In a small village in Kullu, I spent time with a Himachali family. I saw women, dressed in traditional Pahadi dresses, cooking their regional cuisine with love and devotion. After finding a spot for myself on the floor in their house, I started helping them. There were six dishes on the menu — kodra (a type of local millet) ki roti, jaatu rice (red rice), kaathu (a local spinach preparation), bhalle (yellow lentil dumplings), Siddu (local buns stuffed with lentils) and rajma (kidney beans). There were a few accompaniments, such as locally-produced cow ghee and fern pickle. The food was slow-cooked over a wood fire. All the spices and vegetables were grown and produced locally. It was a village-style sit-down dinner as everyone assembled on the porch, and we sat on carpets with beautiful copper plates in front of us. I literally drooled at the fragrance of the food being served. Did you know that you can survive an entire day by just eating one kodra ki roti? It has an amazing amount of fibre and gives warmth to the body in winters. The local spinach was divine, and I packed some ghee for my onward journey.
Here, I met my friend Neema for the first time. As we reached his house, a beautiful cottage in the hills, the aroma emanating from the kitchen made me head straight towards it. It was quite a sight to visit a traditional Ladakhi kitchen. My first reaction was, ‘Wow! It is flamboyant and very ethnic.’ Most of it was made of brass and copper. Even the equipment being used was traditional. Neema’s grandmother, who was cooking in the kitchen, is an octogenarian and looked extremely cute in her traditional Ladakhi dress. She was generous in sharing her 50-year-old Thukpa recipe with us.
I realised that one of the best ways to explore the local culture was by attending a wedding and taking part in the ceremonies. Most of us have been to a Hindu, Muslim or even a Christian wedding, but attending a wedding in Sikkim is a rare affair. I had the pleasure of being invited to a khimgyapa — a Bhutia wedding. One of the main communities of Sikkim, the Bhutias are a matriarchal society. I realised how food was such an important catalyst for cultures to express emotions, celebrate special occasions and exchange gestures of welcome. I was given the ritual butter tea, similar to one that I had had in Ladakh earlier. Along with butter rice, deshi (fried pastries) and khapse (local biscuits), it marked the beginning of the celebrations. Breakfast included gyatho, which is a popular Sikkimese dish made from long egg noodles. They were prepared fresh using flour; the process was long and particular to each family. Thukpa is the poor version of gyatho, which is richer with more variations.
I met Chef Atul Lahkar, who has done more for Assamese cuisine than anybody else has in the state. He took me from Guwahati to Sonapur, a small village on the outskirts of the city. He wanted me to experience traditional methods of cooking, with local ingredients, amidst unique surroundings. He briefed me about the food, explaining how rice is very important, and there is no use of rotis. They used few spices: cumin, coriander and black pepper. Seventy per cent of Assam’s population is tribal, and they cook without oil and spices. Instead, they rely on natural herbs and local ingredients that are available in the wild. They like to preserve their meats by smoking them over a fire. Dry meat or fish is then used as chutney by mixing them with fresh spices and flavourings. He also mentioned something that really caught my attention — the use of a hollow bamboo as a cooking vessel.
On the 80th day of my trip, in Varanasi, I woke up at 4.30am and hired a boat to go on the Ganga. I decided that I was going to cook on the holy river. Many artists and poets have been inspired by this place and have created great pieces of art. I wanted to use the inspiration to create a dish worthy of the ghats of Varanasi. My producer, Anshul, first laughed off the idea; but, then, he took up the challenge to execute this scene on a boat. There were two cameras, one on my boat and another on a boat floating next to mine. It was a mini adventure, which turned out pretty successfully. We started shooting as the sun rose, and the first light of the day blessed my cooking and my dish. I decided to make my own version of a popular chaat in UP, known as kuliya ki chaat (kuliya refers to cups).
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