The popular Hindi proverb “Kos kos par badle paani, chaar kos par vaani” (the water changes every mile and the dialect in every four) might be a bit of an exaggeration but it’s not very far from the truth. India is an astoundingly diverse country with a myriad of cultures. Each with their own dialect, customs, and cuisines. Festivals showcasing regional cuisines – whether it is from Rural Bengal or Moplah and Nasrani communities, have always been my favourite. Currently, ITC Hyderabad, in association with Discovering India, is shining a light on a cuisine that I knew absolutely nothing about. Chef Nilza Wangmo has flown in from Ladakh to showcase food of the people of Ladakh.
I was invited to a tasting session at the Deccan Pavilion where I had the opportunity to get a taste of the culinary traditions of the arid and mountainous stretches of Ladakh. This festival is the brainchild of Cpt. Arjun Nair who met Chef Wangmo at an entrepreneurship conclave in Ladakh. Mrs. Wangmo finished in the top five but didn’t bag the top prize. However, Capt. Nair was so impressed by her that the next day he broke his itinerary to drive down to the village of Alchi to dine at Alchi Kitchen by Mrs. Wangmo. Fast forward a few months, and now Mrs. Wangmo will be hopping across ITC properties to showcase her culinary prowess to Hyderabad, Chennai, and Bengaluru.
The dinner buffet at Deccan Pavilion by ITC Kakatiya has been augmented with a small bouquet of Ladakhi delicacies prepared by the affable Chef Nilza. I was welcomed with a cup of Gurgur Cha – a steaming hot tea that’s more akin to a broth that a typical cup of tea. The concoction, which uses butter, salt, green herbal leaves, and cow milk, provides the body much-needed warmth. The remoteness and the terrain compells the communities to be self-sufficient. All the ingredients used in the kitchens are locally sourced. Momos are a common sight in the northern hilly regions of India, and Ladakh has its own version called Mok Mok made from wheat flour dough. I was served two variants — one with spinach and cheese stuffing and another with mutton.
Unlike most other parts of India, rice isn’t the staple of Ladakh. Ladakhi cuisine does have its own Pulao, which is also being showcased at ITC, but barley and wheat flour are commonly used. A meal usually comprises of soupy noodle and pasta dishes. The influence of Tibetian cuisine is evident in the food of the region. The next dish served to me was Pakthuk, which is a Ladakhi variant of Thukpa. Flat square shaped wheat flour noodles are cooked in a mutton broth gently spiced with mountain cumin, pepper, and turmeric. The Pakthuk was served with a Ladakhi Cheese and a wedge of lemon. Unlike the Thukpa that’s popular in Sikkim, Pakthuk eschews the use of potatoes. The ingredients were basic and the spices simple, yet there’s only one way to describe this dish — sublime. The mutton broth was quite simply phenomenal.
The next two dishes were indigenous pasta recipes. While Ladakhi cuisine uses apricot and walnut oil in some preparations, the most prevalent cooking medium is mustard oil. The Oskyu was a peculiar sensory experience for me. The simple potato gravy reminded me of the simple Bengali potato gravies that I’ve grown up relishing with steaming hot rice. But, I was eating a pasta dish! Milk is added to the gravy to impart a bit of sweetness that I loved. The other gravy showcased was Chutagi. Again, this is a pasta based gravy. We were served a non-vegetarian version with tender mutton pieces in a simple onion based gravy.
Ladakhi cuisine doesn’t have too many desserts — I was told that there are a couple of festive sweets that use locally available produce like apricots. For the ITC event, Chef Nilza is serving Chocolate Mokmok with chocolate sauce. This dish isn’t really traditional, but it is delicious.
Thanks to the picturesque landscapes showcased in movies and travel channels, the popularity of Ladakh has shot up in the recent years. Yet, very few travellers venture beyond the Tibetian street food and North Indian meals that are pervasive. The Ladakhi spread is only a small part of the buffet at Deccan Pavilion and I’d have loved to see a TDH menu for the diners interested in experiencing a traditional Ladakhi meal. That being said, ITC deserves to be applauded for willing to step out of the comfort zone of Awadhi, Punjabi, and Bengali food festivals and trying to showcase something that’s unknown and unfamiliar to almost everyone in the twin cities. Chef Nilza works wonders in the kitchen and I thoroughly enjoyed everything that she dished out. I certainly hope that this festival is just the beginning of her entrepreneurial journey and we get to see a lot more from her. The festival will continue untl October 30th in Hyderabad and then move on to Chennai and Bangalore. The dinner buffet at Deccan Pavilion is priced at Rs. 2000 (all inclusive). If you’re curious to learn more about the cuisine of this beautiful but remote and arid region, check out the paper on the ‘Traditional Food and Beverages of Ladakh‘ published by Defence Institute of High Altitude Research, DRDO.