Cooking in the Hills

about Himachal Pradesh, India

I was up in the hills drinking in the scenery, but of course food needed to be on the agenda too.

Himachal Pradesh, the land of apples and mushrooms, is a dramatically beautiful state. After a few hours of the flat Punjab plains, twisty roads started spiralling into the heavens pretty much from the instant we crossed the border. Straight-line distances lose their meaning, and the drives (specially if you have a camera) take forever.

It seemed only logical that we should be eating Himachali food, but like the aforementioned twisty roads the path to ‘local’ cuisine was anything but straight. The dhabas lining the drive up had proved Himachal to be foodwise quite firmly under the Punjabi thumb (given that it was once part of Punjab, this was hardly unexpected). Enquiries about Himachali food wasn’t met with the most encouraging of responses; one person even told me flatly that there was no such thing – it was all Punjabis anyway. It seemed from where I was standing that Himachalis drank only juice.

Shimla’s Mall yielded no joy either, it could have been a street in any large city in India with its burgers and Chinese, Baristas and Sher-e-Punjabs. Occasional noises were made about momos (rather unusually, the fillings had spices with green chutney and raita on the side). The veg pakoras had aloo cut frenchfry style, fresh coconut was being sold on pine leaves, but nothing added up to anything substantial enough to be called a cuisine. Enquiries about restaurants got us referred to the oddly named Hotel Combermere’s multicuisine restaurant (it claimed familiarity with least four continents in red neon) or the Peterhoff, apparently a luxury hotel run by HPTDC.

The original Peterhoff The Peterhof

The trek to the Peterhoff was a long one, to the far end of Mall Road. Supposedly a heritage luxury hotel, it turned out to be a frayed government-managed affair in a hideous modern building. The original Peterhoff (the building pictured above in black and white) had an eventful history of viceroys and murderers, but burnt down in 1981 and was replaced in 1992-3 by something that must have been drafted by a sleep-deprived government architect (the colour picture above). In the process, it lost an ‘f’ too – officially it is now the Peterhof.
We landed up on an unfortunate day; the local Lions club had decided to take complete possession of the premises to hold their elections. Posters extorted us to support Lions this or that. The kitchen, we were informed, was closed for the event. The doorman, however, was an affable fellow, with a nudge and a wink he took us into the kitchen to see what could be organised. Seated on slightly scruffy baroque sofas in a neonlit, windowless room, we opened the menu.

And, there were those magic words - “Himachali Speciality”. They didn’t occur with much frequency (in fact, there were just two entries) but they were undeniably there. The descriptions, straight out of the menu, are below.

Chhah Meat: lamb cooked in a Himachali lassi called Chhah along with traditional spices.
Sepu Badi: made from ground washed urad cooked in curd and palak.

Not much by way of information, but we were going to try it anyway. The mutton (not lamb) wasn’t available, but Sepu Badi did indeed land up. My first thought on seeing it was Dhokar Dalna (a Bengali dish that I’m quite fond of). This one (the description said) was in a curd and palak gravy, and of course tasted quite different from Bengali. We had it with rice. Here’s the only recipe link I found for it. I suspect you can use the vada of dahi-vada in place of the badi. Some odd references say this is a speciality of the Mandi region.

Sepu Badi

One dish does not a cuisine make, so we asked around a bit more including our friendly neighbourhood doorman. He pointed us to Chail Palace, also run by the HPTDC and also with Himachali specialities on the menu. And so, the next day, that was where we headed. Unlike the Peterhof, Chail Palace was a genuinely heritage building (though a mansion more than a palace) and it did have a restaurant offering the magic phrase – Himachali Speciality – but available at lunch/dinner only. We had landed up for breakfast.
Again, the waiter came to the rescue. Barog, on the way back to Chandigarh, was the place to go. Hotel Pinewood, also run by the HPTDC, offered what we were looking for. And so off we went, much to the disgust of our now exasperated driver.


View Larger Map

A tiny place on the way to Chandigarh, Barog apparently is named after an engineer who botched up the railway tunnel nearby and committed suicide (the guy who finally built the tunnel is forgotten). Its biggest attraction seems to be the Hotel Pinewood, the HPTDC property we were headed towards as well. The tour buses at the hotel occupied more space than the rest of the town put together, and disgorged disturbing numbers of untanned skins onto the flowerbedded grounds of the hotel. We bagged a table just before the conquering hordes, and aah – the menu had all that we expected, not just the odd dish, but a whole section called Himachali Cuisine.

Hotel Pinewood The Menu

Sepu Badi was done and not even a fancy name was going to induce my friend to Rajmah, so we ordered Chhah Meat, Kheruo and Himachali Pulao (photos below in order).

Chhah Meat KheruoHimachali Pulao

The mutton was, well, mutton curry - tasty, but not particularly distinct. Kheruo resembled Punjabi kadhi, but thinner and generously laced with jeera. Himachali Pulao had fruits, in particular a melon of some kind that made it a little sweet. The Kheruo was listed as a soup in Chail Palace (they called it Kheru without the ‘o’) but we thought it’s tangy jeera taste went wonderfully with the slightly sweet pulao. Interestingly enough, we seemed to be the only people ordering the stuff – it seemed the rest of the tables, packed with tourbus crowds, preferred Chinese.

That was my Himachali food experience, involving three different restaurants and hours of walking and driving. At the end we managed to eat most things labeled Himachali - leaving only the two below out.

Murg Anardana - chicken cooked in anardana with Indian gravy.
Rajma Madra – boiled rajmah cooked in curd.

This isn’t quite all there is to Himachali food – google does manage to dig up a few more. On the whole, though, it wasn’t a great culinary experience. The dishes, the ingredients, the methods of cooking not very distinct – without assistance from HPTDC’s labelling one would never have noticed.

Later research tells me why this is so (and here’s my amateur history lesson). Himachal Pradesh is a modern creation; it came into existence as a geographic convenience only after independent India was formed. Unlike the other states, Himachal Pradesh has no linguistic or ethnic identity. It was part of Punjab for most of its history, and there does not seem to be a dominant community or tribal race other than the Punjabis (and of course the Tibetans of Dharmashala). Large chunks of the state are uninhabited and most of the population still lives along the Punjab border. Himachal’s rulers have also been a mixed bag, Rajputs, Punjabis, Mughals, Gorkhas, Tibetans and the British – local kingdoms and dynasties seem to have either been too shortlived or too small to evolve any cultural identity. What resulted, therefore, were local foods rather than a local cuisine.

Here's an IBNLive video on Himachali food that's interesting. Its also by (who else) a Bong.

11 comments:

  1. Oh..what a delightful post. One of my favorite memories in India is the awesome food we ate in Chail palace on our honeymoon- I was looking for Himachali recipes, but had forgotten the name of the dish, sepu badi. Googling 'himachali palak recipe' turned up your blog. Thanks again!

    p.s. Its not himachali, I know, but if you ever return to Chail Palace, try their lemon souffle. Its to die for.

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  2. Hi Shanky

    I must say you should've stayed with a localite family to know more appropriately about Himachal.

    To start with its Historical Backgrnd, Himachal is not new in existance..it wasnt a part of punjab, though some parts of punjab like Una have merged in H.P now. A district of Himachal callled Sirmaur extends to Harki Paudi in Haridwar. The daughter of Sirmaur's king, Shrimati Padmini Devi has been wed to King of Jaipur.
    Himachal extends beyond Mansarovar(China occupied). Hence Himachal is not a 'modern creation', as it existed before Independence.

    Himachal has its own language called 'Pahari" with its sub-languages & dialexts (viz. kulluvi, sirmauri, kinnauri, chambiali etc)
    Himachal has its native shephard tribe called 'Gaddi', tibetians & gurkhas are not natives of himachal, they're refugees from Tibet n Nepal resp.

    Himachal has its own attires, traditions, culture & handicrafts more vast than i can explain here.

    Am a Delhiite, with Himachali Mother, so probably can point out where you goin wrong bout this state.

    You need more In depth view to know Himachal...'Devbhoomi/Land of Gods'

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  3. I must clarify here. I meant to say that the state of Himachal Pradesh is new. Its true that people have been living in the area from prehistoric times (in fact, it is one of the earliest populated areas in present day India) but there has never been a single cohesive kingdom or state called Himachal, or even a kingdom with a different name occupying the same area. There were independent kingdoms - Sirmour, Kangra, Mandi, Bilaspur, etc but till Independence (indeed much after - 1971) there was no state called Himachal Pradesh.

    Una was not the only part of Himachal that was part of Punjab (or the erstwhile state of Patiala). Most of the populated regions along the border, including Shimla, was part of Patiala/Punjab. In fact, Shimla was the first capital of Punjab, and that russian-named hotel the original Punjab High Court (before it lost a 'f' and became ugly)

    Pahadi is not a single language, but a collection of dialects spoken by the different tribes of Himalayan region, including Sirmauli, Mandli, Kinnauri, etc. The state language of Himachal Pradesh is Hindi.

    One needs either a common ruler (like Goa) or a common racial/linguistic identity (like Punjab or Bengal) to be a state. Before Independence, there was Kangra state, Sirmour state, Kinnaur state but no common state or even identity like Rajputana. In fact, many Himachali kingdoms (Sirmaur included - they are originally from the Jaisalmer dynasty) was considered part of greater Rajputana before Ranjit Singh went on hsi conquests.

    All this, I admit, is academic knowledge. I've personally just seen a tiny corner of Himachal Pradesh

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  4. Hi,
    I am from Himachal, presently living in Bangalore.
    To a outsider the Pahadi(with its various dialects) language will seem quite similar to Punjabi, but in reality it is quite distinct with its own large vocab. of words. Also the languages of South Himachal are quite distinct from the northern part and has no influence of Punjabi. In fact languages of places bordering Tibet are more similar to Tibetan. At first look the Himachali food won't look much different from the rest of North India.
    One major difference b/w food habits of Punjab and Himachal is rice. In Punjab wheat is preferred over rice but in Himachal , rice is generally eaten at least once a day (generally lunch). Also the food habits actually are similar to that of Jammu region.
    To experience a truly himachali food you should eat a dham which is traditional Himachali(especially North Himachal) community meal served during celebrations (http://www.devbhoomihimachal.com/2007/06/dham.html)
    May be you can visit Chamba a day after Shiv Ratri, when all the temples of Chamba serve Dham.

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  5. Hey,

    I have been on the same close to futile search for Himachali cuisine...and not just in shimla but in places like dalhousie, kullu manali, dharamshala etc...but sadly it seems all they obsess about is either chinese or punjabi food without the zing...even HPTDC seems reluctant to promote the local cuisine which is a pity.

    Howevever one place I must recommend is the Apple cart Inn at Kiarighat (close to shimla) its in the mushroom district...and their mushroom dishes are awesome...thats of course if you are a fan.. as u must have guessed I am.

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  10. For some reason, this particular post attracted a lot of attention from "call girls" and a "karambir" professing to reveal "international smugglers". The posts have been deleted

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  11. Nice article Sankarson. As a kid I used to go to Simla a lot. The Gaiety Theater Club has (maybe had now!) some original Local dishes that I enjoyed along with some Anglo Indian dishes. Sitting out in the balcony on the Mall, enjoying the dishes and bird watching from there was always a cherry on the pie! Local Sood families have their own sub-cuisine that is sophisticated by nature, then there is Pahari cuisine of each region of Himachal from Kangra to Kinnaur and Kullu. There are some remote resorts hiding in the upper Himachal pardesh, run by local villagers that provide good accommodation along with local foods. The breads like Babru and Gulgule are my favorite along with red Chana Masala and Rajmah. Insist on trying the local variety of the rice rather than the Basmati type and you will feel the difference. Local brews found in villages are also good before dinner along with the sound of remote Bansuri.

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