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Brand Ladakh enters the menu

The cuisine is gaining popularity—some diners are travelling all the way to Ladakh to experience it first hand

The Ladakhi dish Lama Pakthuk by Kunzes Angmo
The Ladakhi dish Lama Pakthuk by Kunzes Angmo

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This weekend, Ladakhi chef and food entrepreneur Kunzes Angmo will hold a food pop-up in Mumbai. It is nearly sold out.  

Mumbai-based chef and restaurateur Vanika Choudhary, who runs the restaurant Noon in Mumbai, is collaborating with Angmo for the experimental menu, seeking to reinterpret Ladakhi dishes and ingredients in contemporary ways. There will be a craft cocktail with barley arak (Ladakhi distilled liquor), a tartlet made with buckwheat flour and mawa cake infused with kosnyot (caraway seeds from Ladakh).

A few miles away from Noon, in the Bandra Kurla Complex, is Masque. In 2016, it sourced about 60kg of sea buckthorn from Nubra Valley, using it to make a pre-dessert with sea buckthorn lollies paired with black pepper mousse. Since then, this ingredient has become part of their chaats, as a superlative sea buckthorn pani puri that debuted last year.  

Sea buckthorn has found its way into cocktails too. The two-month-old bar, Cobbler & Crew, in Pune, Maharashtra, has a drink with sea buckthorn. The ingredient seems, in fact, to have been elevated to the status the bhut jolokia pepper enjoyed a decade ago.  

Earlier this year, chef and restaurateur Nilza Wangmo of Alchi’s Kitchen in Ladakh was in Delhi to curate a Himalayan Food Festival at the restaurant Pluck in Pullman Aerocity. Her menu featured traditional dishes like skyu (a soup-based pasta-like preparation), yarkhandi pulao and a cheese cake made with Ladakhi churpe. Alchi’s Kitchen, located about 70km from Leh, has been showcasing Ladakhi food since its opening eight years ago.

From dishes to ingredients, Ladakhi cuisine has been gaining popularity steadily. It could be due to the boom in dining out and the growing appetite for regional fare. While food festivals and pop-ups offer a peek into this cuisine, foodies are even travelling all the way to Ladakh to experience it first hand. An interesting development is the beginnings of culinary tourism. Masque, for instance, took a group of diners to Ladakh last year. That’s also when the sea buckthorn chaat took shape.

In Leh, Kunzes Angmo, who has been documenting Ladakhi food, curates three-hour meals focused on culture and commensality at Jade House, the family bungalow that has been turned into a boutique home-stay. “I have been doing this since 2019. There was a demand for it because people want to know the whys, hows and whats of my cuisine,” she says.

(From left) Vanika Choudhary with a bottle of barley beer and Kunzes Angmo with barley arak.
(From left) Vanika Choudhary with a bottle of barley beer and Kunzes Angmo with barley arak.

The multiple-course experience has traditional dishes like drapu (Ladakhi-style pasta stewed in apricot kernel sauce) and sugu chutagi (local bow-tie pasta with goat trotters), among others. At 2,300 per head, the experience is exclusive, limited to a group of five-seven at a time. Like most others, they had to close during the lockdown.

Today, restaurants like Alchi’s Kitchen, and Leh’s Namza Dining and Syah, make it to the must-eat lists of tourists. If you plan to visit or book a spot at Angmo’s curated dining experiences, in fact, you need to book a few weeks in advance.

The most popular dishes on Alchi’s menu are chanthuk (a soup made with whole grains), tain tain (buckwheat crepes) and chutagi (hand-rolled pasta cooked in mutton stew). Boiled, one-pot dishes thickened with barley, flavoured with herbs like nettle and enriched with vegetables or meat, are at the heart of most meals. Apricots and apples, widely grown, are eaten fresh or dried. Wangmo makes flour with dried apples, using it for pancakes at breakfast.

Chu-tagi at Namza Dining.
Chu-tagi at Namza Dining.

At Namza, yarkhandi pulao and gyuma are a fixture. Explaining the evolution of tastes, co-founder Jigmet Disket says non-Ladakhi food like chole bhature and rajma chawal started creeping on to restaurant menus in the region after the 2009 movie, Three Idiots, triggered an influx of tourists. Gradually, however, tourists moved not only beyond chole bhature but also beyond the ubiquitous Tibetan momos and thukpas, seeking out Ladakhi food in all its diversity. For instance, as the altitude increases from west to east Ladakh, the cheeses change too: cow cheese in the lower altitudes, dringmo (female yak) cheese in the higher altitudes, says Angmo. The harsh weather means that ingredients like chives, apricots and nettles are dried and stored for use when fresh produce is unavailable.

Interest in Ladakhi cuisine led to a gradual growth in the number of entrepreneurs and chefs championing local cuisine. Coupled with this was awareness of the need to preserve a food story enriched with practices like foraging, influenced by altitudes, and shaped by diverse communities, from Afghan traders to the monks of Tibet. And, most importantly, to keep it authentic. “The brand Ladakh sells,” rues Angmo, “and there are companies that sell litchi juice saying it’s from here, although the fruit doesn’t grow in our land.”

The sea buckthorn industry, she says, is bigger now than the tourism industry, with consumer goods brands having discovered its nutrient-rich profile. She explains, “During the long and harsh winter, when nothing grows, birds eat sea buckthorn. Our ancestors called it chaksod (food for the birds). Think of it as living and sharing food with those who sustain us, because birds are the propagators of this berry. That’s why, in Ladakh, you will notice sea buckthorn growing on the route of migratory birds.”

These are the kinds of titbits she shares at her meal experiences, which are almost akin to food study workshops. The collaborative menu at Noon reads like an education on Ladakhi cuisine. Sample this excerpt from a dish description: “Zathuk | Tsong Thalshrak. It’s a wild nettle soup in a base of tshil (rendered goat fat) mildly thickened with sgnamphey (roasted barley flour which is ground in a traditional water mill); seasoned with shrannma (Ladakhi pigeon peas), chin-tse (fresh celery) and spoth (ground pepper) and dressed with fat crisps.” Hungry?

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