt)
Serves 4-6

*500 gm rajma (kidney beans)
*2 tbsp cooking oil
*1 tsp jeera (cumin seeds)
*2 kg dahi (yoghurt)
*1 tsp turmeric powder
*1 tsp garam masala
*salt to taste

*Soak rajma in water overnight.
* Boil rajma and drain the water.
*In another pan, heat a little oil and fry the jeera.
*Then add dahi, salt and turmeric powder. Go on stirring and add little quantity of oil.
Repeat till you are done with the oil.
*Add rajma and cook for 10 minutes.
* Now put garam masala and remove from fire. Serve hot with plain rice.

Chef Bhan Singh, Chef De Cuisine, Koti Resorts, Shimla.

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