By the time we checked into the hotel, its kitchen was closed. We’d had nothing to eat since a breakfast before sunrise. Fortunately Mall Road was a convenient hop away. If an early lunch is a brunch, then we were looking for a cross between afternoon’s tea and lunch: a tunch? I plonked myself down into the first open cafe I could see. It was a nice location: its open doors looking out on the sunny square called Chowrasta. What did they have? The young waiter suggested that a plate of momo would be quick. We ordered one. By the time it arrived we’d chosen our meals: a thukpa and sel roti. I don’t quite remember where I first had this; perhaps in Sikkim.
The pork momos were wonderful: steamed with a herb I didn’t recognize, wrapped in a nice soft covering. The red hot chili sauce that they served with it had a lovely flavour. The thukpa was very competent. The sel roti looked exactly as I remembered it: a mildly sweet fried doughnut, but served with a fiery hot pickled carrot and a mixed vegetable curry. What was the chili? It turned out to be dalle, the famous cherry chili of the Darjeeling hills. The Family decided that we had to take some back with us. People came and went, a pot of tea at one table, coffee at another, groups of other tourists also at tunch. It was a nice beginning to our holiday in the hills.
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.
Some of the food that the Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh eat is pretty well known in the plains, but others are completely unknown. Momos are found across the Himalayas, and I’m no longer sure where they originated. Traditional Monpa cooking used barley to make the covering, and the filling could be yak, pork or vegetables. I think I’ve never eaten this variety; every momo I ate on this trip was made with maida.
Similarly, variants of the thukpa are found across the Himalayas. The one I ate in Dirang was clearly “cleaned up” for tourists: the meat was chicken instead of pork, but it had a variety of local herbs and definitely had yak cheese. When I asked the cook about the herbs, he just said they are local. I could not even get the local names of the herbs from him.
In Tawang I came across the thenthuk. The meat was chicken, and it seems to be like a thukpa in spirit, but uses broad noodles. These look like the hand-pulled noodles I ate in Bejing. When I asked about it, I ran up against the Monpa unwillingness to talk about food with “outsiders”. I asked whether the noodles are hand made, and I got a nod in answer. When I asked whether they are hand made in the kitchen of the restaurant, I was told that it was not. That’s about all the information I got. Again, I could not get the names of the herbs from the cook. When I asked abut the difference between a thukpa and a thenthuk all I was told is that the latter hs broad noodles. If you are Mon, can you please leave an explanation in the comments? I assure you it will be highly appreciated.
I asked about zan and chhurra in the hotel in Tawang which we stayed in, and my questions were greeted with delight. How did I know about these? I said that I’d read it on the net. They were surprised. The cook said that zan is not made very often these days, people prefer rice. There was general consensus that zan tastes really good. I was told that they would try to get someone to make these two things for me. I got a vessel full of steaming hot, bready, zan: by far too much for me. I liked the taste, but it was heavy, and I could not eat too much (that’s the dark bread-like thing on the plate). The chhurra was clearly something special: it was like a very cheesy stew full of local herbs. I loved it (disclosure: I love ripe cheeses). This was an amazing meal: simple, in that it was just two things, but so complex in taste. Yet again I could not get a description of how these things are made and what the ingredients are.
Arunachal Pradesh is a biodiversity hot spot. Markets are full of diverse fruits and vegetables. I’m sure that the little that I ate is just the tip of a culinary iceberg. Inside India there are cuisines which are still hidden away from most of us!