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 local black lentils 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. I was happy to check into my alpine chalet, which was pretty but not precious, and extremely comfortable.
Collapsing on the bed, I fell into a deep sleep.
Rakkh sits on a hill nestled between the steep granite peaks of the Dhauladhars and the sweeping Kangra Valley. Employing its staff from nearby villages, and surrounded by an organic garden that grows indigenous produce, the resort is in many ways a microcosm of Kangra itself.
I rubbed my eyes in disbelief as I spotted pert red strawberries peeping out from beneath serrated green leaves. Seeing my expression, Hema, a ruddy-complexioned lady who was diligently plucking out weeds from the raised plant beds, chuckled, “At this altitude, strawberries only grow in June.”
Walking out into the surrounding countryside after a hearty breakfast of babru, a fermented wheat bread stuffed with black grams, I spent time in the nearby village. Later, I joined some guests on a trek to the serenely lovely Dorzong Monastery in Gopalpur. Walking through the meadows, we stopped every now and then to gawk at the snow-capped Dhauladhars, gather pinecones and snap wild flowers and berries.
Dinner was at the whitewashed Himachali Rasoi, which revives rural cooking methods that are falling out of favour during modern times. Built like a traditional Himachali kitchen, it showcases brass utensils, a large stone chakki for grinding atta and dal and a kundi sota or mortar and pestle used for grinding masalas and chutneys.
Chef Shiv Kumar 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.
Kumar supervised the meal, casting an attentive eye over everything. Later, chatting with me, he held forth on the basics of Kangri cooking. “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.”
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. “I’m not sure what we would do without them. They are as much thebackbone of what we eat as curd, rice and ghee are,” Kumar 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 that required rolled-up sleeves, no spoons, my hands and a mountain of local rice to soak up the deeply-flavoured kidney beans.
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, sauteed with potatoes. “I gathered the beans from our garden,” she smiled, 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. “We gaddis grow our own grains and vegetables and keep cows for milk. You should visit during the monsoon when the mountains are full of wild mushrooms known as chhachis. We forage them when we take the cattle up to graze.”
As I traveled outside the resort, I continued to be delighted by the fresh and new. 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. Perched on a plastic chair, I lunched on the thali du jour comprising of rice and different kinds of madras and lentils. It was humble yet nuanced fare, standing apart with its fresh, perky flavours.
As the days went by, my regard for Kangri food, so inextricably connected with mountains and pastures, 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 in Rakkh, 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 narrow-necked brass pots known as charotis in a separate kitchen called the dham rasoi. Boti Brahmins, who specialize in dhaam cooking, had been specially brought from the village to prepare the food.
I ate alongside seven or eight local families who were staying at the resort. The feast, laid out on the floor, was accompanied by a song and dance by local folk artistes known as naatis, creating a bonhomous atmosphere.
The delicacies arrived in rapid succession. Three separate servings of rice were interspersed with various kinds of madras, date sabzi, lungru, chana dal, kadhi, urad dal, khatta mutton, and sweet rice. It tasted every bit as good as it smelled – perfectly cooked, spiced and awash with ghee.
As I remarked on the toothsome texture of the lentils, Rajat Railch, the owner of Rakkh, who had flown down from Delhi, joked. “I guess we learnt al dente cooking from the Italians. Or maybe they learnt it from us!”
Back in Mumbai, Divya Sud Qureshi, author of Flavours from the Kangra Valley 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. The pattals and dunnas (plates and bowls made from leaves) would be laid, and men wearing red dhotis and white baniyans would serve rice from a cane basket. Then the meal would begin.”
The reason for sitting on the floor is to signify man’s connection to earth. “All sections of the society sat thus irrespective of caste and creed to reinforce the impartial nature of mother earth in bestowing her bounties upon all her children,” Qureshi pointed out.
Goa-based restaurateur Ayushi Chauhan, who comes from Shimla, also reminisced about the massive feasts hosted at her village. “One of the most special ones is when we invite local deities home to seek their blessings for prosperity. But our food is different. Siddu, a steamed bun that’s vastly popular in Upper Himachal, is virtually unknown in Kangra.”
Chauhan lamented that Himachali food is scarcely known outside of the state. “I miss it in Goa. When I visit my village, I can’t get enough of it.” Qureshi echoed the feeling. “Himachali food isn’t underrated. It’s totally unrated.”
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 very reason it remains so marvelously unspoilt, with nary a modern cook
going out on a limb to create fusion masterpieces.
I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.
Sona Bahadur is a Mumbai-based writer and photographer.