During my last trip to Kumaon in Uttarakhand, I came across an old father narrating an anecdote involving his son who had landed a job in the far south. The mother, reluctantly, packed her love in pickle jars and ghee dabbas and bade goodbye to her son arming him with an assortment of spices and eatables native to Uttarakhand. When the lad was going through the security check at the airport in Delhi an officer found a neatly sealed bag containing seeds from the cannabis plant (hemp seeds commonly referred to as bhang); flabbergasted he demanded an explanation. In Kumaon, chutney made from these seeds is a common recipe and a much loved one too – unfortunately for the young man the officer was not willing to buy his story and it took hours of convincing (and pleading) that the seeds were in fact harmless ingredients for a kind of chutney.
Kumaon is known for the spell-binding views of the Himalayas, peaceful retreats in the wild and impatient rivers but food rarely finds a mention. The restaurants in suave hill-stations stick to tried and tested cuisines and lately even the evergreen dhabas of the hills have developed a penchant for serving ‘Chinese’ food. However, Kumauni dishes are alive in household kitchens across the towns and villages and here is a peek into some of the delicacies often prepared by doting mothers for their visiting children who work or study in faraway cities.
Something to snack on
If you travel along the winding roads of Kumaon you will come across small eateries offering delectable potato wedges fried with local condiments like jakhya (Cleome viscose), jamboo (Allium stracheyi), cumin seeds and topped with coriander leaves. Known as Aloo ke Gutke, this dish cooked from pahari potatoes is usually relished with raita made from hill cucumber laced with mustard seeds – the seeds often creating a tingling sensation in one’s nose. The hamlet of Garampani, on the highway from Haldwani to Almora, is famous for offering a platter of hill specialties complimented with cucumber raita. During the cold winters, chapattis made from flour obtained from Madua (finger millet seeds) and buckwheat are enjoyed with a dollop of ghee and jaggery along with a helping of hill spinach.
Chutneys are regular inclusions in meals and are savoured with a variety of dishes. A couple of native recipes are chutney prepared from cannabis seeds (bhang ki chutney) and darim (a local variety of pomegranate). The cannabis seeds are ground in a paste and also used in another delicacy, Sana hua Nimbu. Prepared from curd, cannabis seeds, radish, big lemon and spices this refreshing mixture is an intrinsic part of the routine of people soaking in the sun during the winter months. Here Shishun (stinging nettle plant) is a wild shrub with thorny leaves and stem; historically it is loved by parents and detested by kids as it is often employed to punish wayward behavior. However its leaves (minus the thorns) are also used to prepare a tasty green leafy vegetable high in nutritious value.
Something for the famished
In Kumaon a wide range of pulses like urad (black lentil), chana (black gram), gahat (horse gram) and bhatt (black and white soyabean) are used, often in conjunction, to create mouth-watering recipes which are usually enjoyed with rice. Chudkani (black soyabean), bhatiya (white soyabean) and ras (a combination of black lentil, black gram, horse gram and black soyabean) are some of the much loved dishes commonly prepared in Kumauni kitchens.
Made from semolina and curd (and sometimes bananas too), pua is a sweet cake prepared during all major festivals (as prasad to offer in temples) and major life events like birthdays etc. Another local recipe is a kheer made from jhangora (barnyard millet) complimented with cashews and raisins. Bal Mithai (brown chocolate like fudge made from khoya and coated with sugar balls) and Singodi (flavoured khoya wrapped in oak leaves) are a couple of quite popular sweets prepared in the hill station of Almora.
The culinary tradition of Uttarakhand is deep-rooted in growing food organically and most of the recipes use items which are either found naturally in the Himalayas or are cultivated locally. Due to the unavailability of most key ingredients and condiments in other parts of India these delicacies are largely unknown outside Uttarakhand. For generations people here have mastered the skill of bringing the bio-diversity of the Himalayan eco-system to their plates. Using the medicinal herbs and spices found here, the cuisine has evolved into a perfect blend of taste and nutrition. So the next time you are in Kumaon to admire the magnificence of the snow-capped peaks squeeze in a day or two to explore the food offered by this region – it will certainly spice up your Himalayan experience!
The article was first published on The Alternative