A Taste Of Ladakh: Exploring The Region's Culinary Tapestry
Image Credit: Nara Thai x TSAS by Dolkhar

WHEN the British came to Ladakh before the colonisation of India, they were shocked to see locals use dried lavender stalks as a broom. These evergreen shrubs were highly sought after in England, where their oil was used for various medical treatments. 

The second shocker came when they saw apricot trees growing in every household backyard. This luscious produce is generally more expensive than other domestic fruits since it is more challenging to grow, which gives it an elusive quality. 

These are some nuggets about Ladakh's culinary history that few know about. It was to promote the diversity of this hilly region's cuisine that Mumbai's Nara Thai recently held a culinary pop-up by hosting TSAS, an award-winning restaurant nestled in an apple and apricot orchard in Dolkhar. 

Picture this: local Ladakhi goodness infused with a dash of avant-garde flair, where TSAS whips up magic with ingredients straight from Dolkhar's garden, crafting a modern Ladakhi feast that worships nature and seasons. It's like Ladakh on a plate, a delicious ode to mountains and people, and a touch of culinary rebellion.

Udai Pinnali, CEO of Aditya Birla New Age Hospitality, which owns the Nara Thai restaurant chain, was delighted at how diners were fascinated by this collaboration and the playful twist it offered to a comforting Thai food experience. "Essentially, we discovered that diners were hugely appreciative of the infusion of unique and unfamiliar ingredients and flavours, especially in an all-vegetarian menu," he noted.

This response is unsurprising because Ladakhi cuisine is all about comfort food. Kitchens in this hard-to-reach region are revered as cultural sanctuaries where cooking transcends necessity to become a cherished tradition. Led by women, these spaces embrace local ingredients and preservation methods, fostering a sense of community through communal cooking. 

"Rituals like butter churning and the unique butter tea culture showcase the region's profound culinary heritage," said Chef Darshan. In fact, butter tea or gur chai is a standout feature, where butter tea is made with yak butter, salt and tea leaves to provide warmth and energy in the cold climate.


LADAKH has historically been a melting pot of various cultural influences, including Islamic, European, and, prominently, Tibetan. Despite these shared persuasions, its unique geographical landscape significantly shapes its culinary identity, including what can be grown and preserved.

These influences culminate in a culinary medley that sets Ladakhi food apart. Rigzin Lachic, founder at Dolkhar, noted that due to its proximity to Tibet and Central Asia, Ladakhi cuisine shares similarities with both cuisines. While there may be overlap in certain dishes like Tibetan momos and thukpa, the use of local ingredients, coupled with distinct cooking methods, gives each region its own identity in the cuisine. 

Many believe that Ladakhi cuisine is very homogenous, and no, Maggi is not what people eat as part of their daily meal; it is what is served to tourists — who confuse all noodles with Maggi! The reality is that each region brings something individualistic to the table. 

As one of the coldest inhabited places on Earth, Dras has a cuisine that reflects the need for warming and substantial foods with meat-based dishes, including yak. As the largest town in the union territory, Leh has a more diverse culinary scene, with restaurants offering both traditional Ladakhi dishes and international cuisines. The Phuktse region offers yak cheese and may have its unique variations.

The legacies of many religions enrich Ladakh's cultural tapestry. Buddhist monks played a pivotal role in influencing vegetarianism; Islamic rulers brought different spices, dry fruits and saffron; while Tibetan refugees brought dishes that we had already begun making our own. "Here, we need also to remember that Ladakh is not just the ingredients, ideas and techniques that people have been bringing in for centuries, but it is the people themselves — people who saw an extremely sparsely populated but breathtaking valley and decided to call it home," says Rigzin.

Ladakh's unique terrain, altitude and climatic conditions make it a playground for many unique ingredients to grow in the wild. For instance, the capers and rhubarb that TSAS by Dolkhar uses usually grow in the mountains, and the team forages it seasonally to use in its dishes.

"Amidst the picturesque Rumbak Valley, wild capers known as kabra flourish, their thorny branches standing resiliently against the valley's maroon-beige hues. Cured in brine, these caper buds add a distinct touch to the Chef's Flat Bread at TSAS, honouring an old-time classic," she adds.

Foraging is a way of life for the hardy people of the region. One herb that they scour the mountainside for is the wild nettle sting. Once cooked or dried, they lose their stinging quality. Rich in nutrients, the wild nettle can then be used in soups, stews, or as a side dish.

Similarly, skonyot or wild caraway is also used in stew, soup and for flavouring puli, which are local cookies, while kotshey or wild garlic chives are dehydrated and then used in making thukpa, soups and stews.

The high altitude of Ladakh influences its produce and cuisine. The region is known for over 40 varieties of apricot and Raktsey Karpo has received the Geographical Indications (GI] tag for the world's sweetest apricots. These fruits are used in various forms, including jams, juices, and desserts. 

Sea buckthorn is another abundant ingredient in the region's dry climate. Boasting larger, sweeter berries of a deep orange hue, this vitamin-rich fruit has a less acidic yet palatable tart flavour, making it the perfect ingredient for soups, juices, jams and even some savoury dishes.

The staple foods are often hearty and energy-rich to cope with the cold climate and low oxygen levels. Barley is a grain used in various forms, such as barley flour, barley soup (thukpa), and barley-based alcoholic beverage called chhang

A typical dish one can find in any Ladakhi household is tsampa. This roasted barley flour is consumed in various forms, including as a dough mixed with tea or water. Buckwheat, celebrated in Ladakh and the Himalayas, emerges as a nutritionally rich plant with varied names like dyat, dro, bro, or fafar across the region. Its significance in the local diet is underscored by its versatility and nutritional value, toasted into the famous 'tsampa' or sattu, a cherished dietary staple.

Yet another traditional dish is skyu, a Ladakhi pasta made with wheat flour dough and vegetables. Chef Darshan reveals that konyot, akin to cumin, is a local plant integral to the traditional spice blend, thangyer. Its aromatic essence flavours the tenten, a beloved Ladakhi pancake. 

"Another gem in Ladakh's culinary treasury is the Himalayan rhubarb, known as lachu. Its tangy-sweet profile enchants taste buds, lending versatility to desserts, jams, and savoury dishes," he adds. 

Some other local favourites are Shyorots cherries, reminiscent of Indian sherbet berries, with dark red seeds. Tsamik, a herb akin to thyme and rosemary, is sourced primarily from Turtuk. Often found in the wild, its taste and smell profile are similar to lemongrass, and it is used to flavour broths and soups or make chutney.

Over the years, Ladakh locals' food habits have undergone significant changes. Traditionally, the region sustained itself through agrarian practices, fostering a self-sufficient society. However, with the rise of tourism as an industry and urban-rural migration seeking better income opportunities and education, there has been a noticeable shift.

 With more people moving to urban areas for better opportunities, daily wage labour costs have soared, making local produce notably pricier than imported goods. As a result, many locals opt for imported foods, altering the valley's culinary choices.

Consequently, there's a need now more than ever to promote indigenous ingredients — not only to preserve the natural landscape of Ladakh's villages but also to maintain the unique flavours that these high-quality local ingredients bring to the local dishes. All while popularising its rich culinary diversity.