From Himalayas, with love

Having wrapped up cooking a Kumaoni feast at a lit fest in Uttarakhand, chef and food stylist Michael Swamy discusses a menu from the hills

City chef Michael Swamy was cooking up a storm in Dhanachuli, a hilly village that sits a few miles from Mukteshwar in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand.

Known for man-eating tigers and Jim Corbett’s adventures, the region is split into the Himalayan hills and the plains.

A man cuts Amaranth pods in Dhanachuli. pics/ michael swamy
A man cuts Amaranth pods in Dhanachuli. Pics/ Michael Swamy

Swamy, on his third trip there, was whipping up a traditional spread for guests at the first edition of the Kumaon Literary Festival.

Mugdha Savkar, a researcher who works closely with Swamy, who is also a travel photographer and writer, says Kumaoni food is seasonal. “Every household grows its own herbs and vegetables, and ghee replaces oil.”

Bhang seeds are used to make chutney
Bhang seeds are used to make chutney

The area’s most famous pulse is the bhatt, a version of the black soyabean, and masoor.

It’s a cuisine that uses very little spice. And since the crop grown in the crisp mountain air is delicious, all locals ever need to add for flavour is pahadi chillies, salt, turmeric, cumin and carom seeds. Bread made from ragi (maduva) and amaranth (rajgira) and rice are their primary carbohydrate source.

Geeta Akolia offers bhatt ki churkani made of black soyabeans. She asks  family members coming from her village, Gagur, to bring her ingredients specific to the Kumaon region. pic/pratik chorge
Geeta Akolia offers bhatt ki churkani made of black soyabeans. She asks  family members coming from her village, Gagur, to bring her ingredients specific to the Kumaon region. Pic/Pratik Chorge

Their choice of vegetables include wild fiddlehead ferns (lingur), wild mushrooms, red mustard (lai) and root vegetables, including two varieties of potatoes. “One, a starchy red type that’s sweet and crunchy.

The other is called gheti, and is an aerial yam (suran grows under) that grows on a vine,” says Swamy, who has experimented with gheti to make soups, salads, carpaccio and sabzi. “It is eaten with curd on days when the locals fast. In the monsoons, it’s time to savour the delicious water chestnut, and starting October, the famous pears and apples of Himachal and Uttaranchal are on the table. Radish is found round the year.”

Michael Swamy
Michael Swamy

Mutton is always of great demand in the mountains, and sheep rearing is the most common livelihood. During the monsoons, of course, locals source trout from the fresh springs. “While chicken doesn’t find favour here, the jungle fowl and quail are a delicacy,” explains Savkar.

Interestingly, the mutton here is always slow-cooked over eight to 10 hours in a pressure cooker. “The sheep are exercised, which makes the meat tough. Meat is usually cooked in a light yoghurt curry,” explains Swamy.

While most original ingredients aren’t available to Mumbai-based Kumaoni, Geeta Dinesh Akolia, 44, she tries to stay true to traditional cooking habits. “When someone travels to my village of Garur in Bageshwar district, they get me bhatt, pahadi chillies, lai and lingur,” says the Kandivli resident.

When the black pulse is not handy, she replaces it with urad dal (pigeon peas). “The dal is roasted in a pan to peel the outer coating, and then ground in a mortar. I cook this semi-ground mixture in ghee, and add a few spoons of gram flour (besan) before seasoning it with a pinch of salt, chillies and turmeric powder.

Add a little water and let it simmer, before sliding in some chopped tomatoes,” says Akoliya. The dish she cannot replicate, however, is the bal mithai — a sweet made of khoya and topped with sugar pellets. “They look like homeopathy pills,” she laughs.

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