Varied as the land, different valley regions of Himachal have held onto age-old traditions in dress, music, dance styles, architecture, agricultural practices but it is the tantalising palate with a variety of cuisines on offer that can grip a traveller to come back looking for more.
Drawn from the farms and pastures the land grows, many dishes make a liberal use of the produce, herbs, nuts, fruits, milk and milk products. In many belts, non-vegetarian food is the norm and most meals are centered around meat, cereals and lentils. Leafy vegetables are only a recent induction into the Himachali palate.
Community feasts prepared for ‘Dhams’ by hereditary clans of Boti chefs is where the traditional flavours are at their best. A Mandi Dham is much different from a Chamba, Kangra, Bilaspur, Shimla, Sirmaur or Kullu Dham. Each region or valley has its own set of favourite dishes, cooked in a distinctly different style which makes these feasts very popular at food festivals or when partaking in one during a visit to any of these regions.
A typical Chamba Dham would open with rice and green lentils (moong daal), followed by Madrah (kidney beans or white grams cooked in yoghurt), boor ki kari and dark lentils (mash ki daal). The meal is tapered with Khutta made of Gur (brown sugar) and tamarind and for a dessert there is Mittha – sweetened rice, richly garnished with raisins and dry fruits.
In the highlands of Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur, food has marked Tibetan influence with most dishes made out of coarse grains of buckwheat, millet and barley that are locally grown. Thupa, a popular dish, has meat chunks, vegetables and noodles dipped in a fiery curry. Butter tea (Salty tea), known as Thang in Kinnaur/Spiti is made by vigorous churning of butter, salt and special tea leaves. For the long cold winter months this a very energising beverage.
The Momo, a Tibetan dish, is a very popular street food readily available in Shimla, Manali, Dharamshala, Dalhousie and other places. Cooked vegetables or minced meat with seasoning and spices is wrapped in wheat flour dough. After steaming them, Momo’s are ready to be served. With spicy chutney, this dish is a hot selling snack food.
Siddu, a steamed stuffed burger made of wheat flour base, to which yeast is added and eaten with ghee or butter is one of the most popular dishes of Himachal. Opium seed or walnut paste stuffing turns this ordinary looking bun into such a tasty bread that even after a fill, one is left longing for more. Served as a stand alone bread or savoured with daal or mutton, the salty or sweet filling Siddu has found its way into many native restaurants menus.
A non-vegetarian would be left smacking his fingers when served with Khamod Meat, a Chamba speciality of mutton cooked in ghee with curd, spices and garnished with cashew nuts, dry dates and raisins. A fresh catch of trout fish, roasted, steam cooked or cooked in a curry is a delicacy in Barot, Sangla, Pabbar and Kullu-Manali valleys.
Other locally popular dishes include Khatta Karai meat of Kangra, and parts of Mandi and Sepu Vadi of Mandi, Patande of Sirmaur, Babru and Nasastha of Shimla.
Travelling through the mountain land and soaking up the great views is complemented by the special tastes that one picks up along the route when partaking in the lifestyle and eating habits of the natives. Having a history of living in isolated communities under very harsh geographical constraints, the simple people of Himachal use the centuries gathered knowledge of some of the rarest herbs and spices to create magic with the cuisine.