Almost everyone who has set foot in Ladakh has their own love story to share. About how they were smitten by Ladakh's intrinsic charms. My romance with Ladakh began even before I touched down. Landings at the Leh airport can be surreal especially in winter. I picked the coldest month of the year to make my first trip to Ladakh and other than the brilliant interplay between the terrain and the snow, the other thing that comforted me through my stay was Ladakhi cuisine.
It's hardly a surprise that food somehow takes a backseat when travellers (especially first-time visitors) are busy flooding their Instagram timelines with images of Ladakh's photogenic landscapes. Not in my case. The temperature controlled interiors of The Grand Dragon, Leh's finest address and a hearty thukpa provided instant comfort when daytime temperatures teased the -20 degree centigrade mark in Leh. My first meal in Leh was a Ladakhi feast at the Grand Dragon; I would keep going back to some of the key elements of the meal during my week-long stay that also took me Ulley in Sham Valley, one of Ladakh's most remote corners that is a hub for wildlife enthusiasts seeking to spot the snow leopard in the peak of winter. Whether you visit Ladakh in the winter or summer, check out our list of must-try Ladakhi dishes that don't just comfort you but also give you an insight into the region's unique culture:
Arguably the best known dish in the region, this noodle soup is believed to have originated in eastern Tibet. I tried vegetarian and meat-filled versions of this flavoursome broth that is popular almost around the Himalayas from Nepal to Bhutan and India's North East. There are multiple versions including one I tried in and around Leh that featured thin noodles. I also enjoyed the Thukpa with juicy momos dunked in.
Vegetable Skew (or Sku)
Another one-pot meal, another winter speciality. This one may not be as popular as the thukpa but offers the same warmth for the winter. It's almost like the Ladakhi equivalent of a pasta broth. Wheat dough is kneaded into small dumplings and boiled with vegetables or meat.
There are few culinary experiences that can match the satisfaction of polishing off steamed momos or the Ladakhi version of dimsums on a cold winter's day. Gourmands will tell you that Hong Kong is one of the best places in the world for dimsums. While pork fillings dominate the foodscape in Hong Kong, one of the best momos I sampled in Ladakh was mutton momos with truly unique textures.
Ladakhi Mutton Sausage
A quintessential winter preparation and one of my best food discoveries during my recent winter trip. This is quite different from a classic sausage. Mildly spiced minced mutton is wrapped in a skin and gets most of its flavours from the finely pounded pepper. This is probably the second best way to start a Ladakhi feast. Nothing quite beats a thukpa!
Ladakh's monasteries are even more magical in the winter. I spent a morning at Thikse, about an hour away from Leh. This is one of Ladakh's most imposing monasteries - spread over 12 floors, and resembles the iconic Potala Palace in Lhasa. As I imbibed the energy from the morning chants, I was served a brew that would become my magic potion in Ladakh. Butter tea (locals call it Gur Gur) combines tea leaf extracts, yak butter (which is also substituted with dairy butter) and a touch of salt. It's just what you need to cope with the Ladakh winter. But it's certainly not for everyone - it is an acquired taste.
Staying with the acquired taste theme, yak cheese (also known as chuurpi) is another accompaniment that is typical of the region. During my stay at Ulley, a quintessential Ladakhi village, I noticed quite a few homes that rear yaks for their milk and other dairy products. There is a soft version and a hard version with textures similar to Grana Padano.
Tingmo With Shapta
The tingmo (pronounced tee moh) is one of Ladakh's most unique breads. It's almost a pleated version of a bao or a bun and makes the ideal accompaniment with some of the region's gravies. I'd recommend the Mutton shapta - a stir fried mutton dish with thin slices of mutton in a mildly spiced gravy.
Another typical Tibetan dish that is a favourite in winters. This mildly spiced noodle stew combines noodles, slices of mutton and vegetables in a hearty broth.
Most people will advise you to visit Ladakh in the more pleasant summer months. But if you can cope with the cold and the high altitude combined with thin oxygen levels, I'd certainly recommend the winter in Ladakh. Our list of must-try Ladakhi dishes will provide the comfort you need in the winter.