The extraordinary story of Nari Shakti Puraskar-winner Chef Nilza Wangmo of the all-women Alchi Kitchen in Ladakh and how she is promoting women’s empowerment as well as introducing authentic Ladakhi cuisine to visitors.
Nilza Wangmo opened the Alchi Kitchen in 2016 to address a lacuna. Visitors to Ladakh were looking for authentic Ladakhi cuisine at that point but there wasn’t a single outlet offering it. “Me and my mom came up with this plan,” says Nilza, “First we thought of starting a cooking class. That didn’t work so we changed it to a restaurant format. Within a short period the restaurant became popular that she opened a branch in Leh.
Nilza has worked in the tourism space for a while. In 2008 she was running a tourist camp in Kargil. Then, in the 2010 flash flood, everything was washed way. “Luckily I survived. For the next two years I had no work at all. So we came up with this idea,” says Nilza. Her relatives were sceptical (“Even we don’t eat our cuisine.”), but Nilza soldiered on and the restaurant found not just acceptability but success and fame.
Nilza has no formal kitchen training but she has been cooking since she was a child. “I trained under my Nani and my mom. I’m basically cooking my grandma’s recipes,” she says.
The Alchi Kitchen which Nilza and her mother operate out of their house in the shadow of a thousand-year-old monastery can serve 40 to 60 people at a time. It is open only for lunch since Alchi is a day trip from Leh, 65 kilometres away, for most visitors. The branch in Leh does dinners too, but both restaurants are seasonal, operating from April to October when the majority of tourists arrive.
The food of Ladakh is not uniform throughout. There are many regional variations. Kargil with its Muslim majority population has a distinct cuisine. The cuisine in the Changthang plateau is more milk-based, with yak cheese being used quite a lot. Rice is not eaten in Ladakh; the cuisine is more wheat-based.
“In my area, western Ladakh, we use apricots and herbs in our dishes. Lamb is the meat of choice. We use red buckwheat as well,” says Nilza. Mountain chives and shah zeera also feature prominently. In season one can also forage for capers, although Nilza does not use them since they are not traditional in her cuisine.
Nilza’s signature dish is perhaps khambir, a fermented Ladakhi bread which is normally eaten with butter tea. Nilza’s innovation has been to stuff the khambir with seekh kabab (vegetable stuffing for vegetarians). “In a few of the dishes I have done this sort of fusion. It appeals to the younger generation,” says Nilza.
In 2019, Nilza won the Nari Shakti Puraskar from the Government of India for promoting Ladakhi cuisine and sponsoring girls’ education. She received the award from the President of India on International Women’s Day, 2020. It’s worth noting that Alchi Kitchen is an all-women operation. “I hired women only from remote places,” says Nilza, “When I started my restaurant, I kept one corner for specially abled people to display their products. They made certain handicrafts and whatever I could sell, I added a little bit to it and supported young women.”
Chef Nilza was in Delhi recently to conduct a Himalayan Food Festival at Pluck, The Pullman New Delhi Aerocity. The food was unapologetically authentic, with no pandering to urban palates. It was also divine, with signature dishes like skyu (similar to orecchiette pasta), a variety of mok mok (momos to us; there was even a saffron paneer variety for dessert), thukpa like you’ve never had before, apricot yoghurt, yak cheese cake and so on. And of course there was the legendary Yarkhandi pulao, with apricots in it.
If all goes according to plan, Nilza hopes to open a homestay this year. Breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Alchi Kitchen sure sounds like a plan.