In an old wooden house in Bhatoli, a small village a few kilometres away from Mussoorie, Kiran, the sarpanch's young daughter-in-law is cooking us breakfast. Bhatoli is a relatively prosperous village. The villagers here largely depend on the maize they grow for food and fodder. Yet, the food here-as in all regions of Uttaranchal-remains simple, basic fare. Whatever is locally grown is consumed: There is no complex spicing, no rich ingredients and even the feasts are relatively simple. It is ironical then that so much of what has been part of the everyman diet in the hills is now being regarded as newly discovered "superfoods" by restaurants, chefs and well-endowed consumers in the big cities.
What Kiran dishes out that day is a typical pahari breakfast: There's a thin raita with pumpkin mashed into the yoghurt. It is tempered with jhakia, a mustard-like seed grown only in this region, with a peppery after taste. And there are maize rotiscooked on woodfire to go with this. It's a filling early morning. If we were in another village, the maize may have been replaced with Mandue ki Roti, made from the local finger millets.
Millets and Beans of Uttaranchal
Often regarded as a poor man's food in many parts of India, millets are now seeing a revival of interest and being plated up by fancy chefs and upscale restaurants as a local superfood that we need to be more cognisant of. The quinoa audience of the metros is waking up to the possibilities of millets. But in Bhatoli and other parts of Uttaranchal, this is a grain that has never been forgotten. That is true for a host of local greens and beans too that have traditionally remained a part of the hill folks' diet despite the globalisation of the palate in so many other parts of the country.
Gahat (a variety of horse gram) and bhatt (soya bean) find multiple uses in the typical Uttaranchal diet. Gahat (also known as kulath) is made into a robust dal, but also into soupy dishes into which spinach or local greens can be chopped and added for more nutrition and energy and so is bhatt.
In Garhwal, a relatively elaborate and filling dish is phanu, made with roughly ground gahat soaked overnight and then boiled on slow fire for a long time. This soupy broth is served with whatever greens are in season-from fresh radish leaves to mustard. You could eat this with rice or with local millet-like grain that used to be the poor man's diet.
The Role of Green Veggies and Meat
Then, there are greens like amaranth (cholai) and nettles (bichchu ghas) that can be stir fried or made into soupy dishes too. Always a part of village diets, these are today recognised as superfoods, full of antioxidants and with a host of medicinal properties-which local folklore has always recognised. All these are tempered with spices once again locally grown. Bhangjeera (from cannabis, much of which still grows in the villages surreptitiously) is one such flavouring agent. Bhang leaves can of course be made into Bhang ki Chutney, a better-known pahari dish that we can even find of restaurant menus in the cities these days.
Uttaranchal's pahari food has always included goat meat too. Many of the celebratory dishes however do not just use the more expensive cuts of meat but offal and innards that would be otherwise thrown away. Bhunni is made from the goat's liver, intestines and blood-a poor man's celebratory meal.
Sweets of Uttaranchal
Finally, the sweets. If you have been to Kumaon, you would have come across the local "chocolate" mithai. It's a popular name for this traditional sweet, which is dark brown in colour but has little to do with chocolate otherwise. Bal Mithai, as it is correctly called, is made from cooking koya with cane sugar for a long time, to give the caramalised notes and sticky, fudge-like texture. The mithai, which may have come from Nepal as a temple offering, is distinctive because it is decorated with white dots of sugar.
Despite the revival of regional cuisines in India, it is surprising that some of these treats remain elusive and only confined to their small pockets even today.About the Author:
Anoothi Vishal is a columnist and writes on food for The Economic Times and NDTV Food, and runs the blog a moveablefeast.in. She tracks the business of restaurants and cuisine trends and also researches and writes on food history and the cultural links between cuisines. Anoothi's work with community-based cuisines led her to set up The Great Delhi Pop-Up three years ago, under which she promotes heritage, regional and community-based cuisines as well as researched and non-restaurantised food concepts. She has also been instrumental in reviving her own community's Kayastha cuisine, a blend of Indo-Islamic traditions, which she cooks with her family and has taken across India to a diverse audience.
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