Like many others, our contributor equated Ladakh’s food with momos and thukpa. Until a traditional feast at the king’s palace made her realise how little she knew of the locals and their culinary traditions. By Archana Singh
Not only does food play a vital role in our sustenance, but it is also interwoven with our heritage. Hence, it assumes utmost significance when you explore a new place. Local cuisine is a gateway to understanding the culture and traditions of a region. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to define a place without trying its cuisine—it’s a lesson I learnt on my last trip to Ladakh.
The Union Territory is a popular destination for Indians. It has been catapulted to stardom thanks to social media and the many movies shot on its surreal terrain. While most people are familiar with tourist attractions such as Nubra, Pangong, and Khardungla, there’s a serious dearth of awareness about the local cuisine. Most people think Ladakhi food is all about momos and thukpa (noodle soup). It’s so much more.
Ladakh is a cold high-altitude desert that has historically been at the crossroads of trade. An important stop on the ancient Silk Route, Ladakh was influenced by the cultures, traditions, and food habits of Tibet to the east, Central Asia to the north, and Dardistan to the west. As a result, you find some very unique food traditions here that you don’t see anywhere else in the Indian subcontinent or even Tibet.
On my last visit to Ladakh, when I confessed my ignorance of local dishes to Vilayat Ali, a filmmaker by profession and experiential travel organiser by passion, I got an impromptu invitation to try an authentic Ladakhi meal. The next day an elaborate feast was waiting for us at an equally stunning address: Stok Palace, the heritage property that belongs to the royals of Ladakh. King Jigmed Namgyal met us during our visit and spoke eloquently about how vernacular architecture and local experiences are crucial to saving Ladakh’s culture and heritage from the claws of unregulated tourism.
Of course, the centrepiece of our experience was the food. The delightful local spread was prepared by Kunzes Angmo, the brain behind Artisanal Alchemy, which curates gastronomic narratives and experiences. Owing to Ladakh’s harsh winters, the Trans-Himalayan diet of the region is rich in carbohydrates and fat—red meat dominates the menu. However, since I am a vegetarian, Angmo had made a few adjustments and drawn up an entirely vegetarian menu.
Sitting on the terrace of the palace, facing the picturesque Stok village, Angmo smilingly took us on a voyage of flavour. “This pure vegetarian meal highlights the food of our fathers. A microcosm of the food traditions and identity of our ancestors developed over time for sustenance,” she began.
The Ladakhis are a resilient people. They grow what they eat and eat what they grow. In the harsh winter, when the earth fails to sustain a single blade of grass, they resort to the region’s ancient food preservation practices. Some vegetables and fruits are lacto-fermented (pickles), and others sun- and shade-dried. Dairy products form an essential part of the Ladakhi meal, and the carbs mostly come from organic whole wheat, which is harvested from their ancestral fields and grounded in a rantak (traditional watermill).
The dishes have no turmeric, garam masala, red chilli powder, or any other spice synonymous with Indian cooking. Traditional Ladakhi food uses only freshly ground pepper, fresh and dried herbs such as cilantro, wild chives, onion greens, Chinese celery, and wild horsemint for seasoning, and yellow Manali chilli for spice.
We started with a local bread called tsong thaltak, a whole-wheat onion biscuit-bread, dressed with a drizzle of poppy seeds. It’s traditionally baked in big, round, flat-lidded iron containers buried in the dying embers of dry leaves that burn slowly overnight. There were two more varieties of bread, khambir (traditional sourdough whole-wheat bread) and bazaar-e-tagi (a flatbread). The loaves of bread were accompanied by zathuk (nettle soup) and tangthur (yoghurt dip made of foraged weeds). Khagla (fresh homemade butter) made the appetisers even more delicious.
The main course started with lama pakthuk, which translates to ‘monk’s thukpa’. It’s made in monasteries, and for monks visiting a household for prayers. The noodle soup was a wholesome meal made with dried local cheese, dried black peas, julienned turnips, Chinese radishes, and dried wild buckwheat leaves. Seasoned with freshly ground pepper, butter, and cilantro, it was the best thing to have in the freezing climate of Ladakh. As I gobbled down the delicious lama pakthuk, I learnt that thukpa is as commonplace in this region as dal is in North India. No wonder there are almost 25-30 varieties of soupy stews made with whole-wheat and buckwheat noodles, dumplings, barley flour, rice, and even plain vegetables.
The only rice dish on the menu was Yarkhandi pulao, a dish from Yarkhand in China that travelled to Ladakh along the southern tributaries of the Silk Route and was regarded as a novelty decades ago. Its name, however, can be misleading as it doesn’t resemble any pulao of the subcontinent; its closest cousin is probably the Afghani or the Mongolian pilau. The dish is usually cooked with big chunks of meat, but I had its vegetarian rendition—made with julienned baby carrots, long basmati grains from Jammu, and aromatic whole spices. Slivers of fried onions and roasted nuts had been employed as garnish. Giving company to the Yarkhandi pulao was o-chutagi, a local bow-tie pasta cooked in milk with a root vegetable. The pasta was perfectly paired with kabra, stir-fried dried wild caper shoots cooked in bitter apricot oil. For lovers of spice, there was the thangnyer chutney, a dip made with the yellow Manali chilli.
The third main dish on our table was drapu, whole-wheat dumplings made in sweet apricot kernel sauce, which I thoroughly enjoyed with chuli-chu, a homemade apricot drink. Relishing the delectable spread over a hearty dose of conversation about the history of each ingredient, I didn’t realise when two hours passed. Now, we had to make some room for the last course. When the desserts arrived, we started with dried organic apricots, steeped in water overnight, and rounded off the feast with paktsa marku, whole-wheat dumplings cooked in butter and sugar with a dousing of powdered dried cheese.
This brief culinary journey taught me more about Ladakh than the seven trips I had made earlier. Next time you visit the region, make a memory out of your meal. You’ll be served history on a plate.
5 LOCAL DISHES YOU MUST TRY – Ladakhi Food
- Tsong thaltak (whole wheat onion bread)
- Lama pakthuk (monk thukpa)
- O-chutagi (a local pasta)
- Drapu (whole wheat dumplings)
- Chhurpi (cheese made from yak milk)
You can drive to Ladakh via Manali or Srinagar. Bear in mind that roads are closed during winter. Leh is well connected by air to different parts of the country.
The Grand Dragon Ladakh is one of the first five-star luxury hotels in Ladakh. From INR 9,000 per night.
Stok Palace Heritage Hotel is a 200-year-old mud palace that offers six restored rooms in the palace building and three two-bedroom villas amid an apricot orchard. From INR 12,000 per night for a single room suite.
Tours to explore Ladakhi food
You can book a tailor-made Ladakhi cuisine experience at the Jade House, Ladakh. It is organised by Artisanal Alchemy (Instagram: @artisanalalchemy).
Editor’s Note: Keeping the current situation of the pandemic in mind, T+L India recommends every reader to stay safe, and take all government-regulated precautions in case travel at this time is absolutely necessary. Please follow our stories on COVID-19 for all the latest travel guidelines.