Mountain meal memories

Hard work yielded so little in the Garhwal hills, but the taste was there to stay.

The winters used to be long and hard at Mukteshwar, a small hill station at around 8000 feet in the Garhwal hills, where I was born and grew up more than half a century ago. Hoarding foodstuffs – both basic and fancied – would start quite early in October. Barees and mangodis (lentil-paste dumplings, spiced and blended with grated cucumber or shredded greens) were mass-produced at home, vegetables were dried in the sun, potatoes and other 'starchies' were buried underground to be dug out during the snowbound months.

My mother sure knew how to transform adversity into delightful variety. Winter was when we proudly reclaimed and proclaimed our pahari heritage. Making a virtue of sheer necessity, our meals showcased the central Himalayan culinary repertoire. Watery aloo ka thechua, muli ki baant, gaderi ke gutke with jambu ka chownk, bhatiya jaula served with generous dollops of gaay ka ghee – all these ensured that the familiar delicacies prepared in times of greater plenty were not missed. We the children were regaled with folktales and snatches of songs, some of which would describe the ingredients of dishes that, to be frank, were something of an acquired taste.

It is not easy to sustain nostalgia triggered by fading childhood memories of meals in the mountains. We counted ourselves among the fortunate. Most others nearby lived hand-to-mouth all the year round. Food in the hill villages has always been frugal. The terrain is harsh, and it is difficult even after backbreaking labour to make the earth yield her fruits generously. Those beautiful terraces can be killing fields.

The hill folk have from time immemorial counted their blessings gratefully. The poet Gumani, who three generations ago was equally well known in Kumaon-Garhwal and in Nepal, penned a poem in the early 19th century that listed the highly valued delicacies of this region. The fruits mentioned are bananas, lemons, pomegranates, sugarcane and oranges, accompanied by thick rich milk and granular ghee. Pride of place is reserved for aromatic rice – boiled, baked or flattened, or fashioned into dumplings – completed by crisply fried leaves and tender stalks of arum.

It is useful to remember that this was an affluent poet's ideal meal. The hill man's everyday fare was incomparably Spartan – bare sustenance to keep body and soul together, belonging to a realm where taste did not matter. Alas, things have not changed much over the past two hundred years.

Shraddhas and daal-bhaat

As we grew up it was made painfully clear that dietary deprivations are assumed in pahari villages. Individuals and communities look forward to celebrations when feasting relieves the tedium, and the luxuries usually beyond reach can be savoured in small quantities. The festivals of Tyaar, Dasain and Ghughutiya provided a few occasions, as did the occasional debta-puja, in which ritual sacrifices were made to propitiate gods and exorcise disturbing spirits. Marriages – byaa kaaj – promised and delivered mouth-watering goodies, as did shraddha ceremonies, annual funerary feasts.

The menu for each of these events was prescribed by custom, and usually adhered to strictly. For a baraat banquet, lagad – a puri made with whole-meal flour – was paired with alu or pinalu-gaderi ki sabzi, a tuber dish prepared with aromatic jambu (Himalayan chives) imported from Tibet. This was supplemented with gaduve ka gajaika, a mashed, sweet-and-sour ripe pumpkin. The chutney most preferred was made with darhim (pomegranate), and the calibre of the cook was tested by the quality of his mustard-laced raita – a nose-tingling, eye-watering delight that leaves the much-touted Japanese wasabi smarting and gasping for breath.

Guests were happy to leave with full stomachs. No one bothered about frills like dessert – kheer or halwa – in the countryside. Only the arrivistes in towns like Almora and Tehri – those immigrant Brahmins from the plains, always eager to show off their refinements – took the trouble to burden the bell-metal thali with add-ons like barha (deep-fried lentil dumplings), singal (doughnut-shaped semolina confections) or suji (halwa). During a visit to Kathmandu years later, while being treated to an 'ethnic' meal at the Bhancha Ghar restaurant, the glimpse of a kansa thali opened the floodgates of my memory, rekindling the glow of dying embers in a long-lost hearth.

Shraddhas were different. The Brahmin being fed was seen as a vehicle transporting the tasty sustenance to the departed ancestors. The gullible jajman gladly made available for his ravenous purohit expensive and rare preparations. Kheer would be made along with raita; saunth ki chutney (ginger chutney) or darhim ka chowk to accompany luscious puris, along with an assortment of dry and curried vegetables. For the truly orthodox, seedha (ample dry rations) was gifted so that the good man could treat himself and his family at home.

Careful readers must have noted that no mention has so far been made of the staple daal-bhaat. Food cooked with water – rather than fried in ghee or oil, or boiled in milk – is considered impure by Hindu tradition. Until a couple of generations ago, strict rules even dictated who could cook rice for whom within the family. Convention decreed that such fare was to be kept out of the public domain. Bhaat cooked in the morning was consumed inside the kitchen where only the equally 'pure' (or those of higher birth) were admitted. Brahmins employed as cooks were the safest bet. Daal more often than not was homegrown masoor. Variation on this was rare, and when opted for meant un-husked, whole or split maas. This lentil is believed to be hard to digest, and took a long time to cook in pre-pressure-cooker days. It was treated as a specialty item for festive feasts.

At shraddhas, it was the quality and purity of ingredients that was valued above all else. Almost a hundred years before the WTO and the emergence of the 'intellectual property' regime, the unlettered Himalayan villagers had perfected geographical indicators for the ingredients most in demand – gaderi from Lobanj, jambu (chives) from Munshyari-Dharchula, katiki mau from Kapkot, and so on. This last was only matched by the priceless catch of the death-defying, daredevil honey hunters of Nepal.

Stuff of life

These memories of mine were rendered green again by the late professor L S Baral, sometime chairman of Nepal's national academy. He was not only an eminent scholar but also a lover of good food, as well as a walking encyclopaedia of Nepali-Uttarakhandi cultural interactions and shared inheritance. He is the one who encouraged me to look beyond the exclusive Brahmin kitchen, and to seek acquaintance with plebeian pleasures such as bhutua (also called ranga bhoota, slow-cooked offal) and baant (minimalist mutton curry with the thinnest of gravies, so as to extend it as far as possible).

'Bhutua' translates as 'a sharing', and nothing could be more apt. It was cooked with whatever was cheap and at hand – in most cases this included some oil, some onions, lots of red chillies and salt. The goat was pit-roasted before cooking. This feast, a rustic barbeque certainly not for the squeamish, was a one-dish community meal at which nothing was wasted. The trotters were used in a stew called gadue ka shurua, and the siri (severed head) provided prolonged consternation as it was either expertly or ineptly split open.

But I digress. Such surfeit of culinary riches came one's way seldom at most. The regular repast of these hills was rwat-saag. Rwat of course is roti, the stuff of life. The poor prepared it with coarse madua (ragi), which is often described as sweet because even this was sometimes scarce; the better-off used only wheat. Palang, a type of spinach, was valued more than other greens, and prepared as tapakiya, tinariya or kapha. The first two were recipes for a dish of small portions meant for 'barely tasting', while the last one had a porridge-like consistency and was doled out in more generous helpings. Sishunda (nettles) was gathered and cooked only by the abjectly poor. Prescriptions and prohibitions reigned supreme when it came to vegetables as well, and until the early 1950s the elderly avoided exotic imports to the hills such as peas, beans and tomatoes.

In the springtime month of Chait, with the winter behind them, the sons and daughters of the Himalaya were struck by another strain of sweet melancholy. This was the season for pining and despatching gifts of food to daughters married far away. Bhituli ('small gift') was mostly a hamper of shai, halwa prepared with rice flour. The poor, more often than not, could not even come up with this care package with ease. This is what lends heart-rending poignancy to the riturain Himalayan 'songs of separation', which mirror the brahmaasa genre in the Ganga plains. In this era of email and user-friendly STD-enabled PCOs, it is difficult to imagine what a sweet morsel must have meant, even if it arrived stale to the faraway daughter. Shai in the hills of Uttarakhand is today as rare as singers of riturain.

The pace of life has accelerated, and much that was considered exotic has become common. Who has the leisure or patience to slowly cook rasa or thatwani in a cast-iron karhai, or manso in a pital ki tauli? Dahi is no longer set in a wooden theki; as a matter of fact, these objects are now manufactured in the plains to be sold as souvenirs.

These observations and memories are not meant to be a lament for what is perhaps irretrievably lost. But is it not pertinent to ask how long the mountains can retain their identity, when their children forget the taste of their salt? What has been the trade-off? Has plenty really vanquished scarcity?

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Himal Southasian