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.