Secrets of a Mountain Kitchen – Inside the World of Kargili Cuisine- Ladakhi Cuisine.
Thukpa and momos aren’t the be-all and end-all of Ladakh’s food heritage. A closer examination reveals the cuisine of the region – Ladakh in general and Kargil in particular – to be richly intricate, nourishing, and characteristic of life in arid, harsh climes
In a country that is a variegated mosaic of cultures, cuisines, customs, and languages, it is perhaps inevitable that stereotypes should dominate the common man’s – not the well-travelled gastronome’s – food discourse. So South Indian food mostly means idli and dosa, Bengali cuisine is overwhelmingly fish-centric, North-Eastern food is largely game meat and smelly bamboo shoots, and so on. Likewise, in the popular imagination, the cuisine of Ladakh is synonymous with thukpa and momos.
Well, the real problem with stereotypes isn’t that they conjure up false notions, but that they do contain a trace a truth, just not the whole. So, while Ladakhi cuisine – particularly that of Leh – does include thukpa and momos, these aren’t the be-all and end-all of the region’s food heritage. There’s plenty more, such as a type of stew named Skyu, a type of bread known as Khambir, a kind of pasta soup called Chutagi, and what have you. But while the food of Leh has, of late, captured the fancy of epicureans, resulting in it being documented and hailed, the cuisine of Kargil remains shrouded in anonymity.
Kargil boasts an eclectic cuisine shaped by a gamut of influences. This includes the fact that it was an important post on the famed Silk Route, visited by traders from Tibet, China, and Central Asia who introduced their own food customs to the region. Besides, climate, flora, and religious and cultural mores also influenced the region’s food traditions. Here are a few delicacies that are prepared and relished in Kargil in particular, and Ladakh in general:
Wonderfully simple and at once reminiscent of the hardy, modest lifestyle of the Kargili people, Papa is increasingly becoming a culinary rarity for tables across homes in the region. It is a no-frills preparation of barley flour – ground and roasted – mixed with hot water and salt that is subsequently kneaded into a dough with the fist, shaped into an uneven lump, and served alongside butter tea or gur-gur chai, vegetables, and even lentils. Sometimes butter or ghee are added for richness.
A fancier culinary rendition of the Spartan Papa, Kholak is made by using beverages, instead of water, to mix with the roasted barley flour. Beverages such as milk, gur-gur chai, churned yoghurt, and even sugar and salt are commonly added to Kholak, rendering it sweet, salty, or slightly sour depending on the beverage added. Due to its pleasant taste and convenient preparation, Kholaq was traditionally preferred as a travellers’ food.
- Tsrap Khur & Markhor
Tsrap Khur and Markhor are types of cookies influenced by baked goods of Central Asia. A kind of thick cookie made of wheat, Tsrap Khur is regarded as heavy and nutritious and customarily fed to pregnant women. It is baked in a way as to make sure the centre remains soft and gooey and the sides, relatively dry. After baking, a rich flavour is achieved with the addition of clarified butter. Finally, it is crushed and typically washed down with tea.
Markhor, on the other hand, is a type of light, dry cookie which is enjoyed crisp. It continues to be a popular snack item served at tea time in most Kargili homes.
Good old khichri’s Kargili counterpart, Thuksing is a type of barley-based savoury porridge. While prepared with no spices barring salt, chunks of mutton are occasionally added to thuksing, making it a protein-heavy dish that generates warmth in the chilly winter season. A nourishing, unpretentious one-dish meal, Thuksing is normally fed to the sick and ailing.
Rgyuma & Nang
One of Kargil’s most beloved dishes, Rgyuma is a type of indigenous sausage in which the casing is traditionally made of the small intestines of animals like sheep and goat. To prepare Rgyuma, the small intestine is flushed and cleaned with water and stuffed with a batter of wheat flour and water, salt, and dried fenugreek leaves. Both ends of the intestine are tied and dropped in boiling water for a few minutes. It is served hot soon afterwards. An integral part of Tibetan cuisine, Rgyuma is reflective of the shared culinary heritage of the region.
A heavier, spicier version of Rgyuma, Nang is a type of sausage whose casing is made of the large intestine of sheep and goat. Though the method of preparation is the same, the stuffing used in Nang is much more elaborate, consisting of chopped onions, spices like desiccated fenugreek leaves and black pepper, mutton fat and qeema or minced mutton.
- Krotpa Chutney
While most fancy preparations in the sub-continent tend to avoid the use of offal meat, Kargil’s celebrated Krotpa chutney demonstrates its ingenious use even in culinary specialties. Prepared by boiling sheep stomach, liver, kidney, and intestines until rubbery, Krotpa Chutney is loved both for its taste and chewy consistency. This organ meat mixture is cooled, chopped, and deep fried with a range of ingredients such as tomatoes, onions, dried red chili, salt, black pepper, and dried fenugreek leaves. A small portion is customarily served at traditional feasts.
Another easy one-pot meal brimming with goodness, Popot is a quintessential winter soup in which black beans and mutton legs – apart from onions, garlic, salt and black pepper – form the primary ingredients. Occasionally, barley flour is added to thicken the consistency and mutton fat for an unctuous texture and flavour
A Ramadan specialty in Kargil, Chulli or apricots – the fruit of the land – are commonly made into a jam that is savoured for its taste and rejuvenating abilities. Dried apricots are boiled in water until they acquire a slushy texture. Clarified butter may be added as well.
Other than the aforementioned, local vegetables such as Khorma also form a part of everyday food. Vegetables are typically prepared with little to no spices and cooked just right to ensure their natural juices remain.
Then & Now
Notwithstanding a number of continuing culinary traditions, Kargil’s cuisine has been changing – and irreversibly – over the years. For instance, owing to their ability to survive the extreme environment, barley and buckwheat used to be the staple sources of carbohydrate in the region. However, the last few decades have seen wheat flour and rice infiltrating the traditional food scene.
“Ladakh remained largely cut off from the rest of India for years even after independence. Though increased connectivity in recent decades has opened up opportunities and improved various aspects of daily life, it has eroded several time-honoured customs entwined with our indigenous lifestyle” said Arif Haidari, a native Kargili and an Assistant Professor of commerce at the University of Delhi.
Thanks to local initiatives, the ancient festival of Mamani has been revived to preserve and promote the region’s cultural heritage. Photo courtesy of Kashmir Life.
“Take, for instance, our tradition of serving barley flour alongside tea. The easy availability of chips, biscuits, and other packaged items has sadly caused a near-abandonment of the custom” he added.
“We want to keep our traditions alive, we ought to keep our traditions alive” said Mohd. Baqir, a PhD scholar from Kargil. “We welcome local initiatives like Mamani, the seasonal food festival, in this regard” he said, referring to an ancient Kargili festival heralding the beginning of spring. Celebrated on 21st of January every year, Mamani has been revived in recent years, primarily as a food festival that showcases the region’s ethnic culture.
Though shorn of culinary artfulness, Kargili and Ladakhi food in general is characterized by a simplicity and robustness reflective of the hearty and hardy people themselves. So, while the visual, olfactory, and gustatory aspects of the region’s cuisine must be celebrated, so too must be the indomitable spirit of those to whom the cuisine belongs.
Nandini Sen Content Writer
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“I’m waiting at the same place since 2 days. Many ill senior citizens are with us who are struggling. There are no ATMs, no banks and we are cashless. When the youngsters step out if the vehicles, the Police tries to physically harass them. What should we do here?” said a woman traveller
As per the passengers, more than 20 people sat together in a restaurant at a time. “What social distancing do you expect at a clustered place? Police tells to sit inside the vehicles due to the curfew. How are we supposed to follow it in a car?” they said
The travellers blamed the ‘failed Administration’ for their miserable conditions. According to them, people with sources were allowed to travel while the others were left unnoticed.
“No basic facilities are provided us, not even accommodation. We are sleeping in the vehicles. A notice about our travel towards Ladakh was issued for today which isn’t being followed. This is due to a failed Administration. People with contacts in the Department have left for their home while we are struggling to step out.” the passengers said
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