Omiyage

Monsoon in the Sahyadris is an interesting experience. It helps that it’s a quick trip: planned in a week, over in a night or two. You can wedge it into any part of a week that’s relatively free. On our way back from the ghats, we saw locals at stalls by the highway selling vegetables and fruits. They have a freshness that you seldom see at the far end of cold chains that reach us. So we bought veggies in quantities large enough to distribute to family and friends: a perfect omiyage from a trip to walk between rice paddies looking for wildflowers. I’m a little lost about what we bought: there’s a lauki (bottle gourd) visible in the upper right corner of my photo. Then, going diagonally down to the lower left corner, we see in succession a bunch of torai (ridge gourd), then a smoother skinned cousin which, I’m told is also called torai, followed by the warty karela (bitter melon), and the common as mud kheera (cucumber). There’s also a leaf there which I must have eaten, but cannot identify.

I’ve given you the names of these vegetables in Hindi, but as a bilingual family living in a state where most people speak a third language, we use a khichree of words for produce. The word kheera, for example, is replaced by kakri, which is Marathi for cucumber (oh yes, we do use English for some of the produce), mainly because that’s the word you need to use when you shop here. It has stopped occurring to me that kakri meant something completely different in the part of the country where I grew up. If you know these veggies, what do you call them?

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.

Around lunch

Strictly speaking, this is not a post about food. Its a post about the stuff about food: the drink at the beginning and the dessert at the end. The drink was perfect for a hot summer day: loads of ice, cucumber for flavour. What was the hot orange marigold doing in there? Its become quite a fashion to serve drinks with inedible flowers. I just hope they have no traces of insecticide left on them.

The dessert was my favourite at this place: a perfect tiramisu. You can tell how much I like it. I remembered to take a photo only after finishing more than half of it. It does miss the ladyfingers soaked in coffee, but the mascarpone cream and cocoa are spot on. It is such an easy recipe that I wonder why so many places mess it up completely. Lightness is the essence.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

Edible?

Yellow flowers are not very common in the Sahyadris during the monsoon. So when you scan a meadow, these flowers jump out at you. It has to do partly with the response of the human eye, which is most sensitive to yellows and greens in the spectrum. Many insects, on the other hand, are more sensitive to blues and the, to us invisible, ultraviolet. In any case, I’d spotted this tiny flower quite early, but took my time plodding up to it. The rain had stopped, and a little skipper had come out of hiding from under a leaf and headed for the same flower.

These creepers are quite common across the Sahyadris, but I’ve not yet got round to identifying it down to the species. It is clearly a member of the cucumber family (Cucurbitacaea). This includes an incredibly large number of edible plants, pumpkins and squashes, melons, and cucumbers. Every part of the cucumber vine growing in our balcony is edible, leaves as well as flower. I wonder about this wild species.