Monday Memories 7 – Kumaon Hills and Local Cuisine

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.

Monday Memories 2 – Memories From A Distant Meal Or One Moment In Time (Part 1)

I missed writing my Monday post. Too much to do and too little time. I desperately need a break to someplace quiet but that is not always possible so the next best thing I do is sit back and think of all the happy moments from the past.

Do moments from the past taste the same? Yes, sometimes they do. Moments which were like Pinot Noir grapes  turn into mature, vintage wine with time.

Yesterday I was thinking how certain aromas, textures, mouth feels, tastes, flavors bring back memories of people, places, distant meals and the sense of exhilaration associated with them.  It could be your everyday meal, a childhood special treat, a stopover quick brunch on way to some place, a relaxed evening snack during a laid back holiday or a little surprise created specially for you. There is nothing like quietly slipping out of bed at night and secretly eating your favorite food, often with bare hands.No spoons, no knifes. Eating with fingers has a spiritual , therapeutic benefit to which we can talk about some other time. It is also extremely sensuous at times. :p

I believe that like music food too is highly trasnportive. We are suckers for emotions and amazingly sensitive and even a thought of a kala khatta transports me to an evening at the beach in Mumbai or a tender stuffed steak and Merlot can make me year for that particular night in the hills. Nostalgia is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or return of some real or romanticized period or irrecoverable condition or setting in the past” and the best part about it is that it doesn’t discriminate against those dollops of butters, the fiery spices, the oil dripping roadside snacks, the tongue coloring lick lollies and the rest of those magically joyful delights.  Sometimes it is not just about food but it is also about the person or the place and the warmth it that fill you with.

The fondest memory is of my maternal grandmother’s home in Pune. I visited her during summer vacations and the sights and sounds, the aromas and tastes still make me hungry. I can visualize her sitting on a low stool churning white butter with almost devotion as if it was some spiritual ritual. I would linger around in the shadows waiting for the cue and land on her lap before she would call my name. I can still taste the softness fresh dollop of plum size butter dripping through her soft plump wrinkled fingers. A love that spread from her face to mine. There was a kind of an energy that passed between us at that moment. Something that even now makes me find strength in weaker moments. The best part was that none of my cousins were ever part of this luxury of love. It made me feel very special.

Travel can be very nostalgic esp if you are travelling by train or by road. As a kid the train travel revolved around incredible food smells and lip smacking tastes. The milky, sugary chai garam  in  mitti ka kullhar ( terracotta cup) n foggy winter days, the garam bajia wrapped in a piece of local newspaper, the unmistakable mouth watering station ki allu – poori ( boiled potato veggie with deep fried Indian bread) , the chana chor garam, the local ice cream which usually you won’t find anywhere else except on stations, local sweets and snacks, the list is as long as the journeys taken. Distinct  flavors  that change at every 50 Kms, region to region, district to district. You can never forget how wonderful the Agra ka petha or the Shrikhand of Gwaliar tasted on those rail journeys. It is an entire world of  authentic cuisine  waiting to be discovered. Many times I try to bring out the same flavor or texture id a particular dish I ate at some quint station but it just doesn’t happen. I guess it is a lot to do with that moment in time .

Have you ever tasted the udderly delicious colostrum milk preparation called Kharvas. I had it for the firs time as  a small girl and can never forget the taste of it. I was woken up early at dawn and rushed to witness the most amazing experience of my lifetime. My cousin showed me the little calf just three days old sitting near its proud jersey mother and other doting females. It was the first time I had fresh milk warm and rich straight from the udders .. it was an unforgettable experience and though I am not a big fan of Milk I thoroughly enjoyed it. My aunt prepared Kharvas that day and I can tell you there is nothing in the whole world that tastes that yummy. Google it 😀

There is a special kind of magic in certain kitchens Some hands dish out the most simple yet unforgettable dishes. Many of them leave you  longing for them even after s many years. Some places have specialties that haunt you to come back  like the neera centers in Lonavala and Pune, the chaat at UPSC in Delhi, the parathas at Murthal and Moolchand flyover (heard the place has shut down), the  idli sambhar of college canteen split 1/2 with bestie, the ripe jackfruit and tangy raw tamarind on a push cart in an old local Pune market, the bun omelette and tea at a roadside stall after a night out, the pot meals cooked with children and their cooking disaster/achievements which were thoroughly enjoyed, mom’s varan bhaaat etc etc..

I knew once I get on to nostalgia food train it will go on forever so the post is in two parts. I still won’t be able to cover all of it I know but will try to share as much as I can.

Though all my travels and time spent in various cities has very fond food memories some of them are special.

Special because of the people who are part of them, special because that time spent together, the fun, laughter and chilled out feeling will never return.

I will take you through that in the next post.

Meanwhile let me tell you there is no such joy as slowly licking chilled a bowlful of smooth delectable saffron freckled shrikhand with your fingers or digging into red juicy watermelons and ripe mangoes , their juices dripping down the corners of your mouth or the insides of your arms. 😀

Some fruits need to be eaten with the passion they require. Of course now in a “civilized ” society one needs to learn the “table manners” but What the Heck… sometimes we can give in to the joys of eating .. can’t we?

Watch out for Part 2 with some sizzle stories next Monday. I will go get my bar of dark chocolate.