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A chef’s food journey through the mountains

During an intense, immersive trip through Uttarakhand, chef Thomas Zacharias discovers spectacular new flavours and ingredients

A pahadi thali with Sisod ka Saag, Taur ki Sabji, Gahat ke Bidvey, Bhat ka Jaula, Jhingore ke Kheer (ChefTZac/Twitter)

“I’ve eaten & experienced a lot of crazy things during my 8 years of food trips across India & abroad, but never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d be out in the cold ‘foraging’ for snow to use as an ingredient in a special local dish here in the mountains,” wrote chef Thomas Zacharias in a tweet on 3 March with the hashtag ‘COTRuttarakhand’ (‘Chef on the Run Uttarakhand’). For two weeks spanning January and February this year, Zacharias, former executive chef of the award-winning modern Indian restaurant The Bombay Canteen, had been travelling and eating his way through the mountain state, discovering spectacular local dishes, ingredients, and cooking techniques that are practically unknown to most of us, and meticulously documenting his discoveries on Twitter and Instagram Stories.

The ‘crazy thing’ he refers to is a local dish called ‘hyun’, somewhat like snow cones or ice gola—except it’s made by gathering fresh snow and flavouring it with a sweet syrup made from seabuckthorn berries and a souring ingredient like chulondh (dried apricot pulp) or tithrai (a tamarind-like herb).

Thomas Zacharias in a field of kandali saag or Himalayan stinging nettle
Thomas Zacharias in a field of kandali saag or Himalayan stinging nettle (ChefTZac)

These intense periods of immersive travel have punctuated many of Chef Thomas’s career moves—during a stint at Olive Bar & Kitchen, he took a four-month sabbatical from work and backpacked across 36 cities and towns in France Italy and Spain—and this time too, the Uttarakhand trip happened soon after his departure from The Bombay Canteen. “The 2013 trip across Europe was a revelation in many ways, not the least in making me think of how little I knew Indian food. My training had mainly been in European cooking, and somehow the realisation made me feel a bit uncomfortable, somehow less authentic,” says Zacharias. Soon after the trip, he quit Olive and joined The Bombay Canteen, starting his tenure by doing a whirlwind two-month trip across India to research local food traditions in several states. Since then, he has done this kind of immersive food travel in Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and the North-Eastern states.

The Uttarakhand trip is a great example of how each city, town, and village in India has a distinct food culture, and the depth of possibility each region provides to anyone willing to spend time slowly discovering food traditions that have largely been unexplored and undocumented. One of the reasons Zacharias chose Uttarakhand as the destination this time around was the fact that the state’s food is woefully under-represented in Indian menus, and he felt it offers a fresh complexity and unparalleled use of local, seasonal ingredients that were begging to be discovered.

These are just some of the dishes and ingredients he found: chakora chaat (grated local pomelo garnished with lemon juice and other condiments), gethi (a local tuber with a distinctive black skin and firm white flesh, more flavorful than regular spuds), jakhiya aloo (a potato dish flavoured by wild mustard or jakhiya seeds), anthe (blood sausages made of goat blood encased in intestine, offals being an intrinsic part of Pahadi cooking), goshua (a Garhwali preparation from the Tons Valley of Uttarakhand, which the chef describes as “a dish that’s familiar yet unlike anything I’ve ever before tasted, somewhere between a sweet ravioli and a stuffed pancake”), faaf (a mold that acts as a fermentation starter used to make a local drink called kachchi using ragi and jaggery as the base), kandali saag or Himalayan stinging nettle (also called bichhu buti ka saag in some areas), used across the state to make soupy broths and vegetable dishes, and one of his favourites, nimbu saan—a simple Kumaoni dish made of the local lemons tossed with hemp seeds. Hemp or ‘bhang’ seeds are a common ingredient in Pahadi food, and are even mixed with rock salt to make bhang ka namak, used to flavour many dishes.

Clockwise from top: Chakora chaat, hyun, anthe or blood sausages, and nimbu saan
Clockwise from top: Chakora chaat, hyun, anthe or blood sausages, and nimbu saan (ChefTZac)

“On paper, if you told me nimbu mixed with salt and some basic ingredients could taste so delicious and refreshing, I wouldn’t believe it. But having it freshly made, surrounded by local people — that was a completely different experience. The sense of place is also so important,” says Zacharias, who hopes to host a food show someday; perhaps be the Anthony Bourdain of Indian food—not only discovering previously unknown dishes but placing them within the people, culture and politics they belong to.

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