Food from up north

Food from up north

In Garhwal, food is wholesome, organic and season-driven. Preeti Verma Lal gets a taste of this wondrous treat made from often obscure ingredients.

If you are ever in Garhwal, never say no to scorpion. Scorpion grass, actually. Be careful, do not fall on it. You’ll itch for life. But if it is on your dinner plate, dig in. Are you imagining scorpion for meal? Banish the thought. This is no tale of a scorpion. Bichhu ghaas (literally, scorpion grass) is a highly nutritious Garhwali leafy green. And yes, the raw leaves do sting like scorpions — the leaves are boiled and tempered with jakhya as a traditional accompaniment for rice and roti.

That’s how I was initiated into Garhwali cuisine. With a scorpion grass in Ananda in the Himalayas, a wellness resort perched 1,150 metres above sea level. Chef Arun Kala had laid a Garhwali thali for lunch — mandua (finger millet) roti, gahat dal (horse gram pulse), patod (fritters made of colocasia leaves), kadhi, pahadi potato curry, jhangora (sanwa/samvat ke chawal in Hindi and kuthiravaali or kudirai valu in Tamil) kheer.
Unfamiliar ingredient names were flying in frosty air and Chef Arun began with the basics of Garhwali cuisine.

“Remember, jakhya. It is ubiquitous in a Garhwali home. Every dish is tempered with jakhya, which belongs to the mustard family but is more pungent and smaller than the black mustard.”

In the mountains grow ancient grains like jhangora (barnyard millet), which is packed with  minerals (one of the highest value amongst grains), phosphorous and calcium. A versatile grain, it lends itself to various preparations including the festive jhangora kheer and a kadhi called jhangora ka chencheda. High in energy, jhangora is a perfect fasting food and a sustenance choice for Garhwali women who toil in hilly terraced fields.

To learn more about Garhwali cuisine, Chef Arun and his team explored the neighbouring villages and found a few foodie gems. Like, gahat, a local lentil that is godsend for winter months and is said to be miraculous for kidney stones. Gahat can be cooked as regular dal, or stuffed in mandua roti. Gahat is also mixed with toor dal to make kashere ki dal, which borrows its name from the copper utensil (kashere) in which it is cooked. Patod is a common snack. Made of colocasia leaves slathered with besan (gram flour) batter, it is steamed and deep fried.

Mandua, not wheat, is a staple grain for rotis. The thick brown rotis are
consumed with ghee. In Garhwal, it is almost mandatory to give mandua halwa to lactating mothers. Chef Arun categorises Garhwali cuisine as predominantly vegetarian. Meat eaters prefer mutton to other meats, with seafood almost non-existent in the kitchen. One of the traditional non-vegetarian preparations is the kachmauli, where a goat is smoked in open fire with leaves and seasoned. The flesh is taken off the bone and daubed with mustard oil before being served. Ghee and mustard oil are the most common cooking mediums.

And for dessert...
For the sweet-toothed, there’s arsa, bal mithai and singhauri (singore). Ask any Garhwali and they will tell you the importance of bal mithai, a sweet made of khoya (evaporated milk) cooked in sugarcane juice until dark brown. It is then cooled, cut into cubes and wrapped in sugar crystals. Bal mithai is so synonymous with Garhwal that efforts are on to get a GI (Geographical Indication) for this sweet.

Arsa, made of rice powder and jaggery is a festive treat, traditionally given to brides when they came home after the wedding. Arsa is always packed for her for the journey back to her in-laws’ home. But the most intriguing one, perhaps, is singhauri (cardamom-flavoured khoya) wrapped in sal leaf cones. 

In Garhwal, food is wholesome, organic and season-driven. Here, not every thing is eaten every time. In Ananda, I looked at the traditional thali again. I was no  longer deciphering the ingredients, I was counting the million nutrients packed in the scrumptious lunch. A
bulbul hopped by my table. Did she want a nutritious Garhwali lunch, too? I
wondered.

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