I have traveled extensively in the hills of Kumaon in Uttarakhand and the beauty of the landscape of this sub-Himalayan region is breathtaking. From Nainital, Almora, Haldwani, Binsar, Kausani, mukteshwar , Ranikhet and to Jagewshwar it is a remarkable road journey. I have yet to go explore Pithoragarh and many other virgin places nestled in the ethereal Himalayas.
Most of my visits were in and around Nainital and Almora districts. Apart from exploring he places yet to be exploited by tourists we always looked for authentic Kumaouni cuisine. Unlike other states one can not find a single place which serves the local cuisine. At least we could not find it in all our visits. As one goes up to Almora one can eat the delicious local sweets (mithai) . Almora is famous for its Bal -Mithai , a fudge made from milk and dotted with tiny sugar balls. Without the sugar balls it is simply known as chocolate maybe because of its chocolate color. Bal Mithai is available throughout the region but noting compares to the one you get in Almora. Among other sweets my favorites are halwa (semolina pudding), she pooas, singhal. All these are traditional preparations which are available in the sweet-shops in Almora. Another very interesting and delicious sweet is milk based singodi which is served wrapped in fresh green leaves of the local oak tree. Unbeatable for its taste I love it the most.
During one of our visits to the cantonment town of Ranikhet which had become our routine destination for five years while my elder son studies in Birla Boys School I decided to find some source of local cuisine. A small quaint café along the road to the golf course had become one of our favorite joint to watch the gorgeous western Himalayas on one side and the vast green landscape on the other side. We would usually go there for either breakfast or evening tea and laze around in the small clearing where the owner had placed picnic tables and chairs. Not many people stopped by there so it was perfect place to spend some time together. Usually there were friends with us and that made the little outing even more fun. We would split and go for walks while others would just gaze endlessly at the serene surroundings.
One day the owner joined us for tea and his stories ranged from tigers to tourists and his plans about the food joint he dreamed of having someday. I just casually asked him if there was a place which served local cuisine. Amazed how I knew the names of local dishes he got interested and I told him about my association with the place. Was it nostalgia or just an overwhelming pride to serve the food of his region the man offered to specially cook the next day’s lunch for us. I was so excited that we planned a menu together and as it was a special request he asked us to pay some amount in advance in case we do not arrive at the café for lunch. I had to coax the rest of the group to agree and we paid up.
The lunch he prepared was unforgettable. It was after ages I had tasted something so delicious and it had just the perfect blend of spices and local products. The food is simple, mainly vegetarian and highly nutritious. The region has forests of Oak , Deodar ,Sal and Sweet Pine coupled with terrace farming and trees of fruits like apples, peaches, pears, plums, pomegranates, apricots which grow in abundance there. Rice is an essential part of every meal.
Our food was cooked over a charcoal or wood fire in iron utensils. Bhatt (a variety of Soyabean but black in color was used in some of the preparations. Another rust brown lentil called gahat which is known as kulath in Himachal and Maharashtra was also used as sar or clear soup and made into a delicious traditional dal. We were served badis made from large cucumbers which are typical of that region or from petha ( green pumpkin) . These savory little delights are prepared , dried and stored in summer and used as staple diet when fresh greens and vegetables which are not available in the winter. They provide a good source of nutrition along with Bhatt and gahat when the cold sets in. The most amazing preparation was aaloo ka gutka, a potato preparation infused with a Tibetan herb called jumboo, red chillies, cummin seeds and hing. The locals also use another interesting spice called Bhanga (hash seeds) to temper yogurt and some other dishes like Iye , a kind of green leafy vegetable similar to Chinese Mustard . It provides a unique flavor and aroma to the dish. We had some amazing apricot chutney and Bhaang chutney with our food. in the dessert we had Jhangora kheer , a pudding made from millet. The taste of this sweet dish still lingers in the memory.
It was such a heartwarming experience to be served authentic local cuisine in a home like environment and to be appreciated for appreciating the food and culture of those simple loving people. No food from any swanky restaurant can replace the taste and aromas of that meal we had. We invited the owner to share the meal with us but he refused saying he was the host and for him the guests are like gods so he can’t eat with us but he did tell us a lot of interesting stories about the food and other traditions of the particular region. It was worth every rupee.
The owner also gave us some of the spices and herbs as a token. I used them at home in many preparation for a long time.
There is nothing like experimenting with the local cuisine when travelling. I wonder if the café is still there or if one can still get the local food anywhere apart from the kitchens of local residents. I am glad I was able to introduce my friend and children to such a lavish lunch. Something they may never experience again.
Now that we are talking of food in Ranikhet one can not forget the mouth-watering chocolate Eclairs and cakes of Pathak Bakery on Thandi Sadak. Adi and I had some memorable times digging into the finest , freshest bakery products made in a wood oven. On one occasion we even braved the morning rain and cold to sneak out to the bakery and have a hot cup of flavored tea with freshly made biscuits. Simple pleasures of life and the moments made unforgettable by the bonding you share with the one you love.