Full of Beans: On the table were kulth ki dal or horse gram cooked to a rich, comforting mess; khatta mutton, or goat curry spiked with amchur; and lungru or sautéed fiddlehead ferns sourced from the mountains I could see through the restaurant window. The simple meal hit the spot, striking just the right note between exotic and wholesome.
Kangra is best known for its rolling tea estates. Far less famous, but equally intriguing, is the region’s vibrant cuisine. While some might be familiar with a dish or two, the large majority of people would be hard-pressed to describe them. I was clueless, too, as I headed to Rakkh, a tucked-away-in-the-hills resort near Dharamsala, for a short vacation last month.
Curious what culinary surprises lay in store for me, I arrived at my destination bone-tired and ravenous. As soon as I sat down to eat, my palate perked up. On the table were kulth ki dal or horse gram cooked to a rich, comforting mess; khatta mutton, or goat curry spiked with amchur; and lungru or sautéed fiddlehead ferns sourced from the mountains I could see through the restaurant window. The simple meal hit the spot, striking just the right note between exotic and wholesome.
Next morning, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief as I spotted pert red strawberries peeping out from beneath serrated green leaves. The ruddy-complexioned Hema, who was diligently plucking out weeds from the raised plant beds, chuckled at my expression and said, “At this altitude, strawberries grow
After a hearty breakfast of babru, a fermented wheat bread stuffed with black grams, I ventured into the surrounding countryside. Later, I joined some guests on a trek to the serene Dorzong Monastery in Gopalpur. Walking through the meadows, we stopped every now and then to gawk at the snow-capped Dhauladhar, gather pine cones and snap wild flowers and berries.
Dinner was at the white-washed Himachali Rasoi, which revives rural cooking methods that are falling out of favour. Chef Shiv Kumar Sharma and his team had rustled up half a dozen dishes on wood fire. Wonderfully chewy, rough-textured makki ki rotis were paired with hand-pounded sarson ka saag and chunks of jaggery. There was kadhi made with thinned buttermilk, a tangy curry called madra with pieces of fried lentil dumplings, and sweet-sour kaddu ka khatta. The meal finished with a bread pudding known as mithadi. Dotted with muskmelon seeds, it melted on the tongue. “Our food is quite different from Punjab. We use dahi and amchur, as opposed to onions, to season our dishes and go easy on masalas. You’d be hard-pressed to find healthier and tastier meals built around vegetables, pulses and dairy,” said Sharma.
Kangris have a way with beans that puts them at the heart of everyday food. Rajma, rongi or black-eyed peas, chickpeas and soybeans show up at most meals, a much-needed source of proteins in a largely vegetarian diet. “They are as much the backbone of what we eat as curd, rice and ghee,” Sharma said.
Showing me a patch of rajma pods growing at the farm, Hema gave me a primer on Himachali kidney beans. Three main kinds grow in the region: red, black and a speckled variety known as chitre. “The length of time it takes to cook beans depends on the kind used. Chitre is prized for its flavour as well as quick cooking time,” she told me
At the home of Sunny and his sister Rajjo, Gaddi villagers from the nearby Rakkh village, I ate a robust home-cooked lunch of rajma-chawal. Rajjo’s exquisite buransh chutney, made with dried rhododendrons pounded with mint, green chillies and onions, had to be admired before being polished off. She had also made a sabzi of kiun, a bulbous variety of local legumes, sautéed with potatoes. As I relished the honest-to-goodness meal, I was happy to discover that most of the food was made with ingredients grown or made in the house.
In the charming food shops of Palampur, I clocked some of the key components of Kangri cuisine: sacks of soft-skinned pahadi potatoes, heaps of mukund wadi or spiced moong dumplings, and veritable mountains of local legumes and pulses.
On my way back from a visit to a tea estate in Thakurdwara, I stopped at Vaishno Dhaba, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant near Palampur to lunch on the thali du jour comprising rice, madras and lentils. It was humble yet nuanced fare, with its fresh, perky flavours.
As the days went by, my regard for Kangri food grew. There is an undeniable appeal in this unpretentious, locavore cuisine. I got hooked on lungru and kiun, and ate far too many babrus for my own good.
The grand finale was my last evening at the resort, when I got a taste of the Kangri dham, an 11-course feast served on special occasions like weddings and religious functions. The food was cooked in charotis (narrow-necked brass pots) in dham rasoi (a separate kitchen). Boti Brahmins, who specialise in dham cooking, had been especially brought from the village to prepare the food. The feast, laid out on the floor, was accompanied by a song and dance by naatis, or local folk artistes. The delicacies arrived in rapid succession. Three separate servings of rice interspersed with various kinds of madras, date sabzi, lungru, chana and urad dals, kadhi, khatta mutton, and sweet rice. It tasted every bit as good as it smelled — perfectly cooked, spiced and awash with ghee.
Back in Mumbai, Divya Sud Qureshi, author of Flavours from the Kangra Valley (2013), shared vivid memories of dhams in Dehra, her native village near Pragpur. “We would sit on a paanth or long red mat laid out on the floor in a big hall. Men wearing red dhotis and white baniyans would serve rice from a cane basket on pattals and dunnas,” she said.
With virtually no restaurants serving the fare outside the region, part of me wishes the cuisine would be more widely available. Yet, its inaccessibility is the reason why it remains so marvelously unspoiled, with nary a modern cook going out on a limb to create fusion masterpieces. I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.
Source: Read Full Article