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Yak cheese and one-pot meals

Ladakh's no-wastage food culture is a reflection of the stark landscape and its diverse population

I had heard a lot about Ladakh—its austere monasteries, palaces and scenic beauty. But as I sat with my morning cup of tea looking out at the beauty of the snow-clad peaks, it felt like another experience altogether.

Wherever I travel to, I try to learn about the food and culture of the place. Ladakh, with its Muslim, Buddhist and Christian demographic, would be the perfect place to try new things. As it was the month of Ramzan and iftar time was approaching, I asked Danish Din, the owner of the Grand Dragon Ladakh hotel where we were staying, what he would be breaking his fast with.

“Oh! The usual, dates and momos," he replied. What was “usual" clearly differs from what is had in other parts of the country. The dates, by and large, are the only common feature of most iftar meals. From here began my quest to research Ladakhi food. Most people associate Ladakh with Tibetan fare like momos and thukpa (soupy noodles), given the similar altitude and climactic conditions. But there are many aspects of Ladakhi cuisine that are unique to this region.

On our way to the beautiful Pangong Tso, we stopped for breakfast near the pass of Chang La, at a height of 17,000ft. Inside a simple yak skin tent there, Sonam Yangse was making yak cheese called chhurpi the traditional way, over wood fire in a huge copper pot. She was stirring it with a wooden whisk, which looked like a collection of wooden twigs. Her mother Konzus Dolma, 70, was sitting nearby, knitting with yak wool. The family owns about 50 yaks, and their life and work revolves around them. They offered us Ladakhi butter tea. This salty tea was very different from any tea I had ever tried and while I had to recalibrate my palate to this savoury buttery flavour, in that cold, arid climate it was a most welcome drink. Along with tea there was kholak, a porridge-like meal made from barley, which is a staple around these parts.

Later, Danish Din arranged a cooking demonstration for us. The chef, Tundup Phunchok, who is an expert on local cuisine, had worked as a cook in a monastery for some years. And yet, it was his knowledge of non-vegetarian food that was quite remarkable. I learnt that the monks ate the same type of broths and soups of meat, vegetable and pastas, as the local people of the area.

Phunchok, along with chef Ghulam Mohammad, made momos, meat sausages called nang, and lowa. Lowa is prepared by stuffing goat lungs with a mixture of spicy barley, which is then boiled, sliced, and fried in butter. A lot of butter is used in Ladakhi cooking, which is said to offset the dryness produced by the climate.

Ladakh is a high-altitude cold desert with a low level of atmospheric oxygen. Since very little grows here, the Ladakhis are thrifty with their food and nothing goes to waste. Meat, including offal, and wheat, which are easier to procure and store than vegetables, are a staple.

Traditionally, Ladakhis use wheat flour for their breads and a browned sourdough called khambir. It used to be cooked on a black stone called yumpang that does not crack under the pressure of heat. Nowadays, though, cast-iron skillets are used. This roti is eaten with butter tea or plain butter.

Another characteristic of Ladakhi food are one-pot meals like thukpa or yezi, where meat and vegetables are cooked with pasta or noodles to conserve scarce resources, especially in winter.

Eating in Ladakh was a wonderful experience. Living in the Indo-Gangetic plains, we forget that it’s not only samosas and qormas or puri and sabzi, parathas and kababs that constitute Indian food. Our country has much more to offer and savour—the Ladakhi lesson in diversity is something I will not forget in a hurry

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