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Soul Food: Garhwali Cuisine

The regional cuisine from the state of Uttarakhand is grain and cereal based, made up of simple ingredients, cooked with minimal spicing

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Ask any Garhwali what they eat and the answer will be, “Dal-Bhaat” (Dal-rice). A description that does not do Garhwali cuisine justice. Ask me and I will be lost in memories of arhar dal, aromatic with jumbu ka tadka, earthy tukulu (pumpkin) greens speckled with crunchy jakhiya, gheewalli rotis hot off the tava, pungent mustard infused raita, spicy chullu (apricot) chutney, a piquant achaar and steaming hot rice drenched with ghar ka ghee. The vegetables would have been picked that morning, the dal tempered moments before it was served. This is a meal you would find in a Garhwali home on most days. Par ghar ke murghi, dal barabar, it takes an outsider to appreciate what locals would take for granted.

Garhwali cuisine is a regional cuisine from the state of Uttarakhand. Characteristically grain and cereal based, made up of simple ingredients, cooked with minimal spicing, simple temperings and optimal cooking methods into flavourful, filling and nutritious meals. ‘Ghar ka’ or made at home, is a very important phenomenon for Garhwalis. And cooks proudly serve up meals made with home grown ingredients, supplemented with home made pickles and condiments.

So where does one go to find Garhwali Cuisine in Uttarakhand? Until recently the cuisine was rarely found outside a Garhwali home. Thankfully thats changed after the JW Marriott Mussoorie Walnut Grove Resort & Spa, introduced a Garhwali thali, recently. A task that took time and diligence. “Recipes came to us in pinches and handfuls and needed to be tested. We had to find adequate, consistent supply of good ingredients, sourced from local producers, some we even began to grow ourselves. And it was only when we were satisfied that we were serving an authentic meal, that did justice to Garhwali culinary culture were we happy. Now our buffet also regularly show cases Garhwali dishes,” shares Sunil Kumar, Director F&B and himself a local of the region.

Garhwali meals are healthy, with a balanced use of fats; ghee to temper lentils, mustard oil for greens and vegetable oil for other dishes. Spices used are minimal. Garlic, ginger, chillies, asafeotida are favoured. A few local indigenous spices make Garhwali food distinctive. Jakhiya, a tiny seed resembling mustard is used in much the same way to temper dishes, adding delightful, nutty crunch. And jambu aka pharan, a chive-like herb is popular for tempering dals. Bhaang (hemp) and bhanjeera seeds, are also used in some dishes and chutneys.

The starch content of the cuisine comes from traditional grains like jhangora (barnyard millet) made into savoury and sweet porridges. Mandua (finger millet) flour made into rotis (flatbreads) and unpolished red rice. Corn, wheat flour and white basmati rice came later. A staggering variety of pulse, lentil and lentil preparations contribute protein. Summer calls for light, easily digested dals like mung, arhar (pigeon pea), malka (split deskinned masoor) and channa (split chickpea). Come winter and heavier dals like urad (black gram), rajma, pahadi tor (pigeon pea), gehat (horsegram) and bhaatt (local soyabean) attributed with warming properties become prevalant. Lentils and pulses are also used to make unique local preparations like chainsoo, a deliciously textured thick smoky gravy of roasted dal and phanu, a textured aromatic gravy made from soaked crushed dal. Urad dal is extremely important to Garhwali culinary culture and urad ki pakodi (lentil fritters) are ubiquitous to all celebratory occasions.

Vegetables play an important part in Garhwali meals in the form of raitas, chutneys and subzis. Some may simply be tempered with jakhiya and chilies in mustard oil. Others cooked into simple gravy preparations called jhols. Lauki (white gourd), tori (ridge gourd), leafy greens like chawlai (amaranth), kaddu (green pumpkin), tukkulu and other regular vegetables are eaten in summer. The monsoon, brings colocassia leaves made into delicious patyud (the Gahrwali version of the patod/patra). Winter brings leafy greens like methi (fenugreek leaves), mooli ke patte (radish leaves), rai (mustard greens), and more. Pahadi palak (local spinach) is a particular favourite in the winter and is cooked into subzi and signature dishes like kafuli, a gravy thickened with rice or chicpea flour and dhabadi made with arhar dal. Thincwani is a popular vegetable preparation made of pahadi mooli (round white raddish) that is ‘thinchaoed’ or bashed up and cooked into a delicious gravy.

Meals are also often supplemented with foraged foods like kandalee/ bicchu ghas (stinging nettle), lingde/khutde (fiddle head ferns), bedu (wild figs) and more. Interestingly, JW Marriot Mussourie has kandalee on its menu. “We grow it and often feature it on our menus. It does require special handling as it causes itchiness of the skin and throat. We harvest it with tongs, char and blanch it to remove poisonous spines and cook it into subzi. But it is worth it, as it is very tasty to eat” shares Siddharth Bharadwaj, Executive Chef, JW Marriott Mussoorie Walnut Grove Resort & Spa.  

As it might appear Garhwali cuisine is largely vegetarian but non-vegetarian dishes are much loved too although elaborate recipes are limited. River fish especially trout is fried or cooked into jhols (curries), an occaisional chicken curry is eaten but meat-bhaat  (mutton curry and rice) are still the most loved favourite. Meat came from hunting and when an animal was killed the whole carcass was put to use. Choice cuts cooked into curry, excess pickled, trotters made into dauni soup, and intestines into bhuttua (blood pudding). One notable, traditional meat recipe is kachmauli in which a goat is spit roasted, the meat is taken off the bone, tossed with mustard oil, salt, chili and turmeric and served.  

And in case what I have described so far sounds bland, let me tell you, Garhwali cuisine is far from that! Food preservation is a regular part of the culinary calendar and there is a fantastic repertoire of options to zing up meals, from chutneys like chullu and bhaang to til, pickles like kathal, kachner and flavoured salts like lehsun ka namak (green garlic pounded with salt) to name a few.

Garhwalis have a very sweet tooth. Kheers and halwas redolent of ghee and lots of love abound. Festivals feature special foods, gujiyas for Holi, Diwali starts with keel patasha. Weddings call for balushai, chenamurkhi, rabri malpua, and piles and piles of roat and aadse. And there are sweets that come from sweetshops. All made of reduced milk, ‘Chaclate’ and bal mithai are a sort of fudge, the last is crusted with beads of sugar. And in the winter you might be fortunate enough to find singhori (sweets molded into cones made of aromatic indigenous leaves called malle ke patta).

Wherever you eat in Garhwal, I guarantee you will eat well, without complaint of heaviness and, feel extremely fortunate. Because Garhwali food is soul food.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal

The author is a gastronome, menu consultant and food historian. She is an expert in Indian and world cuisines (especially Garhwali, Gujarati and Kutchi Bhatia cuisines)

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