I am sitting with a cup of coffee right now, which happens to be my favorite chilly, cloudy weather beverage and reflecting on the chilly, cloudy weather of Ranikhet. My aunt and uncle kept telling me that when the clouds clear and the sun peeps out, you can see the snow covered peaks of the grand Himalayas in the distance and it is quite an awe-inspiring experience. I am sure it must be – the most beautiful memory of my whole life is from the time when we drove from Dehra Dun to Gaurikund. It was a 14 hour drive and the higher we went, the more scared I got because there was a slight tension among the elders about driving along a mountain road at night. As we approached the higher reaches near Gaurikund, the sun was setting and as it went down, its rays reflected off the ice covered peaks in the distance. If there was ever a scenario when fire and ice co-existed in nature this was it – the golden sun and the silver snow danced together until the sun slipped down behind the mountains. For those few minutes there was no fear – or rather the fear was worth it.
I am a little depressed about my vacation that we went at the wrong time – not being able to see the snow covered peaks, falling sick and not being able to enjoy the walks down the mountain side. That’s why I am writing about the food to cheer me up. My aunt had planned everything out. She had bought all the meat, marinated the chicken for the chinese-style chicken, par-cooked the meat for the biryani, obtained freshly minced mutton. Plus her garden was in all its glory with big, beautiful pumpkins growing which happen to be mine and baby’s favorite vegetable. We got to eat whatever we wanted – we had to ask and it was ready.
For someone who enjoys her Chinese food I really cannot cook Indian-Chinese. I always tend to overdo it. Too many sauces, too many spices. My mom made it rarely because we had the most amazing Chinese restaurant called Waldorf very close to our home growing up so why bother? I watched my aunt cooking and learned the tricks. For the fried rice the vegetables were finely chopped, for the noodles they were chopped into thin strips and she used only two or three vegetables – unlike me who tends to dump the whole garden in her food. The vegetables are quickly sauteed with minimal spices – salt and pepper and may be a little ketchup or hot sauce, the noodles/rice were added and the cabbage was added right at the end so it stayed crisp longer. It all took half hour. A reminder yet again that less is more. The sweet and sour vegetables took longer because the tomatoes had to be pureed and reduced on a low flame, but the ingredients were very few again and it tasted delicious. I especially enjoyed the tangy gravy because my taste buds were compromised and found it easier to identify strong flavors like sweet and sour! The enjoyment of subtle joys was lost on me that day.
Before embarking on our Nainital journey we had the most beautiful pumpkin subzi with sindhi parathas which I was having for the first time. They are parathas smeared with ground spices and rolled out almost like a lachcha paratha so it has beautiful flaky layers. Hot, mildly spicy parathas with soft, mushy, sweet and pickle-like pumpkin – an eternal favorite in my book.
Nainital is a classic hill station as my cousin put it. It has a lake, a Bhotia market, a busy street called Mall road with all the businesses, scores of honeymooning couples, vendors selling bhelpuri and momos on the street – what’s not to love? I’ll tell you what – the crowds and the congestion. My aunt told me that the way to enjoy Nainital is to take a quiet walk down Mall road at night and look at the lights falling on the lake and dancing on the hills; she told me that’s what hubby and I should do when the baby goes to sleep. Unfortunately that night, I was so sick, we fell asleep before him! But the next morning we did enjoy the walk down Mall road, beside the lake full of boaters and down to the boat club for lunch. I was beat and couldn’t believe it. It was barely a walk but I was drained at the end of it. It took the cool fresh lime soda and warm tomato soup to put some life back in me. And the ambience of course. We sat at a table beside the lake with a view of almost the entire lake and all the hills rising from it and in the 2 or 3 hours that we were there, the weather changed 5 times from sunny to foggy to rainy and back. It was simply perfect and the nicest way to enjoy Nainital with a hyper-active baby! Our return back to Ranikhet from highlighted by aunt’s famous biryani with the rice grains soft and separate and the meat tender and melty. It was spicy – a little too spicy everyone thought – but it was great for me as it helped clear my nose and ears!
How can you go to the hills and not eat hill food? So I made my aunt make some traditional Garhwali food like toor ki dal, kafuli, phana and chausa so that the hubby could learn a bit about the cuisine. Toor ki dal is indigenous to the hills – growing up my mom would carry some back whenever we went to Dehra Dun or my nani would carry some for us when she visited. The grains are hearty and nutty and stay perfectly separate even when completely boiled and soft. The broth is rich with onions-ginger-garlic and tart with tomatoes and sour curd. Oh you have no idea how much I ate! Kafuli is my second favorite Garhwali food. It is made of mountain greens, first sauteed and then cooked in thinned down sour yogurt thickened with atta or whole wheat flour. The combination of slightly bitter greens with sour yogurt is just money. I always like to eat my greens with yogurt so this dish is just perfect for me. I believe I single handedly ate all of it.
Phana is made from another indigenous dal called gehet which is soaked, ground and then cooked in an iron pan with mustard oil and spices in a thin gravy. The iron pan and mustard oil is key to several mountain dishes and adds its own flavor to the food. Chausa is similarly made from split black gram dal which is first roasted, then ground and cooked with spices into a thin gravy. I find it interesting that these dals are ground and/or roasted and then cooked rather than cooking them straight up. Another one of those cooking secrets that lies hidden in some corner of Garhwal. Both these dishes are very mildly flavored – the flavor being entirely from the dals itself and you need to have a taste for it. I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I did at other times because my tongue was tastebudless!
Our culinary vacation ended with a care package of some beautifully slow cooked keema and ghee rotis lovingly packed for our dinner on our train journey back to Delhi. I am sure all our co-passengers were envious as we opened our box and polished off every last bit of the keema in there. Joy!
A couple of evenings before we left my uncle came back home from his evening walk all excited. “Did you see it?” he asked. “What?” I wondered. “The snow covered peaks” he replied. “Come I’ll show you.” Sure enough, the evening sky had cleared just enough for us to see the snow covered peaks in the distance, the silvery white highlighted against the pale blue, almost white sky. Perhaps we did go at the right time after all.