Ala (Himachal Pradesh), June 8 You can begin with a baked yam leaf starter, move on to a dal slow cooked and sautéed in mustard oil and wind up with lip-smacking sweet rice... the traditional cuisine of Himachal Pradesh is a vegetarian's delight.
A riot of herbs, berries, cereals and fresh vegetables grow wild on the wet rock faces of the Himalayan slopes sheltered by canopies of towering pines, deodar and silver oak trees at elevations of 5,000 feet and above. And much of it finds its way into the food.
The most common platter is the "Dham" meal — a vegetarian feast cooked by Boti Brahmins, who are cooks by tradition. These feasts are popular community meals in the remote villages of Chamba, Mandi, Lahaul and Spiti districts during religious fairs or weddings.
The food acquires religious significance because it is offered to the local gods before being served to guests who squat cross-legged on the floor to eat from 'epattalsi' or plates of fresh green leaves.
"A sticky variety of rice grown locally, lentils, herbs, fruits, beans, grams, yoghurt and traditional Indian spices are the mainstay of Himachal food cooked in mustard oil and clarified homemade butter," chef Somdutt Sharma, a native of Himachal Pradesh and an authority on its cuisine, said.
The fact that most of the districts in the state are difficult of access compel people to keep their cuisine basic and simple, the chef said.
A Dham meal usually begins with a combination of starters known by names like atkori or patande or pathroru, basically buckwheat or yam leaves and wheat or gram flour rolled into cakes and pancakes.
In the Chamba district, which houses Ala town, a 10-hour ride from state capital Shimla, the pathroru is steam baked leaves of yam coated in layers of gram flour, Sharma said. The starters are served with tamarind or mint dip.
It is followed by rice, and sidu, a local variety of bread eaten with butter, and lentil broth.
"The rice can be cooked with butter milk, turmeric and salt as a variation," said Sharma, who works at an eco-tourist resort, Aamod, in Chamba district.
A platter of finely diced lingru or jungle asparagus fried in mustard oil and flavoured with spices and chillies provides sustenance to villagers.
The asparagus is eaten with bread, clarified butter, kheru — a tangy buttermilk soup cooked with turmeric, spices and garnished with diced coriander and pickled apples flavoured with herbs, pepper and rock salt.
The lentil dishes — madara, moong dal and makhni — are different from their counterparts in the Gangetic plains.
The lentils are boiled, lightly sauteed in mustard oil, flavoured with whole spices, salt and served with large dollops of clarified butter, unlike in many Indian states where they are cooked over slow fires with a heavy combination of spices, Sharma pointed out.
The historic Chamba Valley is famous for a lip-smacking madara, a curry of red kidney beans, yoghurt, tomato, spices and clarified butter. It is often cooked with a big delicious variety of potatoes, sourced from the farms of the Central Potato Research Institute located at Ala town.
The moong dal gets a makeover too.
"It is usually cooked in two ways, a green broth and a yellow soup cooked with pungent mustard, curd and spices. A spoon of clarified butter is used as garnish," the chef said.
The dessert is a staple meetha chawal, rice cooked with jaggery and dry fruits.
For those who still want their meat, there is spicy sour chicken or mutton cooked with apple seeds, pomegranate seeds and spices.
"Women are generally vegetarians in the hills while the men eat meat," Kamal Kishor Thakur, a hotelier from Kangra Valley, said.
According to chefs at small eateries in Ala, promoting traditional food among tourists was becoming difficult with the culture of "maggi (noodles) and omelettes" invading the quick-eat stops by tourists in transit.
"Even the mountain eagles like omelettes!" laughed a cook.