Food Trail: The Lesser Known Joys of Kumaoni Cuisine

Sample the unique flavours of Kumaon.

Updated
Food
5 min read
 (Courtesy: Trident, Bandra Kurla, Mumbai)

Bored of the same old biryanis and kormas that have become synonymous with Indian cuisine over the years? It’s time to veer off the beaten track and explore the regional culinary arts from small hamlets and villages across the country. One such cuisine that is slowly making its way to the hearts and bellies of food enthusiasts across the country is from the picturesque hills of Kumaon.

While places like Almora and Nainital have been meccas for tourists for decades now, not much was known about the local flavours.

All that is changing now with hotels and plush eateries conducting food fests to popularise the cuisine. In a few years, names of dishes like thechwani, bhatt ki churkani, gahat ki daal may no longer sound alien but actually be music to the ears of food enthusiasts.

Made from semolina and curd (and sometimes bananas too) pua is a sweet cake prepared during all major festivals. (Courtesy: Deeptangan Pant)
Made from semolina and curd (and sometimes bananas too) pua is a sweet cake prepared during all major festivals. (Courtesy: Deeptangan Pant)

In fact, according to chefs and food gurus, Kumaoni cuisine might be one of the major trends of 2015-16. “This year will see focus on new trends and creations… for example, I have been exploring Kumaoni cuisine for a while now and have encountered a few surprises. I feel these cuisines have not been emphasised in the mainstream but will surely gain importance in 2015,” Michael Swamy, rated as one of the top 50 chefs in India by the Indian Chefs Association in 2012, had said in an interview.

 (Courtesy: Trident, Bandra Kurla, Mumbai)
(Courtesy: Trident, Bandra Kurla, Mumbai)

“For people, Himalayan food is synonymous with Kashmiri cuisine, and to some extent Himachali as well. There isn’t much known about Uttaranchali cuisine. But once you savour it, you will know that the flavours are outstanding,” says Ashish Bhasin, executive chef at the Trident, Bandra Kurla, Mumbai, who organised the 10-day food fest, The Himalayan Expedition, at O22 this February.

The response to Kumaoni cuisine at the fest took the team by surprise as well.

Initially, people were reluctant to try. They would take a small portion of the dishes from the region. But once they tasted them, they kept going back for more.

Ashish Bhasin

 (Courtesy: Trident, Bandra Kurla, Mumbai)
(Courtesy: Trident, Bandra Kurla, Mumbai)

The cuisine from the region is heavy on ghee to help one combat the freezing temperatures. Lentils too enjoy a prominent place in the food mix. “Bhat ki dal, for instance, is a black lentil that is rich in protein. It is used to make churkani, which can only be cooked in a cast iron kadhai. The iron from the kadhai and protein from the lentil make it an extremely nutritious dish,” says Jeewan Singh Rawat, who hails from Almora and is currently the executive chef at Clarkes Shimla.

(Courtesy: Trident, Bandra Kurla, Mumbai)
(Courtesy: Trident, Bandra Kurla, Mumbai)

He was earlier with the Trident, Mumbai and helped Bhasin put together the 10-day fest. “There is also the kulath or gahat dal that is beneficial for those suffering from stones. If one has this dal continuously for 10 to 15 days, he or she will be cured,” says Rawat, who is now looking for more ways to popularise this cuisine.

The extensive use of local herbs and ingredients lends a unique freshness to the dishes. “You can say that Kumaoni cuisine is organic by default,” says Deeptangan Pant, a Dehradun-based software engineer, who has been blogging and writing about the cuisine from the Kumaon hills for quite sometime now.

Aloo ke gutke - a dish made of pahari potatoes fried with local condiments and relished with cucumber raita. (Courtesy: Deeptangan Pant)
Aloo ke gutke - a dish made of pahari potatoes fried with local condiments and relished with cucumber raita. (Courtesy: Deeptangan Pant)

One of the traditional dishes that you can find in small eateries along the winding hill roads is aloo ke gutke, which is essentially potato wedges fried with local herbs like jakhya and jamboo and then topped with coriander leaves.

In Kumaoni homes, people don’t use cumin or mustard to temper dals. They use jakhya, which is like a tiny mustard seed and helps in digestion.

Jeewan Singh Rawat, Executive Chef, Clarkes Shimla

Hill spinach is a common dish to accompany chapatis made of madua or finger millet seeds. Topped with dollops of ghee and jaggery, this is an ideal winter dish.

Cannabis seeds used for making chutney. (Courtesy: Deeptangan Pant)
Cannabis seeds used for making chutney. (Courtesy: Deeptangan Pant)

Bhang too is used extensively to make chutneys. Pant recalls an interesting story told to him during a trip to the Kumaon hills. “His son had landed a job in the south and the mother packed condiments, jars of pickle and ghee for him to take along. When the boy reached the security check at the Delhi airport, an officer found a neatly sealed bag of hemp seeds or bhang in the bag. It took hours of pleading and explaining by the young man that the seeds were in fact a harmless ingredient for a chutney and nothing more,” he says. These seeds are also used to make sana hua nimbu from curd, radish, lemon and spices.

Bal Mitahi (right) - brown chocolate-like fudge made from khoya coated with sugar balls. Singodi (left)-flavoured khoya wrapped in oak leaves. (Courtesy: Deeptangan Pant)
Bal Mitahi (right) - brown chocolate-like fudge made from khoya coated with sugar balls. Singodi (left)-flavoured khoya wrapped in oak leaves. (Courtesy: Deeptangan Pant)

The cuisine has something in store for those with a sweet tooth as well. There is the famous bal mithai that can be found in sweet shops across the region. “Bal mithai is chocolate [milk reduced to solid form] studded with sugar balls. Singhori is a sweetmeat moulded in an indigenous leaf called malla ka patta that results in little cones fragrant with an elusive scent of the leaf packaging,” wrote Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, a gastronomy writer and owner of India’s first kitchen studio, APB Studio, in her blog.

For those who wish to sample the marvels of this cuisine, keep a watch out for food fests, fairs and cooking demonstrations. “In Delhi, for instance, Dilli Haat keeps doing fairs that focus on the various states of India. There, one can have Kumaoni food,” says Rawat.

(Avantika Bhuyan is a freelance journalist who loves to uncover the invisible India hiding in nooks and crannies across the country.)

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