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.

Red prawn curry

Another day, another recipe. When The Family said she was planning to make a pepper prawn curry, I asked her “Why not tomatoes instead?” Our bhajiwala has started stocking some really flavourful tomatoes recently: tart and acid. They are so good that sometimes I pick up one and just bite into it (is it possible that canning plants have shut down due to the epidemic?). She asked “Do you have a recipe?” I dug into my memory. “Kalonjee, Mirchandalchini, and Tejpattam”, I ventured, channeling the Moor’s Last Sigh. “That’s a Rushdie job,” she muttered. “Don’t be paneer,” I replied.

We cobbled a recipe together. Kalonji (Nigella seed) was acceptable. Two or three leaves of curry (Murraya koenigii) were drying inside the masala dabba. They went into the bagar. A sliced green chili was dropped in before I could protest. Then six of the wonderful tomatoes, chopped into pieces, just before the lid was closed for the reduction. When they had reduced, The Family dropped the cleaned prawn into it. I added a splash of water to deglaze the pot. In five more minutes the prawns were ready. The Family likes to squeeze a few drops of lime juice into something like this. I take away my portion before she sprinkles some chili flakes on top. (“Don’t forget to mention the grated ginger,” The Family reminded me after seeing the post.)

This bit of quick cooking gave me time to think a little more about the curry tree. Wikipedia told me very little about it. The genus Murraya (Linnaeus named the genus after his student, the Swedish physician Murray) belongs to the citrus family, and its center of diversity is in southern China and south Asia. In the past, when butterflies were more common in Mumbai, I’d seen the Common Mormon (Papilio polytes) visit the plant very often when it was in flower, and even lay eggs on it. Since the butterfly is endemic to south Asia, it stands to reason that the plant is also a south Asian species. I found a report of high genetic diversity in wild plants of this species in India, which also gives additional evidence for this supposition.

So our little recipe was truly fusion food: recognizably Indian in taste, but impossible without bringing Indian and south American food plants together with prawns. Authenticity is such a fluid concept when it comes to food!


Normally we buy vegetables in small quantities, and use them up in a day or so. But now, in order to keep control over our exposure to large crowds, shopping is less frequent. Some time back we wanted to guard against COVID-19 by disinfecting all produce. Eating soap is not a great idea, so we were certainly not going to washing food in soap. The Family skimmed her expertise and recalled that bacteria and viruses are killed by a solution of salt in water. So now we dunk all produce for about fifteen minutes in salty water. The water can be reused, and salt does not need to be washed off, so this is also a water conserving way of cleaning produce.

On some days our house is full of vegetables being cleaned and dried, chopped and sorted. Since the salt water bath removes bacteria and viruses, we now find that the veggies stay fresh and usable much longer. Bananas and plantain, tindli and tomatoes, everything stays fresh and colourful for several days. Tindli? Does ivy gourd sound more familiar? I didn’t think so. It is after all a rather local vegetable (featured photo), so best to call it by its local name.

We used to be in a desperate rush to use up mushrooms before they rot. Now mushrooms stay fresh longer too. Perhaps the salt water treatment also kills the fungi which sometimes grow on these mushrooms. I know that some people use baking soda and potassium parmanganate, but that would also require more water for post-treatment washing. We wanted the lowest water-use possible, and I think the salt solution works well for that. The Family consulted her old colleagues about this treatment, and found a good consensus of opinion for it.

There are no desperate attempts to refrigerate fresh produce to keep it from spoiling any longer. Everything can now be kept in trays and bowls in sun and air. Also, now that we can keep the veggies for longer, we can wait for good combinations to develop. For example, plantains are not very common at our neighbourhood vendor’s, but when we get it, we already have the other veggies that we know will go well with it. The result has been an explosion of new recipes at home. Lunch is quite a journey of discovery these days.

The freshest of food

A wonderful thing about eating in Kenya was the freshness of the ingredients. Two decades ago a person I used to meet often on wildlife trips in India was involved in setting up cold chains across the country. He was starry-eyed about the potential to bring fresh fruits and vegetables into the city. Now, when I see tasteless one-year-old tomatoes on sale in a supermarket in Mumbai, his words sound to me like the shattered dreams of internet pioneers. Kenya is not linked together by cold chains. The food is brought into markets as quickly as possible by those who grow them. The outcome is fresh and flavourful.

Neighbourhoods vendors in Nairobi have fresh produce, and even out on highways you pass long lines of green grocers. The one you see in the photo above is a typical shop. We bought a bag of oranges, like those you see hanging from the roof, and they turned out to be immensely juicy, sweet, but with the tartness of a citrus. We were looking for something to eat on the move, so we weren’t interested in the potatoes and onions , although they looked pretty good. I eyed the tomatoes longingly, I knew how good they were here, but the rest of the party was not interested.

The watermelon is great is Kenya, and it is possible to buy just a slice. Anthony had one while we dithered. The pumpkin caught my eye. I hadn’t tasted the pumpkin in Kenya yet. MONT made some at home later, and they were as nice as I could imagine they would be. I didn’t see pumpkin flowers on sale; that’s a great delicacy, but one that seems to be unknown here.

It was curious that there were no interesting new things to discover. Potatoes, onions, and tomatoes exhausted the list of vegetables on display. I’d expected to find lots of leafy vegetables: amaranth (lidodo in Swahili), cow pea (likhubi), even jute and pumpkin leaves, but they weren’t visible. Maybe there is some degree of specialization, and we needed to look for a different shop for those. But that was for another time. Now we’d found enough fruits for the journey.