Leh market

After every museum and monastery closes for the evening, tourists descend on Leh’s main market. It’s not a small number of people, I even bumped into acquaintances from work at the market. The Family decided to go there a little before ravenous hordes descend on the cafes. Her first photo of the day shows an exotic market scene: a row of vegetable vendors against a backdrop of beautiful carpets, and a scattered few shoppers. Even the vegetables are laid out on lovely carpets. It is the best photo of the market I’ve seen, but it’s not the typical photo.

If you want the typical photo, that’s this. Crowds of tourists not sure what they want to do. Some sit on benches, others take selfies or photos of each other, the rest cruise in gangs up and down the drag, while the more clear-headed fill up the many cafes and bakeries which offer free wifi.

The market has one of the most cheerful post offices I’ve seen anywhere. It was closed, of course, by the time I spotted it. But there was always a gaggle of tourists around it, either taking selfies against the “I Love Ladakh” mural on one wall, or using it as a meeting point. The bright white building with red trim looked like it might be a place where locals meet and chat.

There were two beautiful mosques on the road, in two different styles. One was an exotic plaster and wood structure: all white and light wood stain. I had to look twice to see that it was a mosque. The architecture was adapted from the native Ladakhi style: the grand gate was in intricately carved wood. The other was a structure that was more immediately recognizable, the turrets and doors, the green and white colour scheme, similar to the mosques that you see around the world. About half of the native Ladakhis are Muslim, the other half Buddhist. This is an ancient history. Ladakh was on the old silk route, and cultures and religions traveled along it for much more than a thousand years.

I liked the view along the drag: with the Leh Palace perched on a hill visible along its axis. The afternoon had turned cloudy, but now, at sunset the clouds parted and we had this joyful golden light on the palace and the upper stories of the shops here. I left The Family to find old Ladakhi jewelery in jade and coral and climbed to a cafe on one of the upper floors with my copy of Gurnah’s “The Last Gift.”

A couple of days earlier The Family had discovered the wonderful Ladakhi apricots: small, juicy, and flavourful. She’d bought a kilo from this lady, and we ate them over a few days. We picked up the fruits again later, and they would be one of the best things we got back from Ladakh.

And the local jewelry? Glad you asked. They are jade and coral, set in silver. The silver-work was fascinating. I saw three pieces, one was antique, the second was a grand old silver piece with new jade and coral pieces added to it, and the third was an old coral set with new rings of silver added to it. In this last one, the silver will get a little patina as it ages.

Ladakhi Food: The Little Sister

Baltistan (बल्तिस्तान, སྦལ་ཏི་སྟཱན) is such a small part of Ladakh that it is possible to forget about it altogether. But that would be a mistake. Raymond Chandler’s novel The Little Sister begins with Philip Marlowe being knocked out by a blonde wielding high heels. That how different Balti food can be from that in other parts of Ladakh. I’ve never eaten a salad like this before. Our table in The Balti Kitchen overlooked the fields of Turtuk village, and we could see all the ingredients growing right there. A leafy salad with blackberries, dwarf red and white cherries and apricot, dried apple, apricot nuts and walnut, it was so fresh, juicy, and crunchy that you didn’t minded the lack of a dressing.

The salad was preceded by the drink. I’d chosen the apricot juice and The Family had decided to try cherry. We sipped our drinks and silently exchanged glasses. Excellent drinks both. The apricot was heavier with fibre and sweet. The mint crushed into it gave it a nice fresh feel. The cherries were tart with a bit of sweetness, and the crunch of walnut was a nice touch. The salad was followed by Moskot: buckwheat pancakes (thin and crisp as a crepe) covered in yogurt sauce mixed with pureed walnuts, onions and green chili. Wonderfully fresh, with just a bit of spiciness from the chilis. Buckwheat pancakes are pan-Ladakhi, as ubiquitous as femme fatales in Chandler’s books, but the sauce was as unusual as one wielding a high heel rather than a gun.

We didn’t need any more food, but I’d already ordered the Baleh. In Tibetan that word just means soup. This one had hand-rolled noodles, bits of chuffea (which is yogurt dried into a cheesy mass), peas, little pieces of potato and carrots, and topped with several fresh herbs. Again a very aromatic dish. We’d hesitated a bit over a soupy stew, the squu, but our hotel’s kitchen had produced it for us the previous night. Although we liked it a lot, we decided to try out the new dish.

Sharing the table with the two of us was a group of women from the extreme east of the country: Arunachal Pradesh. That part of the country is as high as this, but more lush because it receives a large amount of rain. They ordered in Tibetan, a language that they share with the Balti people. We chatted a bit about how they’d traveled across the country with three changes of flights. In Ladakh meat is very limited, we were told it was in deference to the non-violent beliefs of the Buddhists. But the women next to us told that their husbands, all Buddhists, and the same sect as the Ladakhis, had gone off to look for a place which served meat. They joined the group later, having eaten a Hyderabadi biryani at a more touristy restaurant elsewhere. In the end I figured that it is just the same as any traditional farming community: they eat meat sparingly. As people get more urbanized they begin to eat more and more meat.

We were pretty full. At these altitudes your appetite decreases. But we’d already ordered a dessert: Kambo kushu. This turned out to be home made apple-flavoured biscuits, with a handful of blackberries, raspberries, mulberry, and nuts dumped over it, the whole thing drenched in honey and (don’t hold your breath!) chocolate sauce. I suppose the love of chocolate is a human universal!

Turtuk: lives and livelihood

We hear the word village and we think of fields and farming. We’re never wrong about this today, although the first villages are found from about 3000 years before agriculture developed. Over millennia, the development of agriculture has completely wiped out the hunter-gatherer economy that birthed villages. Turtuk was surrounded with terraced fields, largely given over to wheat, but with patches full of a variety of vegetables.

Between houses there were numerous apricot and cherry trees. Both of these fruits were different from the variety we’d eaten before. The apricots were small, perhaps 2 or 3 centimeters across, and terribly sweet. The cherries were also tiny, about 5 millimeters across, and tasted tartly sweet. We’d been seeing the dwarf apricots ever since we arrived in Ladakh, but the cherries were new to us. Hunder, the village with our hotel, was at an altitude of 3000 meters. From there we’d driven downstream of Shyok for about three hours, and then climbed about 200 meters to Turtuk. That put us at an altitude which was about the same as Hunder. At these heights perhaps these dwarf varieties of fruits grow best.

The wheat was ripening in the fields. Lower down I’d seen the harvest in progress. But here it looked liked the growing season would last another 10 days or a week. Every isolated small patch of ground was used to grow something: vegetables. This was early enough in the season that I saw many vegetable flowers: potatoes (the featured photo), tomatoes (the Solanum flower in the gallery above), a cucumber with its edible yellow flowers, peas (perhaps, I don’t know its flowers), and others that you don’t see here, like carrots, radish, runners of beans and edible leaves, and the third edible Solanum, namely brinjal. In trips to jungles I equate Solanum with poisonous weeds. Seeing these three varieties of Solanum flowers in tended fields reminded me of the European reluctance to eat tomatoes and potatoes when they were first imported from the Americas. Quite an understandable caution, I thought.

The ethnic Ladakhis seem to follow Buddhism and Islam in about equal numbers. The Buddhist population largely lives in the eastern, higher, parts of Ladakh, and the muslims in the western, lower regions. I’d said earlier that geographically Ladakh is where the roof of the world slopes down to meet central Asia. This is not only a metaphor. Along this slope Buddhism and, later, Islam traveled eastwards, following the silk route. From the higher parts of the village I could spot the small dome of the village mosque, but I didn’t pass it. It seems to stand towards one edge of the village. Religion has its normal place in Ladakh, present in the family, but secondary to work and livelihood in the larger community.

No description of mountain villages can be complete without its beasts of burden. No car or motorcycle can negotiate the lanes of this village. I saw no bicycles either. But I passed a corral which held a donkey munching on its fodder. It raised its head and posed for me, but brayed at me when I walked away. Perhaps it expected me to feed it. I was on my way to a surprisingly good lunch, and didn’t have time to spend on a donkey.

Ladakhi food: Playback

When you travel in India you realize its enormous and pleasing diversity even in as little as its food. And you also rediscover the horrifying steam roller of cheap tourism trying to flatten it out. Traveling in Ladakh, I sought out authentic local food among the mushrooming dhabas and cheap restaurants promising dal and paneer. I loved the authenticity of dal and paneer when travelling in Punjab, the subtlety of its home grown food. Here I was searching for the subtlety that traditional cooking brings to the food that grows in this wind-swept high desert, where the roof of the world slopes down to the edges of Central Asia. There is enough on offer, and every person I met was happy to help us discover it. Just as the dal and paneer available to tourists across the country is a pale watery imitation of that in Punjab, the thukpas and mok-moks made with care in this region are far superior to the cheap imitations you find in marketplaces across the country.

Nassir Khan, our driver for the day was a proud Ladakhi. When we said that we had hardly eaten any local food, he directed us to a restaurant next to the Alchi monastery. The Alchi Kitchen, as this place is called, is a single large room on the upper floor of a traditional house in the center of Alchi village. A pleasant blue-tinged light filtered in through glass covered skylights. Two balconies with tables stood behind other doors that were open to let in the bright light of a clear day 3100 meters above sea level. Thick mud walls were interrupted by carved wooden doors and windows. Mud covered rush made the warm inner layer of the roof which lay across aged wooden timber beams.

Nilza Wangmo showed us to a table next to the open kitchen. A President’s award, and a Vogue Woman of the Year plaque, both for 2020, sit on a discreet shelf in one corner. All the workers in the restaurant are women; she says men don’t cook in Ladakh. While this may be true, the men who had driven us since we arrived at the airport had been happy to talk about the local food and ingredients. So we already knew of khambir and chutagi, and the different roles of wheat and buckwheat in the kitchen. I looked at the bustle in the kitchen. Traditional cookware and flasks shared space with gas stoves and microwaves, coffee percolators and hand blenders. Traditional never has to mean primitive; modern does not mean mono-culture.

The job of cooking and serving was shared by all the women. By and large Nilza looked after the orders and payments, but she took her turn at the burners when one of the others had sallied out with plates and bowls of food. Then someone else would take over the accounts. We’d come in at the busiest time, when the monastery was closed for lunch. I had time to walk about and admire the place. I’d met the traditional cast iron oven of the heights. I’ve sat in houses warmed by its fire as soup and tea bubbles, and roti is baked on it. At night the fire is banked and warm the house. The copper pipe leads the gases away. I remember that the first time I slept in a house warmed by such an oven, I was worried about carbon monoxide. I survived. The kitchen utensils stacked on shelves behind the oven were ceremonial copper and bronze. But the kitchen used the more ordinary steel and cast iron vessels.

We’d been sipping glasses of the local apricot juice. This seems to be made by pulsing a bunch of the small local apricots in a blender before removing the unbroken kernel. The thick juice has become a great hit with locals and tourists. The kernels are dried and cracked open to get the nut. This house served a tea made from the nuts, but we were too full later to taste it. The first thing that arrived at our table was the stuffed khambir. This distinctly central Asian paratha, is traditionally made in a tandoor. Here we saw it being made on a tawa. The two halves are rolled separately and fired slightly before filling. Then the sides are pinched together and finished. Another adaptation was the addition of some yogurt before it was served. Food and language are history, and eating here brings to life the dry histories that connect China, India and South-east Asia, Central and West Asia, to Europe, and through the maritime routes of the Indian Ocean to Ethiopia and East Africa.

A segment of the silk route had passed over this plateau, and over it many varieties of cultural innovations had traveled between China and West Asia. Steamed food, noodles, gunpowder and paper had traveled west. Oven-baked food, alphabetic writing, and Abrahamic religions had traveled east. Our next dish was the most sensational thukpa I’d eaten (featured photo). Made with hand pulled noodles, julienned carrots and peppers (the extremely spicy local variety) in a deeply flavourful broth, some coriander leaves had been sprinkled on it just before serving.

In Raymond Chandler’s book, Playback, Philip Marlowe keeps returning to situations and people, and every time he does so, something has changed. The Family had objected to my order of the mok-mok (momo elsewhere); she’d held out for the chutagi (which had become ravioli by the time it reached Italy). But then she let Nilza convince her that the vegetarian mok-mok was worth trying out. It was subtly different from what we’d eaten before. In this land where half the people are Gelugpa Buddhist and the other half Islamic, the traditional steamed dumpling is filled with vegetables. Our appetites were low in this low oxygen environment, and three dishes shared between three people was enough. My spirit was willing to order a plate of chocolate-filled mok-mok, but my stomach quailed at the thought. We still had to walk uphill to our car. Four days after flying in to Leh, I was still going to find it tough after a meal.

End-summer reds

Right now, as summer turns into monsoon, grishma to varsha, our table is full of red fruits: from the red-orange of ripe apricots to the darker reds of ripe plums. Just to be contrary, I put a couple of left over jamun (Syzygium cumini) in the bowl. Not only does the deep purple of its skin present a counterpoint, so does its taste. The sweetness of the apricots and plums seem bland compared to the tart turning to sweet of jamun. I think this photo could be this year’s goodbye to these fruits, now that three showers a day has announced that the monsoon winds are close to us. The weather is better, but it is the season of grey for the next four months.