Getting High On 'Dal-Bhaat Power, 24 Hour'
Image Credit: A view of the snow-covered Himalayas of Garhwal along the Bali Pass trek. Shutterstock

ON a ‘rainy-snowy-windy’ afternoon, while a seasoned crew of trek guides hastily pitches tents — compelled by heavy rainfall and low visibility to spontaneously make camp — thin wisps of smoke rise into the air. The source is the kitchen tent, nearly always the first to be set up, where ice is being melted to boil water. This makeshift snow-covered camping spot in Upper Dhamni in the Sankri Ranges of the Himalayas is sheltering our group of shivering, drenched and wary trekkers. As I venture into my tent, gingerly taking off my spikes and wet shoes, there comes a gruff yet warm call: “Madam, chai!”

When I pull the outer chain of the tent open with trembling fingers, I find our local guide outside, carrying a plate with steaming mugs of black ginger tea. Wrapping my palms around a steel cup, I take a long sip of the scalding beverage. Its warmth courses through my frozen being; its sharp flavour brings some vigour back to my fatigued, shaken spirit. 

Such is the job of the cooks on the Himalayan trekking trail: As participants grapple with inclement weather, falling mercury and rising metres on high altitude treks, the kitchen tent and its crew remain tasked with pumping vitality into the tired climbers so they can scale newer heights.


AS a Himalayan trekker accustomed to ‘Maggi Points’ on tree-lined routes, embarking upon Uttarakhand’s Bali Pass Trek, with a summit at an altitude of 16207 ft, proved to be a tricky endeavour. Categorised ‘Difficult’ (and rightly so), the trail saw our motley group of 12 participants leaving behind civilisation — and the cherished Maggi Points — on Day Two itself. Accompanied by a team of local guides and porters, we began our climb with many apprehensions for we had heard reports of poor weather and heavy snowfall derailing climbers.

Still, we marched on, inching closer to whitewashed hills with every climb, the Supin river a constant companion on our side and the Swarga Rohini peaks watching from high above. When lush green meadows gave way to carpets of snow, we bid adieu to the mules that had been bearing our supplies thus far. Alpine trekking without fixed campsites meant carrying supplies would now be a task undertaken by the porters themselves, who were hereon lugging everything from tents and sleeping bags to burners, utensils and food. 

For Vijay Bhai, our cook who hails from Gangad village, this posed a challenge because of the meagre resources that porters could carry on their backs along the high altitude trail. Each trekking group is assigned one cook and helpers who march the entire route, setting up camp before the trekkers arrive, to conjure up meals that not only nourish the body but also rejuvenate the mind.

The dessert at dinner notwithstanding, high tea is the trekkers’ most sought-after meal; it is here that the cooks shower all their affection on the travellers. From their makeshift kitchens emerge the most gastronomically invigorating foods: instant noodles (here, a consolation for the lack of Maggi Points), pasta, popcorn, aloo bonda, bhajiyas and soups. At Upper Dhamni too, as I sat with four trek mates warming up one tent, battling the cold, we heard the call for snacks. The cook had brought us a bowlful of pasta, boiled al dente, mixed with onions and capsicum and a delicious tomato sauce.


MEALS take on a different connotation on the trek route, so that cooking is as much about the process of preparing and serving breakfast, packed lunches, high tea and sumptuous dinners as it is about the adventure involved in carrying all the food high up and keeping an eye on the beasts of burden bearing pantry stores on their backs. 

“Every mule can carry 22-25 kgs,” explained our co-leader Sourabh, “so we calculate supplies accordingly. Eighty gm of rice per person and 1.5 litres of milk per day, for a group of 12”. On our route, four to five mules carried over 50 kg of kitchen supplies to last for six days. This meant that when our group went off to summit, sending the mules back to base camp, the task of the cook became more challenging as pantry stores were reduced dramatically to what the porters could carry easily.

Climbing towards Waterfall Camp on Day Two, I found myself walking beside a local guide grappling with an egg crisis. On this day, mules were keeping us company and one of them had dashed headlong into the river — along with the crate of eggs that was part of its load, which crashed into some boulders on the banks. Later, I found the guide salvaging the remains and unsurprisingly, the next morning we were greeted with a big bowl of scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast. Vijay Bhai and his minions had worked through the morning, carefully breaking the shells of the cracked eggs, whisking them into a foam, pouring the mix into a big kadhai with a lightly spiced tempering of chillies and onions for a protein-packed meal. Food  is seldom wasted in the mountains; it is refashioned ingeniously and leftovers are almost always eaten the next day, or fed to the dogs and mules.


ALONG the trail, cooks are agile and quick trekkers themselves. Scaling mountains is only a part of their job. The real work begins when tents are pitched and hungry, exhausted climbers make their way to camp, hoping to relax with a steaming cup of tea. 

Co-leader Subodh Choudhury explained how much planning is involved in preparing meals on the route. “Many times, if participants reach early, we have to hastily put together tea,” he said, pointing to the kettle and a plateful of rusk toast served to us at Waterfall Camp. “Today, all of us walked fast so we had to quickly give you something to eat. Tomorrow, we’ll make popcorn or something else.” “All of us trek guides can cook…These are the mountains, and it is all about teamwork here,” he observed. 

Such is the solidarity within the trekking crew that when our group moved on to Osla, the last inhabited village on the route, we left Vijay Bhai behind in Gangad to look in on his ailing mother. While he made his way back to the campsite, Sourabh took over the reins in the kitchen, for dinner.

With deft movements, he chopped onions and tomatoes, put a large cooker on the stove, adding oil, warm water and spices to it, stirring and talking all the while. On one side was a vessel filled with a mix of soaked tur and masoor dal, washed clean in the fresh spring of a waterfall. As the water boiled, he added the chopped onions, tomatoes and the soaked dal to the cooker. The cooker’s gasket had perhaps broken many treks ago and that meant putting a flat square-shaped stone on the lid to retain the steam within. Once that was accomplished, he moved on to give a tadka to the bhindi subzi while listening for three whistles and patiently waiting for the pressure and steam to subside before taking the lid off the cooker to reveal what was possibly the best pahadi dal I have relished. 

On the trek route, as we leave civilisation behind, simple foods like dal-bhaat are warm tokens that stave off homesickness. Following the old adage, ‘dal-bhaat power, 24-hour,’ the cooks also ensure that our dinners consist of such nutritious calorific content that allow for restful sleep and an energetic body the next morning.


THIS winter, the hills witnessed unprecedented snow, the weather shifted quickly and with a landscape so vulnerable, safety became paramount. When fear threatened to burst out of our heavy chests, it was the comfort and warmth of the kitchen that soothed our nerves. 

The dawn of the fourth morning heralded Summit Day and we were roused at 3.30 am. Even at this early hour, Vijay Bhai was at the ready. He had filled a kettle with soothing hot chocolate and with a smile, he poured the drink into steel cups and wished each one of us luck as we sipped on our drinks while putting on our spikes. The day before, we had walked to the Bali Kol Base Camp, sleeping in the lap of the summit point. 

As my eyes, filled with trepidation, looked up towards the last ridge we would scale, Vijay Bhai thrust a steel cup into my hands. “Ho jayega (It’ll get done),” he said, warmly. “Ye pi lo (Drink this).” I placed my foot in the thick snow, with excitement and dread as my companions, seeking comfort in his measured words. But when I turned around to wave at him and tell him that I would see him at Dhamni, he was already walking away. I watched him trudge through the snow towards the campsite to pack up his little kitchen, from whence had emerged comfort and courage through simple and soulful flavours.

(All photos except the banner image are courtesy the writer.)

The writer completed her trek with the Pune-based organisation MountainFit Adventures.