By Reya Mehrotra
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when we talk about Ladakh? Are you thinking about the mountain peaks, the high-altitude passes, or the Buddhist monasteries? Well, you are on the right track, but you will be forgiven if you didn’t add local cuisine to the list.
Ladakhi food has much in common with typical Tibetan fare but still has a character of its own. So, when an ongoing festival in the heart of the national capital pays tribute to the pristine culture of the union territory perched in the northern corners of the country, people take note—especially if it’s offered with a modern twist.
Chef Nilza Wangmo, who curated the cuisine for the festival, grew up on traditional Ladakhi food that her grandmother used to cook. But when she stepped into the food business, she customised the traditional offerings to suit the palate of the younger generation. Her menu includes starters like mok mok (momos), samso (baked lamb momos) with walnut sauce, soups like ngamthuk (barley soup with mutton chops), veg thukpa and sha (mutton) chutagi (stew), yarkendi pulao (mutton) for mains, saffron momos with apricot yogurt, chocolate momos, yak cheesecake for desserts, and so on. As for the special teas of Ladakh, she has the famous gur gur cha (Ladakhi butter tea) and Tashi Stakgyat tea with herbs.
According to Wangmo, the eating habits of Ladakhis have undergone a remarkable transformation in the past few years. Earlier, barley used to be an important part of daily food but a good road network with the rest of the country brought rice to Ladakh, and it became the new staple. “Youngsters like to eat rice-based meals and modern food now. I have curated fusion food with the traditional dishes and received positive response. Yarkendi pulao is the newest addition to my menu,” she says, adding that the traditional Ladakhi tea made of dri (female yak) milk has a thick consistency and is salty, almost like soup, and is a must-try at the festival.
Chef Pankaj Sharma from The Claridges, too, is serving his curation of Ladakhi cuisine at the festival. His menu includes vegetarian and meat-based options like potato and yak cheese croquet with Tenzin chili mayo, chicken momos with salsa, thentur and lamb, lamb mince chutagi, apricot popsicle and so on.
Like the warp and the weft weave magic, both the chefs have come together to offer the beauty of Ladakhi cuisine in the heart of the national capital. Due to its proximity to Kashmir, there is a lot of Kashmiri influence in the Ladakhi cuisine. One can find variations of wazwan on the platter.
Ladakh has always been a favourite tourist destination featuring in the bucket list of adventure seekers and casual travellers alike. Over the past few years, the newly named union territory has also attracted filmmakers in hordes, as the land promises unmatched beauty and pristine locations. Popular films such as 3 Idiots, Jab Tak Hai Jaan and Shershaah, among many others, have been shot in the region and remain deeply etched in our memory.
Muzammil Hussain, co-founder and CEO of Roots Ladakh, a travel agency that organises trips and treks in parts of Ladakh, hails from Kargil and was a student when the Kargil War happened in 1999. Currently in New Delhi for a talk on ‘Kargil—Crossroads of Culture and History’, Hussain says that Ladakh’s tourism has been picking up as the region is becoming more accessible with better road connectivity. “Kargil came on the map after the war. But for the longest time we saw no development there as people were skeptical of investing. As for career options, one mostly joins the Army or takes up government contractor jobs. Now people are more confident and businesses like textiles and tourism are picking up,” he adds.
(The Mighty Maryul Festival is on at The Claridges, New Delhi till November 17)