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Why Himachali cuisine is having a moment

Demystifying ‘pahadi khaana’ as food from Kangra, Chamba and Mandi picks up steam

Sherry Malhotra at a food pop-up.
Sherry Malhotra at a food pop-up.

We are often typecast as momo and Maggi people but that’s not who we are," says Nitika Kuthiala, a home chef based in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, who serves Himachali food through her venture, Pahadi Pattal. On the scale of over-exposed to completely obscure, traditional Himachali cuisine, popular as pahadi khaana, tilts towards the latter. Its diverse flavours and unique dishes are packed with the thrill of discovering a relatively unknown cuisine.

Sherry Malhotra’s ‘siddu’, an Himachali bread.
Sherry Malhotra’s ‘siddu’, an Himachali bread.

Himachalis are most proud of their wide variety of rotis and breads, made with flours like wheat, rice, barley, buckwheat and millets. Fermented wheat dough is used to make breads such as siddus and baturu. Steamed rice is a daily affair and is accompanied with curd-based gravies, known as madra, cooked with rajma, chickpeas and potatoes. Flavoured with khada masala, such as whole cinnamon, cardamom and bay leaves, most likely a Kashmiri influence, each gravy leaves a satisfying aftertaste. If there’s one lesson that the pandemic has taught time-crunched WFH food enthusiasts, it’s this—they can always fall back on home chefs whipping up regional specialities. Currently, pahadi khaana is riding high on the novelty factor and Himachali home chefs, the rarest of rare species, are pressed for time. Last week, for instance, I called Kuthiala to place an order for a weekend meal. A thali-style meal for two is priced at 1,249 and orders need to be placed 24 hours earlier. But though the call was made well in time, she said we would have to wait till the following weekend since she already had an order for 15 people. “I am so busy, it feels like death-by-dham for me," she added, referring to the traditional Himachali feast called dham—a community feast organized by a family to celebrate events such as childbirth, a job promotion, house-warming, a wedding, even retirement. The guest list at such feasts can range from 100-3,000 people. It is believed the dham is influenced by the Kashmiri wazwan but the food is completely sattvic—devoid of onion, garlic and, of course, non-vegetarian items. About 15-20 dishes are served on a large green leaf, or pattal, usually of saal (Shorea robusta). As the dham travels from Chamba in the north to Kangra in the west and Mandi in central Himachal, it is influenced by that region’s food practices. For instance, Chamba is known for rajma madra, Kangra for chana (chickpeas) madra and Mandi for sepu vadi (split urad dal dumplings).

However, many Himachalis are meat-eaters too. “We are known for our mutton preparations as well," Kuthiala says. There’s khatta meat—an appetizing gravy seasoned with amchur (a sour raw mango powder);chaa gosht—mutton slow-cooked in buttermilk, and gosht rara—a curd-based, succulent mutton dish. The chaa gosht, cooked in buttermilk, is a hit with Kuthiala’s clients.

The other popular items on her menu are taken from the dhamaloo chana madra (a curd-based chickpea and potato curry) and teiliyamah (a dark lentil gravy with coconut pieces). This week she introduced baturu, a close cousin of Mangaluru buns. In the weeks to follow, her menu will expand to include snacks. One of them, called panjiri, is a nourishing mix of Himachali grains and nuts, akin to muesli, and can double up as a snack or breakfast item. Usually eaten by new mothers, it has a shelf life of up to a year. There will be other snacks too, such as Himachali gujiyas and savoury namkeens.

Nitika Kuthiala’s ‘panjiri’.
Nitika Kuthiala’s ‘panjiri’.

In Mumbai, home chef Sherry Malhotra, who has used social media to popularize the cuisine and has done Himachali food pop-ups at hotels like the Marriott, is launching her food venture, A Girl From The Hills, next month, in time for the festive season. Like Kuthiala, Malhotra, who says her signature dish is the chaa gosht, plans to introduce her clients to several dishes from the dham, especially in the dessert segment. It will comprise kaddu ka halwa (pumpkin halwa), boondi ka meetha and gulab jamun ka meetha. The word meetha is added because the desserts are dripping with sugar syrup and mixed with dry fruits. In a traditional dham, the first course is a sweet dish accompanied by steamed rice. Somewhat like Kerala’s Onam Sadya, which begins with fried banana pieces coated with jaggery.

Malhotra is keen on serving up Himachali breads such as siddu, babru and baturu. Both siddu and babru need fermented dough. Siddus are steamed and come in sweet and savoury options. The first is served with ghee while the latter is accompanied by mutton and a lip-smacking pomegranate chutney. Babru is roasted on a tawa (griddle) and can be had with any of the gravies. “While naan and tandoori rotis are the most popular north Indian breads, I want people to know about the wide variety of Himachali breads too," she says.

If you want to try Himachali cuisine but are unable to get it in your city, you can always follow Kuthiala and Malhotra on Instagram, @PahadiPattal and @AGirlFromTheHills, for recipes.

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