India Modern: The reinvention of Ladakhi cuisine

An ancient cuisine is being reinvented for modern times. From buckwheat to seabuckthorn, we tell you what the buck contemporary Ladakhi cuisine is all about.
A traditional ladakhi kitchen with its proud collection of copperware. Image: shutterstock/em campos.
A traditional Ladakhi kitchen with its proud collection of copperware. Image: Shutterstock/Em Campos.

Perhaps the first true-blue Ladakhi ingredient that captured popular imagination in India was the golden orange berry seabuckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides). Developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to help Indian troops based in Ladakh combat high-altitude sickness, the wonder food came packaged for the masses as ‘Leh Berry’ juice. Known locally as drilbu or cherma in Ladakh and tsirku in adjoining Spiti, seabuckthorn is now gaining currency as a gourmet ingredient. However, it has been an integral part of the ancient amchi or sowa rigpa medicine practiced in Tibet, Mongolia, China and the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal and Bhutan. Close on the heels of seabuckthorn, the world woke up to buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum). Locally called tau, dyat, dro, bro or fafar, buckwheat is usually ground into flour and made into kisir or giziri, akin to a plain dosa or crepe. Thanks to a bunch of enterprising chefs and restaurants in Leh, today, traditional Ladakhi cuisine is getting a contemporary flair and reaching a wider audience.

Chef nila wangmo of alchi kitchen
Chef Nilza Wangmo is one of the best-known celebrity chefs of Ladakh.

One of Ladakh’s earliest celebrity chefs, Chef Nilza Wangmo set up Alchi Kitchen in her village in 2016 before opening a branch in Leh’s Old Town. For a change, travellers discovered that there was more to Ladakh than momo and thukpa. Her restaurant is styled like a typical chansa or Himayalan kitchen with cosy wooden interiors and glass cabinets full of traditional utensils. On offer are a range of hitherto unknown Ladakhi delicacies — tain tain, a buckwheat crepe paired with giri (apricot kernel) chutney, skyu (cap-shaped wheat pasta stew), chutagi (bow-shaped wheat pasta), khambir (fermented Ladakhi bread), chanthuk, a porridge made of barley and mountain peas, churpey (cured Ladakhi cheese) and wild greens.

Apricots are an essential ingredient in ladakhi cuisine. Image: shutterstock/that ladakhi guy.
Apricots are an essential ingredient in Ladakhi cuisine. Image: Shutterstock/That Ladakhi Guy.

The assorted platter of apricot, walnut and chocolate mok mok (momos) — described as ‘little bites of heaven’ — have become a crowd pleaser. Her menu also embraces Himalayan ingredients like mountain caraway, dandelion flowers, chives, dried cheese powder and black turtle beans. Nilza has taken the region’s cuisine nationwide through Ladakhi food festivals at ITC hotels and a Himalayan food festival at The Pullman New Delhi Aerocity. In 2019, she received the Nari Shakti Puraskar for spearheading her restaurant at Alchi with an all-woman crew.

Some of chef nilza's delectable ladakhi fare at the himalayan food festival at pullman new delhi aerocity.
Some of Chef Nilza’s delectable Ladakhi fare at the Himalayan food festival at Pullman New Delhi Aerocity.

Just outside Alchi Kitchen in Leh’s Old Town near Gurudwara Datun Sahib, the quaint street Chutay Rantak is lined with Kashmiri bakers churning out an array of local breads in tandoor ovens — kablama/tabtan, kulcha and khambir or Ladakhi bread, eaten with tea or salty gur-gur chai (yak butter tea). It was on this very street, earlier called Chuskor Rantak, that the old chuskor or traditional water mills for grinding grain were located. Built by the Baltis in the early 17th century, this area once supplied all the flour to the residents and bakeries of Leh! Nearby, at Chang Gali, local women sold chang (beer).

A traditional combo at Alchi Kitchen.

Another wonderful place for traditional Ladakhi fare is The Grand Dragon Ladakh that complements the dining experience with stunning views of the Stok Kangri range. While Zasgyath is the all-day dining multi-cuisine restaurant, Tusrabs showcases Oriental cuisine with a smattering of local dishes — timstuk (wheat pasta soup with black gram), nyang (Ladakhi sausage), shapta (meat curry), phingsha (glass noodles), taint (Ladakhi saag) and tingmo (Tibetan steamed buns)! The pheyphor or wooden bowl traditionally used for storing tsampa (roasted barley) doubles up as a container for chhurpe (aged Ladakhi cheese).

Zasgyath, the all-day dining, multi-cuisine restaurant at the grand dragon ladakh in leh.
Zasgyath, the all-day dining, multi-cuisine restaurant at the Grand Dragon Ladakh in Leh.

Close to the Marathon Office near the main market is Namza Café, attached to Namza Couture, run by designers Padma Yangchen and Jigmet Diskit. Literally ‘costume’ in Ladakhi, Namza is an attempt to revive long-lost recipes and a tribute to the tradition of preparing a hearty feast for weary traders who travelled along the Silk Route that passed through Ladakh. The small café has an indoor section decorated with antiques and a large outdoor table overlooking their kitchen garden. Many herbs and greens used in their menu come straight from their patch. There’s a choice of soups from za thuk (wild nettle soup) to gyathuk (spicy thick noodle soup), besides heartier options like gyuma (meat sausage), kisir (buckwheat pancake) paired with yoghurt dip or walnut sauce, chutagi (bowtie-shaped pasta stew) and khambir (Ladakhi fermented bread) with mutton curry.

Yarkandi Pulao comes topped with fried onions and dry fruits, served with two mok moks and clear soup while the fresh River Trout is seasoned with local chives and capers. Apricots, locally called chuli, are sourced from the Batalik and Kargil regions. The sweetest varieties are indigenous cultivars like Halman and Rakchey karpo; ‘Rakchey’ means stone and ‘karpo’ is white, so literally, ‘apricots with white stones’! While apricots can be eaten fresh, dried or made into a compote called chemush, at Namza, they have been reinvented into a delectable apricot cheesecake!

Foraging plays a big part in Ladakhi cuisine.

Of late, one place that has been creating ripples with its exotic eight-course tasting menu is Syah, named after the sia or syah (wild rose) flower that lends its name to Siachen. Barely a 15-minute drive from Leh at Ladakh Serai in Saboo, the farm-to-table restaurant is run by hotelier Rigzen Namgyal and helmed by Chef Pankaj Sharma. Putting the location and fertility of the soil around the restaurant to full use, the food is delectably fresh and pure and presents Ladakh-inspired flavours with excellent plating, unusual pairing of textures and plenty of native ingredients. From salads with foraged chik weed, wild marjoram, and dandelion, to stuffed lamb mince timok with grape leaf tempura and clear vegetable soup that resembles a small science experiment — complete with a burner flask that infuses hot water through locally sourced herbs — there’s a tantalising array of flavours and innovative prep and presentation.

Apricot ice cream at syah ladakh.
Apricot ice cream at Syah Ladakh.

Dastuk, the humble rustic porridge of rice, yak milk and butter, salt, pepper, wild greens, and capers is the definitive comfort food and favourite for cold wintry mornings among Ladakhis. At Syah, dastuk was elevated to gourmet fare, complete with potato crisps and carrot leaf salsa. Seabuckthorn was reinvented as a popsicle and dusted with roasted cumin — it turned out to be the perfect palate cleanser. Local tau or buckwheat transformed into a pasta sheet layered with hops, smoked chicken and wild garlic flower; chutagi came with bokchoi, lamb dumplings, and mountain sorrel; while the barley doughnut with apricot jam was paired with brown sugar toffee sauce. Clearly, there are a host of unusual flavours waiting to be discovered by any gourmand… so eat local and, as the BRO sign goes, “Don’t be a gama in the land of the lama”.

Where to Eat

Alchi Kitchen, Leh/Alchi
Ph: 01982-227129, 9419438642, 9906348635

Zasgyath, The Grand Dragon Ladakh, Leh
Ph: 01982-255266, 9906986782, 9622997222

Namza Dining, Leh
Kanglachan Complex, Opp CMO Office, Zangsti Road
Ph: 9821418187, 9419299111

Syah, Ladakh Sarai, Saboo
Ph: 01982-244066

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