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  • Writer's pictureMichael Swamy

The Hills Of Kumaon

The Place: The moment I heard I was heading off to the mountains it was a moment of truth and longing. I had heard of the breath-taking beauty and exotic cuisines of the mountains of Kumaon and of the valleys at the base of the Himalayan range close to Nainital, and I couldn’t wait for the moment when I would feast my eyes (and palate) on them. Dhanachuli lies ensconced at the very top of those hills, a tiny little place with hamlets all around, the stone houses reminiscent of a different era.

The winding hills of Kumaon and the Hills that hold the myriad towns (some still not featured on the map of India), are magical. This magic unfolds slowly on the 6 hour drive from Delhi to Dhanachuli. Driving through the small towns in Uttar Pradesh in the scorching heat one slowly but surely enters Uttaranchal, the weather seemed to get cooler and the air clearer and crisp with every passing mile. The smooth winding roads, pine forests, mountain birds, friendly people, and awe-inspiring scenery emerging through mist which awaited us at every turn. The landscape changes from pine forests to apple and pear orchards and large cabbage patches attached to stone houses guarded by large mountain dogs. Wild plants where we picked tiny red wild berries called “Ghingaroo” which tasted exactly like Japanese Love Apples make for a nice experience.

As we passed through the fruit orchards, cabbage patches and tiny village markets, I saw local produce indigenous to that region and could only wonder with growing excitement what culinary surprises lay in store – and I wasn’t disappointed! Though several small lodges are about once boutique hotel exists , Te Aroha and in the evening, we all dined together enjoying the typical Kumaoni food made by the Chef and his brigade. Like I said before, my excitement and anticipation were well-rewarded.

The spread of delicacies we enjoyed consisted bhatt ki churkani (a curry-like preparation made from a black pulse found only in the Himalayan region), aloo ke gutke (a dry potato curry made with locally grown reddish brown potatoes, tomatoes, coriander and whole red chillies), lauki raita (made by mixing sautéed bottle gourd with curd and lots of mustard paste), lahsan ka pahadi achar (garlic cloves pickled in vinegar and clove paste), Pahadi Lai ka saag (red mustard greens sautéed with coriander seeds, garlic and red chillies), hot rotis straight from the tandoor, rice and dal makhani (as the Chef explained, “just in case someone doesn’t take a liking to Pahadi food”). Each dish was unique (and splendidly delicious!) by way of taste & texture. The bhatt ki churkani, made by roasting the bhatt, grinding it fine and cooking it with besan, was delicately flavoured and seemed to provide the body with a welcome warmth. The surprise element was the smoothness of the curry on the palate. The aloo ke gutke, though quite spicy, had a very refreshing flavour of fresh coriander (surprising that the coriander tasted fresh inspite of being cooked). The raita with it’s strong mustard flavour was quite robust and spicy and the Lai ka Saag was perfectly cooked with the ingredients retaining their individual flavours yet complementing each other.

Grilled Fish using local river fish, or fish from one of the nine lakes, and if you know where to look you can get the local brew made from local herbs. There are also wines made from fruit that are brought up from Himachal Pradesh and these have a distinctly different flavour and goes well with the Kumaoni cuisine. The rugged mountain meat was a bit tough but the Pahadi dish is worth eating. It was a lamb curry cooked in the mildest of spices and flavours that warmed one from the inside out.

Driving to Ranikhet which is on the road to Nainital, it is the market place of the region and it is here that one sees a varietal of produce not seen much elsewhere, Fiddlehead Ferns, Lai, a bunch of wild Colocasia leaves, local cucumbers & radishes (which tasted fabulous when drizzled over with spicy green chutney). The local sweet shop had a few interesting treats like Bal Mithai (a sweet resembling chocolate fudge) & potato halwa (a soft smooth potato fudge). a dinner comprising new flavours and textures which made me wonder why Indian food still hasn’t made it to the global plate. The food was rustic with a balance and simplicity of flavours that created a nostalgic memory for me.

During the monsoons the additional treat of Indian corn rubbed with Himalayan green chilli, salt and butter is an experience in itself. The thrill of eating in a local village house takes on a whole new meaning of comfort and minimalistic living. The sparse kitchen the smiling faces, the hot makkai rotis, a thin lentil curry which is green due to the spinach water and the earthy round Himalayan rice sits well on ones stomach in the cold mountain air. The lady smiles and gives us a bowl of curd, a richness of the like I have seldom eaten before.

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