The public, ‘open bathroom’ of Kempty Falls near Mussoorie is left behind as the road leads to the historic village of Lakhmandal. Tourists would probably look forward to the ancient Shiv temple located there, but our destination is the sarpanch’s house, where a breakfast spread awaits us.
Not that we miss the temple. After exploring the premises, where we encounter Shiv lings of various hues and sizes, we climb the five stairs of the village head’s house and emerge onto the balcony through a charming trapdoor. Members of the household first quench their curiosity about the city dwellers and then hastily proceed to offer us a basin to wash our hands. Big brass thalis emerge laden with food, and all chatter instantly dies down. Everybody is examining their plates, and some tentative taster bites later, loud exclamations of wonder and amazement give company to the heady aromas of food.
There’s urad dal pakodi, rice flour pancakes, freshly ground apricot chutney to die for, poories stuffed with kulath dal, steamed ‘momo-like’ alluua made of rice flour stuffed with both sweet and savoury fillings of dal, coconut, jaggery and poppy seeds. Fresh butter and curd complete the meal. We all ask for seconds and later visit the kitchen to ask for recipes.
It’s already noon and there’s also lunch in another village. However, despite full stomachs, we are in full anticipation of the next meal, and get back in our vehicles for the two-hour drive. The warm sun is a catalyst to some snooze time and a couple hours later, much off the main road to Mussoorie, we reach the village of Pantwadi.
The hamlet is isolated from other civilisation, but the welcome is rousing and boisterous. All of us are garlanded amid the loud blowing of nagadas, and we emerge in a courtyard where villagers have gathered to dance in welcome. Many of us join in and a big selfie session follows. Another trapdoor leads us to a charming wooden house where light comes in from roof windows. The air is smoky, and we discover lunch is being given the final touches over a wood fire. There’s the most delicious rajma, small and red, like the Jammu and Himachal varieties, aloo curry tempered with local crunchy spice jakhia, tangy kadoo sabji, millet kheer, chutney, red rice, millet rotis and cucumber raita. Again, we polish off big brass thalis full of food and shamelessly ask for more, and more. The food is so simple, with the minimum of spices or onions, but extremely delicious. No complicated gravies, no excess oil, no overload of spices, but fresh, wholesome, earthy fare. Everything comes from the fields surrounding the house, be it the rajma, the potatoes, the milk or the vegetables. And by default, everything is organic and fresh. For once, we curse our stomach for its limited capacity, but it’s time to move on.
However, the JW Marriott in Mussoorie, which has organised the culinary sojourn, sending its chefs to the villages to liaise with the locals, has more Garhwali gastronomic adventures for us. We get to experience a modern twist to traditional recipes, like grilled trout with lemon pickle and wilted spinach, chicken with timru relish, bichhu ghaas cutlets, and bal mithai gateaux. But it is the Garhwali thali that wins us all over. The hotel chefs outdo themselves in cooking pyaaz ki subzi—simple stir fried onions tempered with jakhia; moong dal khichdi; bichoo ghaas saag, again with the crunch of jakhia; aloo ki thechwani, a simple but outstanding potato curry with skin intact; chainsu made of ground kulath dal; an ultra-light chicken gravy and mutton. Gooey bal mithai and chaas round up the meal. We could have died and gone to heaven, but there’s another culinary bombshell waiting in the form of til ki khichdi for dinner. Here, sesame seeds ground with spices replace the pulses in a khichdi, and cooked with home-made ghee, it’s a dish worthy of gods.
It has been a most exciting culinary adventure, an answer to the perennial question that arises every year: “what can we do differently this summer?” Because, for those living in the north of India who have explored every nook and corner of the mall roads of the various hill stations of Himachal and Uttarakhand, a food vacation is just the right option, especially for those who find no thrills in the alternative option of adventure tourism.
Both states of Himachal and Uttarakhand have a spectacular food culture, where the emphasis is on local, seasonal and organic food. Use of spices is at a minimum, grains like millet, ragi, bajra are used aplenty, seasonal greens dominate the plate, and meat, fish and poultry are cooked as simple, light preparations. Refined oil is negligible, while curd and milk are used liberally.
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Ironically, all this might come across as the new urban cool and the latest food fads, but a visit to the hilly states will reveal that healthy eating has always been their tradition. Which makes a food vacation to the mountains all the more relevant and an eye-opening experience.