“The Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of Southeast” edited by Namita Gokhale focuses on a crucial, enthralling, politically turbulent, yet often under-reported part of the Himalayan belt — the “East of South-east”. With over 30 contributors, it attempts to describe the sense of shared lives and cultural connectivity between the denizens of this area. Poetry, fiction, and mysticism are juxtaposed with essays on strategy and diplomacy, espionage and the deep state, photographs, folk tales, and fables. We bring you this exclusive extract with the permission of the publisher, HarperCollins.
My earliest memories of meals in the mountains date back to the 1950s and Mukteshwar, where I was born and grew up. It was a small town perched on a ridge at an altitude of 7,500 feet, offering a breathtaking view of the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas but little else in terms of connectivity. It was surrounded by a mixed forest of oak and rhododendron, along with isolated strands of deodar. Nestling under the shadow of an old Shiva temple were sparsely populated hamlets whose residents toiled year-long on handkerchief-sized terraced fields. Like most villages in the Himalayan region, everyone — rich or poor — consumed what was locally produced. The winters were harsh and the supply of vegetables from the plains all but dried up from November to March, but my mother tried her best to keep us well-nourished with a menu composed of dried and stored vegetables.
Over the years I have had opportunities to savour different types of Himalayan cuisine, starting from the Pahadi Brahmin fare of my childhood to Newari delicacies, Himachali dishes and Buddhist food. I have found several similarities between these cuisines of the Himalayan region. For example, singal (sweet semolina spirals) used to be a staple during festivals in the Kumaon region.
Resembling jumbo jalebis — the spirals were crisp on the outside and fluffy within — these were mildly sweet and redolent of saunf (fennel). Years later, I encountered this long-lost friend in Nepal where it goes by the name of sel roti. In Kumaon, it is made with semolina batter while in Nepal rice flour is used.
The mountainous regions of eastern Nepal have many things in common with the hill people in the northeastern states of India. The Magars traditionally consume pork but eschew buffalo, while the Gurungs consider pork a taboo but have no inhibition about buffalo meat. The Tamangs, Rais and Limbus have a preference for kinema (fermented soybean), bamboo shoots, buckwheat and thongba (millet beer). Raksi is stronger and many in the cities as well as in villages down their food with this local beer.
It was Sita Sreshta, a Newar from Kathmandu, who introduced me to the exotic delicacies that are part of the culinary legacy of this artistic community. The ingredients used may be the same as in other mountainous regions but the final product is transformed almost beyond recognition. Unlike women in the Indian villages, those dwelling in the Kathmandu Valley have more time (comparatively!) to experiment in the kitchen.
Newar traders enjoy a level of affluence greater than the workers and peasants and can afford to spend more on food. Celebratory festive delicacies are more elaborate. Achaar (pickle) — both vegetable- and meat-based — is widely used as an accompaniment. During a visit to Nepal, I came across kwathi, a soup prepared in the Newari kitchens, a close cousin of the rasa/tathwani in Uttarakhand but made with different beans and lentils. Wo is a variation of the barha. Syen is the familiar fried kaleji (liver). Mye is boiled and fried tongue and I have never understood why it has not become better known.
Another cuisine I enjoy is that of the Buddhists. Buddhist food, like the religion, has travelled far and wide, from India to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Tibet, China, Japan and Korea. The essence of the Buddha’s teachings is encapsulated in majjhima patipada — the middle path. If desire, the root cause of all distress and misery, is to be conquered, we must lead perfectly balanced lives, avoiding all excess and ensuring that nothing disturbs the tranquillity of the mind. The body must be properly nourished and kept free from painful diseases that can only distract the mind from sadhana (practice). For the Buddhists, food is an integral part of their sadhana. Like right thought and right livelihood, right food can complement and facilitate right contemplation. When we eat, it should be with deep-felt gratitude and reverence for what we are imbibing.
Tibetans believe that it is essential to make a lifelong commitment to a healthy dietary regime. All physical disorders result from impaired digestion and faulty distribution of nutrients to different vital organs. The Tibetan medicine system maintains that most diseases can be cured by eating right.
The Buddhist culinary philosophy is rooted in the teachings of Ayurveda — the ancient Indian science of life. As in Ayurveda, Buddhism distinguishes between foods of light (satvik) and foods of darkness (tamasik). Light foods are essential, pure and easy to digest. Dark foods put a strain on the system and are toxic and intoxicating.
It is not just Ayurveda, though, that has provided the base for Buddhist thinking on food; indigenous traditions and dietary practices from the different lands it travelled to have mediated and spurred on its evolution. The inheritance of Buddhist food is truly pan-Asian and pan-Himalayan.
The wonderful range that Buddhist repast offers is, to say the least, exhilarating. The Buddha never asked his followers to renounce what was natural and did not interfere with the practice of the middle path. A slight adjustment to one’s lifestyle was often enough to “centre” oneself and regain the lost balance. It is amazing what joy can be experienced while “restricting” one’s diet to Buddhist menus — even a purely vegetarian one. The colours and textures are seldom interfered with and the cooking styles can vary.
The subtle aromatics of Indian cuisine, the chromatic creativity of the Thai and the rustic ruggedness of the basic Tibetan diet offer a dazzling range to choose from. From piping hot nourishing soups and crunchy cool exotic salads to lamay, tempura, momos, pickles and relishes to accompany rice or noodles, myriad curries and desserts, the Buddhist culinary repertoire is rich and resplendent. Modern research has validated many of the traditional beliefs about Buddhist food. In Tibetan cuisine the traditional repast comprises a bowl of roasted barley and butter tea.
An edition of Mountain Echoes, an annual literature festival, took me to Bhutan and provided me a rare opportunity to savour hill food very different from ours. Ema datshi chillies ‘n’ cheese is the national dish, but there is much else to tempt you if you aren’t addicted to the breakfast buffet in the hotel. Buckwheat noodles and pancakes paired with local wild greens and sundried meat are foods that haven’t changed for generations. There were friends who discovered what they described as excellent “thin-crust pizza joints” and “yak meat hamburger outlets” too.
Regrettably, aspirational foods — fast and fashionable, mostly junk — have made steady inroads into the Himalayas. From Ladakh to Bhutan through Himachal and Uttarakhand, not to forget Nepal, meals in the mountains have lost their flavour. Even if the dishes bear old names — momo or thukpa, sekua or bhuta — the ingredients and recipes have “evolved” to suit “contemporary” tastes and health concerns. There are a few septuagenarians around who can recollect foraged foods like shishuna (stinging Himalayan nettles), linguda (curved ferns), jarg (wild spinach) and taruda (a variety of yam growing between two hard rocks) or chewn (edible wild mushrooms) that until two generations ago came to the rescue of the abjectly poor. People have switched from coarse cereals like madua to wheat, and refined oil and vanaspati have annihilated gai ghew (ghee made with cow’s milk).
Nature has been ruthlessly ravaged and biodiversity destroyed while chasing the mirage of development. Communities in villages even at high altitudes are no longer bound together by shared values, dreams and struggles. It’s not surprising that festive feasts and ritual foods have died unlamented deaths. Patrician deluxe hotels and a few plebian eateries continue to serve “ethnic” thalis or some little-known “lost” dishes but the magic is missing. This is not the stuff that memories are made of.