A taste of home
A food writer's trip to Garhwal yields surprising discoveries about the local cuisine
The first thing I noticed when I entered my hotel room in Mussoorie was a large vintage glass jar with something that looked like oily brown cookies. It had been a long drive from Dehradun, my motion sickness medication had left me drowsy and I had barely nibbled at the picnic lunch. So the contents of the jar were more than welcome.
As I lifted the heavy glass lid, I noticed a card. “Aarse," it said. The realization hit me the moment I took the first bite while reading read the description: “Made of fermented rice and jaggery..." This confection is such a close cousin to Maharashtra’s anarse that I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a genetic connection. Especially since I remembered that the picnic lunch had been gehaat (horse gram) parathas. This was a familiar lentil from back home that we called kulith. In the coming days, I also sampled gehaat dal, a mashed, thick version of lentils that reminded me of my favourite, the kulith pithle.
A certain pattern seemed to be emerging: of a deep connection between Garhwali and Maharashtrian cuisine. Jhangora or barnyard millet that is a staple in Maharashtra, can be seen in the hills as well. Often a substitute for rice, it’s also eaten as a savoury porridge, or a light kheer. Sesame is used in sweet and savoury preparations in both states and an indigenous variety of brown sesame seeds with a toasty flavour is a staple in Garhwal. I tasted a beautiful til ki khichdi, made much like a regular moong dal khichdi but infused with a spice paste of hand-ground sesame seeds. The smoky flavour and texture will stay with me for a long time.
Rotis in this region are made with mandua (ragi or nachni), the millet of choice—it reinforces the role of millets in the country’s indigenous diets. Mandue ki roti, like its other gluten-free counterparts across the country, is flattened by hand, cooked on a skillet, and then left momentarily on the burning embers of the wood-fired stove to puff up the centre and let the edges char. My friend’s Garhwali husband told us that mandua dumplings drizzled with ghee are popular with curries, much like Karnataka’s ragi mudde. Apparently, these dumplings are made last minute just for (and by) the women of the household when the food runs short since many traditional households are patriarchal, with the men eating first. The ragi dumplings are also stuffed into wheat-flour dough balls and rolled out to make parathas. This reminded me of a similar bread made in the Konkan, the gavasni which is stuffed with rice dumplings and usually paired with aamras (mango pulp).
This food mapping led to discussions with historian friends, who said there are stories of members of the Maratha forces settling in the Garhwal and Kumaon regions after losing the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761. That probably explains how typically Maharashtrian surnames like Pant and Joshi are common in Uttarakhand as well; and this migration may have had some part to play in the region’s foodscape.
High up in the Jaunsar-Bawar region of Dehradun is the temple complex of Lakhamandal. Here, we were welcomed into the head priest’s home for a typical Garhwali breakfast that included a variety of pakoris, swale (stuffed and fried flatbreads), a most delicious local apricot chutney and fresh rice papads. There were the ulwe or steamed rice-flour dumplings, a dish that convinced me that we Marathis were bound to Garhwal in more ways than one. The savoury ulwe were stuffed with a subtly spiced gehaat filling while the sweet ones were filled with a mixture of coconut, jaggery and sesame seeds. The latter tasted exactly like Maharashtrian ukdiche modaks, and as I popped another sweet ulwe topped with home-made ghee into my mouth, it tasted just like home.
I went to Garhwal in search of fresh air, the smell of conifers and cascading waterfalls—the regular stuff of a holiday in the mountains—but ended up finding much more. These stories of food brought up the subject of culinary migration. More importantly, it taught me that sometimes the best way to understand and appreciate the produce and culinary traditions of a new place is by viewing it through a familiar lens.