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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.