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Saturday, January 23, 2021

A Whiff of the Hills

Home chef Suman Sood offered the flavours of a traditional dham meal to food enthusiasts in a community luncheon

Written by Damini Ralleigh | Updated: July 19, 2017 11:49:37 pm
“Himachali dham consists of vegetarian dishes served on special occasions like weddings or religious functions in Himachal Pradesh. As a result, meat and onions are not used in their preparation,” says Suman Sood, of the cuisine that was traditionally prepared only by botis, a sub-caste of Brahmins who are chefs.

For home chef Suman Sood, nostalgia for her childhood is loaded into air-tight pickle jars. Born in Menjha in Himachal Pradesh, she grew up in a large family and was introduced to cooking at a young age — mostly by way of pickling. “My grandmother would say, ‘those who are born in the month of bhaado (monsoon) make for excellent cooks. Whatever they touch will taste good’,” said Sood, giggling at the fulfilled prophecy. A grandmother herself now, she makes more than 50 kinds of pickles that are traded online.
However, this weekend, Sood conjured a traditional Himachali dham meal for over a dozen foodies on the prowl for an unfamiliar tang, with the help of COMMEAT, a start-up focussed on building an online community linking home cooks and food enthusiasts. “The real chefs are found in the homes of India. We wanted to provide a platform to them, where they could showcase their culinary knowledge and skills while introducing people to lesser-known cuisines that they normally would not get the chance to try. Dham fits into our vision, especially as it is rare to find in cities,” says Eesha Singh, chief operating officer, COMMEAT

“Himachali dham consists of vegetarian dishes served on special occasions like weddings or religious functions in Himachal Pradesh. As a result, meat and onions are not used in their preparation,” says Sood, of the cuisine that was traditionally prepared only by botis, a sub-caste of Brahmins who are chefs. The priming usually begins the night before, as it did for Sood too, who had assembled a plenteous spread of dham staples that she learned to make in her grandmother’s kitchen. “Dham mainly consists of khatta, madra and mah. But it changes as one travels across the state. What I will be serving is Palampuri dham, in which dishes are a unique blend of spices and yoghurt, since we don’t use tomatoes to make the gravy,” said Sood.

The binge in Delhi was set in motion with Pakoodu with Chaccha, spicy kalan dal balls served with a tangy raw mango chutney, and Patode, a unique starter from the region made with steamed arbi leaves. “Rolls of arbi leaves stuffed with besan masala are first steamed and fried in little oil,” explained Sood to her curious guests, before they moved to the mains — Aloo Chana Madra, chunks of potato and chickpeas simmered in a yoghurt gravy; Chane Ka Khatta, a Kangri dham special of black chickpeas in a sweet and tangy gravy; Teliya Mah, an almost forgotten recipe of black urad dal cooked with whole and ground spices; Ambua, made with small, ripe mangoes in buttermilk paired with Aata Bhaturu, a hearty stuffed roti made with whole wheat; and Lungdu Ka Madra, fiddlehead slow cooked in yoghurt, prepared for only two-three months in a year when the fern is available.

“A dham meal is usually savoured in pattals, while sitting on the floor,” informed Sood. Along with phirnee, a rich creamy dessert made with ground rice, flavoured with sugar, saffron and rose petals, she had also prepared the rustic Nashasta, commonly known as Aata Seera. “Wheat grains need to be soaked in water for four-five days but the water has to be changed every day. The swollen wheat is then dried in a dish. The wheat produces a pulpy fluid that settles at the bottom. Once the pulp is completely dried, it is scraped off and used in the seera,” said Sood, as her guests savoured the sweetness of her labour.

As they left, she offered them a bit of her childhood, in, of course, pickle jars.

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