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A Taste of Ladakh

June 8, 2008

Marryam H.Reshi,
Business Standard (India)
June 7, 2008, 5:29 IST

New Delhi -- When the three greatest cuisines of the world are
enumerated, Ladakhi food seldom finds mention. Even in Leh, Ladakhi
restaurants seem anxious to stand up and be counted by serving
Mexican, Israeli, Italian, Kashmiri and north Indian — everything
else, in other words, but Ladakhi. The hotel where I'm staying,
Shambha La, on the other hand, prepares Ladakhi food on order and
they are happiest when orders pour in every day.

Most cuisines, especially in the age of the Internet, have several
outside influences, for better or for worse. Ladakh, being as
geographically isolated as it is, has none, unless you count Tibet
(Ladakh is called Little Tibet because of the geographical contiguity
and similar culture). The result is that despite being in the same
state as Kashmir, there is not a glimmer of similarity.

For Ladakhis, spice means thangyar, the yellow chilli from Manali
which is first fried and then coarsely pounded and eaten with just
about everything, and kurnyot or caraway seeds that grow wild in
Ladakh on the margins of barley fields.

Kurnyot seems to take the place of cumin, and adds a surprisingly
Western flavour to soups. Barley and wheat are staples here, and the
uses to which they are put are extraordinary: Barley goes to make
everything from tsampa to chhang, while wheat is used to make a
variety of momos and spaetzle-like pasta for soups.

The chef at Shambha La specialises in tsamptuk, a delicious,
heart-warming broth with lamb stock as its base, to which is added
dried yak's cheese (called chhurpe), lamb pieces and tsampa. Too much
tsampa and you've got a breakfast porridge. Too little and it becomes
a standard soup. The management of the hotel has nothing but scorn
for my standard daily order of mutton sausage and tsamptuk: they want
to showcase the entire range of Ladakhi food.

Mutton sausages, flavoured subtly with caraway seeds, are neither
smoked nor fermented. They are served within minutes of being made.
Coarsely chopped pieces of mutton are used, though once upon a time
it was probably yak meat that substituted lamb.

It is not as if the fermented taste is unknown to Ladakh: all winter
long, vegetables pickled like Korean kimchi are eaten and the
infamous butter tea, onomatopoeically known as gurgur chai, contans a
dollop of yak butter that has a characteristically fermented taste.

Breakfast at Shambha La usually consists of Ladakhi pickle, made with
white radish, dressed with unheated mustard oil, salt and chilli
powder. It turns faintly sour in one hour of being kept in the sun
and goes deliciously well with traditional Ladakhi bread, called
khambiri or yeast-developed.

A few things I could not sample in Ladakh are Changthang lamb, from
the vast, underpopulated plain contiguous with Tibet where vegetation
is sparse. Sheep reared here has an indescribably rich flavour. Paba
and shkew, which the management of the hotel deem too homely to
unleash on a guest, are home-style staples for farmers.
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