The hilly terrains of Kumaon has much more to offer than just picturesque landscapes and scenic views, that I discovered on my way to a small town in Uttarakhand.
A recent conversation with an old college friend is what sparked the discussion towards Kumaoni food. Chatting over Mexican tacos and some cheesy enchiladas, the way the entire exchange turned from international cuisine to Indian regional food was quite interesting. My friend who hails from a small town of Bazpur in Uttarakhand suddenly shifted towards how the burger she was having wasn’t really Mexican in taste and how she craved for something sweet. Talking of sweet meats, she popped in the term Bal mithai and I was intrigued. The other friend who joined us a little late that evening also nodded in delight.
Looking at my blank face, they immediately retorted with a smirk at my obliviousness. Well, being a foodie that I am, I started inquiring about this secret mithai to which one of them quickly googled a picture to give me a reference. It seemed quite tempting but I knew I had never had it. That’s when I was reminded of the time I had tried authentic Kumaoni food on my trip to Jhaltola a few years back.
Nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas, this small village town of Uttarakhand was our abode for a few days in the winter of 2017. A school-sponsored trip with my friends, this was my first-ever without family expedition and I was excited. After a layover at Kathgodam, we took an early morning bus for the village. By the time we reached our cottage, the sun was right above our heads and it was time for lunch. Our growling stomachs couldn’t wait to dig into the food so we headed straight to the dining area.
The buffet that was setup for us was quite interesting as there was nothing familiar on the menu. Unversed with things like bhang chutney and aloo ke gutke, we quietly filled our plates with a little bit of everything and sat down to eat. One bite in and all my fellow mates looked at each other and exchanged glances. Except for papad and roohafza, rest was unknown territory for us.
From the faint memory of the food, I can recall that Bhang ki chutney was a little confusing for me since bhang is an intoxicated substance that is consumed on Holi usually. While the bhang seeds are the core of the condiment, it is the addition of pounded coriander and turmeric which add a distinct flavour and aroma to the dish. I savoured this with papad that day and with all my meals for the rest of the days.
The next thing that I happily relished was the Dal Bada. Made with overnight soaked urad dal, they were quite similar to the South Indian vadas that we usually enjoy. Dipping it in bhang chutney instead of coconut gave it a distinct taste. Aloo ke gutke was another delicious offering on the Kumaoni thali. Potatoes were sliced in a longish manner and spruced up with spices like cumin seeds, red chili powder and dhaniya powder. Garnished with coriander leaves, it was fresh and tasty.
My bowl full of a soupy dish that I had filled to the brim, looked much like dal. Upon tasting, I realized that it was a mix of two to three lentils like urad and arhar which gave the dish a rich and light consistency at the same time. While I dipped my coarse bajra roti into the bowl, our host from the cottage prompted me to take some rice with it. I refilled my plate with some boiled rice and this dish really felt like home.
Kumaoni cuisine, I discovered during those few days, emphasizes a lot on dals and leafy vegetables. While there are two unique saags that are staple to any Kumaoni thali like sisunak saag and lingadu saag, it is the dal and bhaat based dishes that they really enjoy. Since rice is a staple, it makes sense that Kumaon goes big on gravy dishes. One such local specialty that I tried was Bhatt Ki Churkani. It is a black bean, which looks like rajma in shape, but is dry in nature and found in the hilly areas. The dal-like soupy dish is spruced up with ginger-garlic and several other spices.
After having our fill for the day, we got up to wash our hands and head back to our rooms for some rest when I saw a tray of some tit-bits being circulated. As it reached my table, a quick dialogue with the server informed us that it was a famous Kumaoni delicacy called Arsa. Although similar in shape to the Rajasthani malpuas, these sweet bundles are filled with curd and jaggery which makes them so unique.
Satiating our sweet tooth after a hearty meal was the best way to put us to deep sleep until the sun rays peeped in through windows sills the next morning as our wake up call.