Kumaon Over For A Delightful Pahadi Thali
Image Credit: Pahadi Thali at The Pear Orchard. Courtesy the writer

HAILING FROM JAIPUR, I’ve never been a mountain person. Take me to any beach, anywhere in the world, and I’m happy to stare at the horizon for hours. But don’t make me scale a mountain! My earliest memory of travelling in the hills is of the constant nausea caused by motion sickness. Oh, and the food didn’t help either. I recall feeling sicker after every pitstop and dhaba meal at the turn of a hill, because of the inevitable greasiness. Thus, during mountainous sojourns in adulthood, I’d prefer to have cuisines other than Indian (like Tibetan, for instance) to avoid the lingering trauma.

This May, when I made a rare trip to Uttarakhand, Naukuchiatal to be precise, I broke with convention and sampled the local pahadi food — only to be pleasantly surprised by how delicious and light on the tummy it was. We visited The Pear Orchard by Countryside, an intimate old-school property in the area, where we were treated to a Kumaoni thali.

Our culinary journey began with Maas ki Badi, small fritters crafted from urad dal, accompanied by the essential Bhang ki Chutney. As a Jaipur resident, my only association with bhang (a preparation made from the leaves of the cannabis plant) was the thandai prepared and readily consumed in Pushkar during Holi. Little did I know that it’s a staple in the Uttarakhand hills, where bhang and cumin seeds are ground and mixed with salt and lemon juice to create a chutney that's thick and irresistible. We promptly ordered a refill to savour it with the rest of the thali items.

The most striking aspect of the Kumaoni thali was the ragi (finger millet) roti. As Rajasthanis, we’re used to mixing our grains, especially millet and corn, in winter, but the go-to remains wheat. Relishing those crispy and light ragi rotis made me feel like I belonged to the hills. I have long considered wheat passé, and the ragi rotis further crystallised that belief. And unlike every Rajasthani, I tried the ragi roti sans ghee, although it took a minute to get there.

Alongside the ragi roti were the Aaloo ke Gutke, pieces of sweet pahadi potato soaked in the mustard oil and spices they’re cooked in. The potato pieces are cooked in a paste of coriander seeds, cumin seeds, ginger, green chillies and coriander. While we enjoyed the dish with ragi roti, it could also pass off for a teatime snack or a midday munchie. There was also the Bhatt ki Chukharni (a black bean dal), which is a much different preparation than the typical dal makhani usually consumed in North India. The pulses are sautéed in mustard oil and then added to a curry. Wheat flour is also added to the curry as a thickening agent, and to impart a brown hue. 

If you're beginning to feel like that's mostly carbs, then the Kumaoni Raita is at the ready for a rescue op. It's both sharp and refreshing – the grated cucumber lends the coolness, while mustard seeds, green chillies and coriander add that tinge of spice to the mix. For non-vegetarians, there's Pahadi Murgh, a chicken dish cooked in a paste of coriander, ginger, pepper corns, garlic, fennel seeds, cinnamon, clove and chopped onions. If ragi rotis with chicken is too confusing a mix for you, there's always rice. The sumptuous meal is capped with a Coconut Barfi served in a betel leaf cornett, which tastes like the smooth breeze that hits you after a long, arduous, yet fulfilling trek.

The best bit about having the pahadi thali at The Pear Orchard is that you can do so while enjoying a stunning view of the hills. They don’t let you forget where you are, even though that ragi roti may have taken you back to that time your grandmother fed you a morsel, or the Bhang ki Chutney transported you all the way to Pushkar.