A middle-aged man roasts small alu-tikkis on a small griddle, turning each over with care. Once done, he slides them over sliced buns. Next he puts green and red chutney and adds sliced raw onions to it. The bun is then covered with the other half, placed on a fresh green leaf, and handed over to the patiently waiting patron. Across the street, a man fries large flaky discs of dough and cuts them into wedges before serving it on a pattal along with spicy chana. At a distance a young man ferries piping hot momos to the shopkeepers out on a break.
It is a balmy evening in Dehradun’s bustling Paltan Bazaar and I am trying to decide what I should eat first. Food, after all, is the sole purpose of my maiden trip to the city, and, in just a few hours, I have seen such a variety that it is hard to know where to begin. Surprisingly, Tibetan food is everywhere. Disappointingly, pahadi food is not. And as the days pass, I tuck into my wish list: chaats and bun-tikki in Paltan Bazaar; samosas and mithais from Bengali Sweets; biscuits and cakes from Ellora’s Bakery and Sunrise Bakers.
The tikkis in the chaat are smaller than the usual, not too crisp, and served with just chutney and raw onion. The delicious bun-tikki I had heard so much about from my mother tasted more like chaat than a burger. I stocked up on biscuits, stick-jaws and rusks; they are among the best I have eaten. The biscuits are buttery and dense, the rusks large, light and flavourful. The old-world cakes take you back in time to the world of butter cakes.
A melting pot of cultures for centuries, Dehradun is home to a rich, yet unexplored culinary heritage. From the Sikhs who came with Guru Ram Rai in the 17th century to the British, who made it their bastion in the 1830s and the migrants from Pakistan who arrived post-independence—each community that settled here brought with it unique culinary practices, cultures, and ingredients. It is little surprise then that the food in Dehradun is often classified as a cuisine of its own.
The most common example of this is visible on the streets where the carts still sell alu-puri, chole-katlamme, bun-tikki, and chaat. While alu-puri came here with the banias of the Gangetic plains, chole-katlamma was made to cater to the migrants from the North-West Frontier Province. Bun-tikki, meanwhile, was created by marrying the desi tikki with the European bun made for soldiers in local bakeries.
Dehradun’s bakeries are known the world over. First set up as cantonment bakeries by the British, the ones that exist today are mostly run by Sikhs. “Many refugees who came from the North-West Frontier were skilled bakers and Doon had an army of local karigars left behind by the British,” says anthropologist Lokesh Ohri. “The trained locals were a perfect match for the relocated businessmen of the frontier. The rest, as they say, is history.” Even today, 200 years since the first bakery was set up and 75 years after the British left, bakeries of Doon are known world over.
“We are the oldest name in the bakery business in Dehradun,” Palak Gulati of Ellora’s tells me. Founded by Krishna Lal Gulati in 1953, this post-Partition establishment remains the most popular bakery, serving up specialities like milk rusk, stick-jaws and butter biscuits.
While some locals lament the place losing its charm, Gulati feels it is still popular with old timers and the new generations alike. Looking at the crowd that is gathered at the shop even at 9 pm, one cannot but agree with her.
In all the stories I had heard about Dehradun’s food, though, I had never heard anyone talk about Tibetan food. But it’s ubiquitous. At first I assumed it to be a recent development. Soon, though, I learnt the city began loving Tibetan food long before it became fashionable. “After his exile, His Holiness The Dalai Lama had come to Dehradun for a year and with him came many Tibetans,” says chef Tenzin Dolma of the city’s Hyatt Regency (where I am staying), when I ask about the popularity of Tibetan food.
“While His Holiness left for Dharamsala soon, the community stayed back, and so did its food,” says Dolma, who is working to open a Tibetan speciality restaurant, Beyul, at the hotel. To give me a taste of local Tibetan food, Dolma cooks me a meal of momos, noodles, thukpa and dry thukpa—something I had not heard of. The hand-cut noodles are thick, wide and beautifully flavoured; the dry thukpa looks and tastes like hand-rolled pasta and reminds me of the Sikkimese kauri; and the thukpa is subtly flavoured, unlike the ones I am used to eating. “The trick,” says Dolma, “is to cook it slowly.”
Pahadi food in Dehradun remains a rarity—though this is beginning to change. I only managed a taste of it at the hotel, where a selection of local offerings sat next to international flavours in every meal—from home-style curries to local greens to dals and parathas. “We serve pahadi dishes on a regular basis,” says executive chef Sahil Arora, who has returned to Doon, his hometown, after working abroad and wants to highlight local cuisine. “Garhwali food is rich in flavour, low on spice and light on the palate. It is also aligned with seasons, so it is not only good to eat but also good for health—an element all our guests are conscious of these days.”
Anubhuti Krishna writes on food, travel, culture and design.