(Published in Discover India magazine in June 2014)
Trekking is one of the ways to taste the real foods of India.
A couple of summers ago on a trail in Uttarakhand, I stood at the foot of a tall waterfall. The waterfall fell in a series of steps to form a stream whose waters were a turquoise blue. An iron bridge hung over the stream.
I stood in the middle of the bridge, my arms dangling over its sides taking in a breather. I had just descended to the lowest point of the trek. Ahead, the trail climbed into the sky over 48 daunting switchback bends.
The trail would take me to a pretty village perched on a small tableland. Getting there didn’t look easy on the legs, but I trudged on. Within an hour or so I reached the last of the switchbacks.
Discovering The Taste Of Mountain Juice
A distance away I spotted a lady of the village beckoning me. I walked over and without many words, she handed me a stainless steel glass of red fluid. In her language of the hills, she asked me to drink it. I didn’t argue much, but the next few minutes still stick in my mind.
The drink was the sweetest smelling, refreshing drink that I had ever had in my life. Shamelessly I asked for more and the lady laughingly obliged. I felt the energy coming back to me like electricity.
What I had were glasses of pure rhododendron juice, crushed and made at home. This was something I would never get in the city. Rhododendrons are the medicinal plants of the mountains. The flowers are known to cure everything, or what our mountain folks will make us believe! But for trekkers like us, they are the most beautiful sight on a trek, when rhododendrons set the hillside on fire in the season (March-April). The flowers bloom all over the trees; the flowers are juicy and sweetest tasting.
Be fair warned, though: Rhododendrons are a protected species. You are not supposed to be plucking these flowers or even touching them.
Rustic flavours that haven’t made it to the cities
Everyone knows about India’s rich culture and curries. Our villages carry recipes and ingredients that are handed down over generations. These tastes have migrated to the cities. Sometimes they permeate our homes and the homemakers pick them up. But there are some of these tastes that have not made it down to our cities.
Fortunately, those who trek can still find these unique tastes in villages of our mountains. These villages are so far away from civilisation that the migration of recipes hasn’t happened yet. The tastes are intact, sharp and different.
The Flavours of Uttarakhand
In Uttarakhand, you have the Mandwa Ki Roti, made out of ragi. With side dishes of Chaunsa, a kind of dal and Badi, a minced soybean pakora — the taste lingers for long. On the other side of Uttarakhand, bordering Himachal, some months ago, one of our lady staff made a special Bicchu Ghas dish. I was alarmed initially — for me bichhu ghas was something that I knew that gave a terrible itch when you touched it. Yet, here was a dish that was as smooth and delicate as palak, but tastier.
The Taste of Himachal Pradesh
In Himachal, again one of our local ladies dragged us to her place in a side gully at Manali. She ran a small eatery. She brought out Siddu, a local delicacy made of wheat and other stuffings. We loved it so much that we asked her to pack it for us on our trek. It was a powerhouse of energy! If in Himachal you must try out Bhey, a dish made out of lotus stems and Babru, which is like a Kachori.
Sikkim’s Secret Taste
In Sikkim, I have had the best Thukpa in Ravangla, which is a soup, noodles with vegetable or non-vegetarian fillings. It is a meal on its own. Again in Sikkim, you must try the Phaley which is like a Tibetian samosa. Kinema is a lovely dish made out of soya, which you can get even in Nepal or Darjeeling. Our trekkers of Sandakphu or Goechala must lookout for these.
Aromas Of Ladakh And Kashmir
In Ladakh, you must try the butter tea or Noon Chai of the horsemen will surprise you. Khawa of the Kashmiris with its aromatic spices and nuts is to be sipped slowly and delicately. Then their ground grain meals are filling and keep you going for hours.
In Kashmir, the shepherds eat a lovely delicacy of greens and potatoes. Step into the homes of Kashmiri women and taste the subtle blend of meat in aromatic herbs. In Srinagar, avoid going to the restaurants. Make friends with the houseboat ladies.
The Gastronomical Benefits Of Trekking
Trekking is a sport that has many rewards — but few realise the gastronomical benefits. In our slowly dying culture of blended tastes, stepping out into the hills of our country can delight your tastes pleasantly.
You just have to make friends with the simple mountain folks and be thoughtful enough to leave a gift behind. In return, the foods and tastes that they honour you with are simple and delicious. You’ll find the raw ethnicity of the real taste of India absolutely alluring.