Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Kumaoni Cuisine- A Gastronomical Delight!


When I landed in Sarmoli in April this year, I had no idea of the gastronomical journey that awaited me. While I knew that, as in most villages, the food would be fresh from the farm to the kitchen, I did not expect Kumaoni food to be so distinct and unique. Why? Because I had never heard of Kumaoni food before. And I wonder why?
Bhaang ki chutney- chutney made with cannabis seeds.
I stayed with two different hosts during my 10 day stay there. While with the first host, I tried a few unique things like bhaang ki chutney, and Bhaang ke pakode, it was my second host who completely blew my mind with the varieties she whipped up for every meal.
Kumaoni food is best described as simple, earthy, rustic and robust. The meals are essentially simple but bursting with flavours and full of nutrients. It is characterized by the use of herbs that are unique to the place, such as Timur, Jimboo, Gandhrayani, etc. In the kitchen of my second home-stay, all meals were prepared only on the traditional 'chulha' or hearth and not on cooking gas. So, by default everything was slow cooked and the chulha imparts a distinct taste to the food while enhancing its taste several notches higher.


All the dishes were served on Kansa plates and bowls. Traditionally in India, Kansa (an alloy of copper and tin) was used for eating because as per Ayurveda, the alkalising properties of the metal are very beneficial for one's body. That, and the love and enthusiasm with which Bhanu, my hostess, cooked each and every meal, satiated my body and soul. 

My hostess cooking on the 'chulha'.

The cute kitchen from the outside.

                            You may also like my post on Himachali Cuisine.
Jimboo leaves being sun dried.

Bhaang seeds/ Cannabis seeds.
My second host, Saraswati Thakuni’s sweet grand-daughter named Bhanu was the magician in the kitchen. With a commendable passion and pride in Kumaoni food, she put up a splendid display and gave me a taste of most things that Kumaon is known for!
Giant radishes in the farm.

Cabbage fields.
Here’s what I ate. Be warned you’ll be extremely hungry by the time you finish reading this post!
My first meal was plain parathas, delectable rajma and Bhaang ki chutney. And the wheat, rajma and bhaang, everything is from their own farm. Need I say how I savored every morsel of it.
Rajma and parathas.
Rotis, malka daal and saag.
Most of the days I was there, there were heavy hailstorms and thunder. My room had a metal sheet over the tiled roof, and the sound of the hail stones hitting the roof was so amplified that at one point I thought that monsters were trying to rip down the room to get me. But I’m safe and sound writing this a few months later! Blame it on my wild imagination! One such evening after I returned from my illustration assignment, my host prepared some comforting soup called ‘Jia’. It’s a soup made with roasted rice, salt and a herb called ‘thuner’. This soup was served with some jaggery.
Mundve ki roti, masoor dal and gobi subzi.

A fritter called Chunni.
One breakfast was lavish with Mundve ka halva, a Kumaoni noodles called ‘Kokla’ and jimboo parathas. Mundve is a millet widely eaten in Uttarakhand and is similar to finger millet (ragi, nachni) in colour and taste. Jimboo is a herb that is eaten fresh mixed with parathas or dried and used in gravies and lentils. I loved the Kokla so much that Bhanu made that on the morning I was leaving and packed some for me to eat on the way back.
Thoya rice. 

Thoya seeds- a bit like cumin seeds but much stronger in flavour.
Mundve ka halva, jimboo parathas and Kumaoni noodles called Kokla.
With tea, one time I was served a fritter called ‘chunni’ made with wheat flour, sugar and rice flour.
Another herb that is liberally used is Thoya. It looks like cumin seeds much has a much stronger flavor. Bhanu made some thoya fried rice with it for dinner one day.
Bhutt (black soya bean) being cooked.

Close up of bhutt.

Mundve ki roti, bhutt daal and muthiyas.
There is another pulse called ‘bhutt’ (black soya bean)which Sarmoli has stopped growing but which they procure from another village. Bhanu had got some to cook for me. It’s very high in nutrition and I was told that her grandmother’s generation and before that, women had a meal of this bhutt dal and worked in the farm and fields the whole day and remained strong even in their old age.
Jiya soup with jaggery.

The herb called gandhraini.

Thuner, a bark of a tree also used as a culinary herb.

Atte ka halva.
One day I offered to cook a Gujarati dish called Muthiya. It’s made of wheat flour, bottle gourd and some chickpea flour. 
Dried bitter gourds.

Clockwise from left- Dubka, dried bitter gourd subzi, Phonn and roti.
I did a whole day trek-cum-bird watching trip to the upper reaches of the forest and my host had packed some out-of-the-world delicious gobi parathas and rajma. Gosh! I have never tasted gobi parathas as scrumptious as this.
Rajma and gobi parathas.

Khajura.
My trek guide had carried a typical Kumaoni snack called Khajura with him made by the local women. It’s similar to shakkar para but coarser.
Timur, a spice like black pepper.

This is the timur tree, full of thorns. Wonder how they pick the timur from this?
The hosts has organized a pooja one day so for Prasad they made Atte ke halva, made with wheat flour, sugar, ghee and milk.
A pancake called Puli.

This is a fragrant root which is fed to the cattle. It was so fragrant, was tempted to take a bite! 
In Kumaon, they grow a bitter gourd which is actually sweet. They call it meetha karela. They dry it and use it round the year.
Bhanu, my sweet host cooking spinach. 

Rotis, spinach saag, Dubka. 

Another fried rice called Bhumla with spinach saag and Dubka.
Another very traditional dinner was a dish called Phonn which is made with buttermilk, mundva flour, rice, timur, bhaang seeds and a tadka of jimboo. This was served with Dubka, a dish made with butt daal, and a herb called gandhrayani.

Giant sized lemon trees. The Kumaonis pickle these lemons.

See how big it is?
For breakfast another day I was served a sweet pancake called ‘puli’ made with wheat flour, sugar and milk. This was served with curd.

                               You may like my post on the Rhododendron Trail.
I did a sketch of the rhododendron flowers.

A local woman Bina, making the rhododendron juice.

Five days was a short time indeed to experience Bhanu's hospitality. I have promised to go back and soak up more of the mountains, cuisine and peace. 

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Monday, 9 October 2017

Wild Vegetables Festival at Bhomale


The wild vegetables dishes beautifully arranged with flowers at Bhomale
I read about the Wild Vegetables Festival in the newspaper. It was organised by an NGO called Kalpvriksh, which I had heard about so I knew it would be worthwhile. The festival was organised over three Sundays, one of which I had already missed, the second was at Kharpud, where an estimated 500 people were to arrive. I decided to skip that. The third and the last was to be at Bhomale, 93 kms away from Pune, the farthest of the three, so I knew there wouldn’t be much of a crowd.
Swayamvar Pure Veg. at Khed.
Since hiring a cab would have been too expensive for me alone, I spread word about it asking if there are people who want to join me. I promptly received confirmations and on 24th September at 7 a.m a group of us 6 girls set out for Bhomale.
Lovely scenery on the drive.

 A lake that we passed.
We stopped for breakfast at Swayamvar Pure Veg. Here's the location on Google maps. It’s useful mentioning these things in case there are others who want to stop. The toilets were clean and the vada-pav was delicious J

The gathering under the canopy of trees. 

At around 11.30 we reached Bhomale and were met with a sight of all villagers assembled under a canopy of trees with their dishes arranged beautifully with flowers. I met the coordinator from Kalpvriksh, Pradeep Chavan, whom I had been in touch with and sat down for the event to begin.

Bhomale, is a village with a population of around 150 in 35 houses. Many generations ago the tribal people of this place called Mahadev Koli, were hunters and gatherers and practiced no agriculture. Now-a-days, people have their kitchen garden where they grow vegetables like pumpkin and ridge gourd. Outside of the forest limits, people have plots of lands where they grow finger millet, rice and barnyard millet. But I was told this is a more recent trend. People still gather from the forest surrounding their village. 


I asked this beautiful lady with the 'nath' (nose-ring) if I could take her picture. She promptly took the pallu over her head and posed :-)
From the months from June to September, during the Monsoon, is the peak time when the forest is bountiful with wild vegetables, berries, nuts and roots. Bhomale sees heavy rainfall every year (around 1000 mm), but that notwithstanding people venture into the forests to gather food. Any excess produce is dried or cured and preserved for the other months when forest supplies are scarce. Because of the climate, the wild vegetation is also unique to the place. Of late, people have also started buying cultivated vegetables and grains from the nearest shop which is a 30 kms walk!

As is the custom traditionally In India, men and women were seated separately for the event. I turned to observe the women seated beside me. It was a special occasion for the village, since it was a Wild Vegetables Festival and people like me from the cities were visiting. So they had worn their best sarees, most draped in ‘navvari’ style (‘nav’ means nine), where the nine-yard saree is draped like a dhoti on the lower part of the body. They had also worn a nose ring very typically Maharashtrian, called the ‘nath’. They all looked beautiful J


Women performing 'Aarti' to the food keeping with the Indian tradition of worshipping food as God. 'Annam Brahma'.

A welcome song by the children. 

Another song by a lady. 

The Forest official V.P. Kadam giving an inspirational speech. 
It’s needless to say that I had been eyeing the plates laden with food since the time I arrived. So I took a few close up pictures and enquired with the women as to what the vegetable were.
After some time, the main event started, with Chief guests, speakers, welcome songs so on and so forth.

A dish prepared from the tender stem of sweet potato leaves. 

A seed called 'Chahechabar'- aids in digestion. The spelling is phonetic. You can also the the fruit of the 'Chahechabar'.

A variety of wild eggplants called 'Chichurde'. 

The leafy vegetable is a dish made of drumstick leaves and to the left is a dish made of wild gooseberries. This was served with bhakris (flatbread) made of rice flour.
One of the forest officials, V.P. Kadam, gave a very impressive talk on the bio-diversity of the place and the importance to preserve the culinary heritage. Falling for false aspirations’, the village people have stopped valuing the food which their communities have been eating for ages and have started to increasingly buy common vegetables from the market 30 kms away. He said if the people don’t uphold their culinary and food heritage, it will be lost to the generations to come. He reinforced the importance of being proud of what they have- something the city people envy- clean air, proximity to the forests and food provided by the forests which is completely devoid of chemicals or adulteration.
Since these are uncultivated foods, he also stressed that people who want to sell the forest produce must be mindful of the way they harvest, so as to leave the seeds and stalks for the produce the following year.
Clockwise from Left: 'Kusraachi Bhaji', root vegetable called 'Tambooli' which stays good for 3 months and a dish made with wild gooseberries. 
Dishes in the forefront: To the left is flatbread made of finger millet (ragi, nachni) with Garlic chutney and to the right is a dish called 'aloowadi' made with colocasia leaves. It's also called 'patra' in Gujarati and 'pathrode' in Himachal Pradesh.

Top: Finger millet flatbread and a dish made with drumstick leaves. Bottom is 'varai laddoo' a sweet prepared with barnyard millet.

A seed called 'Kombaale'. It had a bitter aftertaste and is believed to be good for diabetics. 

A spoonful of everything on my plate :-) 
After his talk as well as by some other people including village people, we formed a queue to sample the food which was now moved to the table. There were around 15 different kinds of dishes prepared by the women and we were given samples of it on plates. The dishes tasted very unique and some were hot on account of the chilli powder used liberally!


The 'Devraai' beyond the temple.
After the sampling, we were invited for a proper lunch of rice, daal and curry to another place. After the crowd left, I spent some time sketching the dense green forest beyond the temple. The temple is of Lord Bhairav, a form of Lord Shiva and women are not allowed to enter inside. Beyond the forest is what is called ‘Devraai’ in Marathi, meaning ‘garden/orchard of the Gods’- ‘Dev’ meaning God. Devrais are believed to be presided over by forest deities and nymphs and no one can take away even a twig or a leaf from the Devrai, leave alone cutting trees. Doing so would be a gross violation to the forest deity and would invoke their wrath which is not a good idea since these people subsist on the forest surrounding it. This belief has ensured the survival of these forest pockets which have been around for thousands of years and has survived the greed of land sharks. As outsiders, we were instructed to not even go near it. I wanted to do some sketching of the Devrai so I chose a spot near the temple for a better view and I was asked to move farther away.

I was inspired to draw the Forest Nymph after visiting Bhomale, so here's my illustration posted on my Art page, Purple Soul. 


A glimpse of the village.

People gathered for lunch in the village school. 

The 'normal' lunch!
I did a quick sketch and soaked up the green view as much as the time constraint would permit and joined the rest of the group for a meal of rice, daal and dried peas curry. Most of the people were almost finishing so I joined the forest officials. The women had reserved some extra portions of the wild vegetables for the forest officials and since I was seated with them I got a second generous helping of those.
A group picture with the women of Bhomale. 
After lunch, we visited the home of one of the women where I asked to see the uncooked wild vegetables. They said that all that they gather is eaten the same day, excepting the ones that are dried and cured. They showed me a few of those. I hope to go some day with them to gather food and document that too.

Barnyard Millet also called 'varai' in Marathi.

Finger millet. 
I bought some finger millet and barnyard millet from them which are completely organic in the truest sense. And came back home with a refreshed mind and heart and belly :-) 

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