Of all regional Indian cuisines, traditional Himachali food seems the most elusive. Without prior notice and arrangement, it plays truant even from its nurturing households in the hills, suggests Maya Kumari, a woman from the village of Silhari, near Kandaghat, in Himachal Pradesh. Women here work hard outdoors for a major part of the day. “Cooking an elaborate meal doesn’t happen in our daily lives any more. If you really are interested in our local cuisine, you should try dhaam,” she suggests.
In the local language of Himachal Pradesh, dhaam is the name for the elaborate and traditional thaali-like meal served for lunch during festivals and special occasions. Friends and family sit on the floor, in small circles, to relish the food together. Dhaam derives its name from the ornate tables that hold the large plates. The brass platters have handmade, fermented breads and small mounds of rice prettily arranged, alongside numerous bowls of madras or curries and meetha or sweets. The ubiquitous presence of curd and the aromatic fenugreek in the curries, set each of them miles apart from any contemporary.
Legend says that the tradition of dhaam can be traced all the way back to the descendants of lord Rama. Raja Meru, a descendent of Kush, came to the hills for meditation. One of his great grandsons, king Jaisthambh, was so enamoured by Kashmiri cuisine that he sent for some of the best khansamas from Kashmir to recreate those dishes in the local Chamba tradition, using all seasonal produces.
Baked at home
Kunal Bharadwaj, the Executive Chef at the Club Mahindra Kandaghat Resort and a Himachali himself, informs us that a traditional Himachali meal consists of at least two types of breads — the siddu and the bedwan — steamed and deep-fried respectively. These are stuffed breads made of fermented wheat flour, with a delicious core of poppy seeds, coconut, and sometimes lentils, eaten with lots of ghee or dal. The deep-fried bread, bhaturu, is also served often.
“Life was never easy in the hills. In the old days, our ancestors would travel for days amidst cold and snow. Our breads had to be sturdy and nutritious to sustain them wherever they were,” he says.
“No dhaam is complete without madras, mahni and khatta,” says home chef Sherry Malhotra, an expert in North-west frontier and Himachali food. “The variety of food items reflects the vibrant and dynamic yet simple life of the people here. The State of Himachal is divided into 12 districts and each district has its own specific dhaam. The food is made in such a way that it retains its rich nutritional value and complements the weather in these districts,” she adds.
Traditionally, dhaam was cooked by descendants of Jaisthambh’s royal chefs. Preparation for this elaborate luncheon began the night before and only copper utensils were used, explains Malhotra. Everything would be prepared in pure ghee and dry fruits would be used to make the dishes richer.
A fine art
“Expert culinary skills are needed to prepare delicious dishes without using artificial colours, chemicals and even onion and garlic. Instead, they used curd and amchoor (dried mango powder) for enhancing the flavour,” says Malhotra. Even meat would be cooked this way, in a unique combination of spices that include fenugreek, yoghurt and amchoor.
Other common elements of dhaam are dohi dal, a tempered stew of black lentils cooked in yoghurt; tawa bhala, a close cousin of the Bengali dhoka but with a different spice index; a paneer madra with an aromatic infusion of fennel; and the khatta murgh and pahari maas (mutton) — meat in tangy sauces cooked with curd or dry mango powder.
Kheru, the Himachali kadhi, is not fortified with gram flour but infused with yoghurt and generous amounts of coriander seeds, which is why it needs more subtle, sensitive cooking. “In fact, all our madras or curries need subtle cooking; it’s more of an art and one has to be constantly alert so as not to burn the spices or curdle the curd while cooking. Probably, this is why traditional dhaams are becoming less regular,” thinks Bharadwaj.
It’s a pity because, what’s served on those thaalis is rich in flavour, smooth as silk, and maintains a fine balance of salt, sweet and sour. And it’s a precious sustainer in this cold, rugged terrain.