Breakfasts of hot rotis topped with freshly churned white butter, accompanied by leafy green sabzis tempered with crunchy jakhiya (wild or dog mustard), welcomed me to my in-laws’ place in Uttarakhand two decades ago. These were followed by meals of basmati rice topped with ghee and paired with dal spiced with the garlicky notes of jambu (Allium stracheyi).
As a Gujarati married into aGarhwalifamily, Uttarakhand food has fascinated me since. Given the increasing interest in regional food in the post-pandemic world, I began to notice that Uttarakhand’s spices—from jakhiya, bhangjeera (Perilla frutescens), bhaang seeds (hemp seeds) and gandrayani (Angelica glauca) to lakhori chillies—had started gaining prominence in chef menus and were being listed on shopping websites.
In my opinion, if there is one spice that went from complete obscurity to culinary fame, it is jakhiya. It is the tiny seed of a plant known as Asian spider flower, cleome, and dog or wild mustard, and is foraged from fallow land where it grows in abundance. Today it has become a culinary ambassador of the state.
Chef Manish Mehrotra recently shared pictures on Instagram of hisKodo millet and potato salad with a jakhiya tadka. In a nod to his home state of Uttarakhand, chef Rahul Rana of the Michelin-starred Avatara in Dubai has introduced a millet-based dish that he serves withjakhiya aloo, a simple potato preparation spiced with this pahadi ingredient. Saransh Goila showcased jakhiya aloo as part of his popular #74DishesOfIndia video series. Nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar shared a video on Instagram for a raitathat uses jakhiya.
The more I study Uttarakhand cuisine, the more I realise we have only scratched the surface. A few years ago, when I began doing pop-ups in Mumbai featuring Uttarakhand cuisine, I noticed the curiosity about the unusual spices. So, in 2016, I put together a Uttarakhand Masala Daani to tell the pahadi spice story.
The state’s cuisine is largely categorised as Garhwali and Kumaoni. Warming bhangjeera seeds are the favoured tempering spice in the colder Kumaon, while nutty jakhiya is prevalent in the more temperate Garhwal region. Bhaang seeds are the preferred ingredient in chutneys and gravies in Kumaon. Go beyond these broad strokes, though, and the use of spices is even more hyper-local.
In the colder reaches of Chamoli in the north, pahadi kala jeera, a foraged wild cumin, is used in tempering, while in the Tons Valley, gandrayani substitutes the far harder-to-source asafoetida (heeng).
Uttarakhand’s culinary philosophy rests on two pillars. The first is the belief that food is medicine. In addition to the flavour, colour and texture that spices add to food, great attention is paid to the digestive properties. My mother-in-law, Saroj Ghildiyal, often uses the term taseer to illustrate this. Taseer is an Urdu word that loosely translates to the characteristics of an ingredient food, whether it has a warming or cooling effect. This is reflected in what spices are used, when and how, based on their effect or influence on other ingredients. So, bhaang is favoured in winter because it has a hot taseer that balances out the cold taseer of hard-to-digest winter vegetables, like radish.The second pillar is to allow the natural flavours of the main ingredients to shine through; this reflects in the minimalist approach to spice use.
In fact, we do not have elaborate masala blends. The usual suspects—turmeric and coriander powders—are used with local spices to create dishes unique to pahadis. Here are some spices from a pahadi kitchen.
The black jakhiya seeds crackle to life when added to hot mustard oil, emitting an earthy aroma and imparting a nutty crunch to dishes. Jakhiya is used to temper dry dishes like potatoes, hari bhujjis or dry sabzis made of leafy greens and other vegetables. When tempering, the oil must be smoking hot. If the oil is not hot enough, the seeds won’t cook properly and will be unpleasantly hard rather than crunchy in the final dish. The availability of this spice on Amazon is proof of its popularity.
Bhaang seeds belong to the same family of plants as the hallucinogen marijuana but they are not psychoactive. They are eaten across Uttarakhand but favoured for their warming qualities in colder regions. Bhaang seeds are usually roasted to heighten their nutty flavour. They can be eaten whole and are typically used in tempering and chutneys.
Bhangjeera, or perilla seeds, range in colour from grey to black. While they are eaten across Uttarakhand, they are mostly popular in Kumaon. Typically used as a tempering, they lend a crunch to vegetable dishes. They are also roasted and added to a winter trail mix along with nuts and toasted rice to make bhukna. Roasted and ground with salt and garlic, they make bhangjeere ka namak, or pisyoon loon (flavoured salts), served as a condiment.
Gandrayani, also known as gandherin, or choru, is an aromatic root or bark valued for its digestive and medicinal properties. It came to be preferred as a local substitute for garam masala and heeng to flavour heavier whole pulses like urad and rajma. A foraged ingredient, it is hard to source and is, therefore, fairly expensive, at ₹1,000 per 100g.
Jamboo, jambu, feren or faran is a perennial herb with rosy flowers whose leaves and flowers are dried and used for seasoning. The plant from the onion family is used to temper dals.
Lakhori or lakhor is Uttarakhand’s favourite home-grown chilli. These yellow chillies with a Scoville Heat Units (SHU) score of 50,000-55,000 pack a punch. Believed to be good for digestion, they are typically used whole in tempering but may also be powdered. We often fry a few extra chillies and keep them aside to eat with meals.
Where to buy: Valleycultureindia.com for spices; beunfiltered.in for lakhori chillies; and Namakwali.com for pisyoon loon.
Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal is a culinary chronicler who documents the regional diversity of Indian food with a focus on the cuisines of the larger Himalaya, UttarakhandandGujarat.