Think of Uttarakhand and the first thing that comes to mind are the gleaming white mountains. Lush jungles and bubbling rivulets are next, but this land of the Himalayas and the Ganga is also home to some beautiful food — something not many associate with the state.
“Uttarakhand is a land of rustic flavours and robust food, ” says chef Manoj Rawat, as he introduces the cuisine of Uttarakhand to us at the opening night of the Exotic Uttarakhand Festival. “The people there are simple and hardworking and that is reflected in their food also,” says chef Rawat while showing us the menu. The man behind the festival, chef Rawat, not surprisingly is from the region himself. Although, he says, he is more attuned to the Garhwali flavours than Kumaoni. Kumaon and Garhwal are the two major regions of the state and even though the food is largely similar, there are slight differences between the two. Not that an outsider can tell the two apart. Despite a huge chunk of every kitchen’s staff being from the state, the cuisine, unfortunately, doesn’t feature on any menu. That however might be changing a bit.
I first encountered this change at Lebua, Corbett, where the head chef, chef Kala, had cooked up a storm for us. I recently experienced it again when Chef Manoj Rawat and Chef Rajesh cooked up an entire buffet of Uttarakhandi food. “The idea, says chef, “clicked while attending a wedding in Garhwal. And I thought why not bring this cuisine out to the world.” It did take some time though to see the idea develop into a full fledged festival that stared on 20th of April and goes on until 30th at Hilton, Gurgaon.
The evening started with special cocktails made with local ingredients. Bhole ka Prasad, or bhang flavoured shots, Malta Mary, Amla Shikanji, and Kumaoni lassi. Sweet, tart, heady, and edgy, the cocktails were a perfect opening to an evening of great food. The starters were local and seasonal — and made with local ingredients. “In hills we do not waste any food, so the offals are also used as a snack. There is of course chicken, but that is country foul, and the lamb is a small mountain goat,” says chef Rajesh. I skip the offals but gorge on the lamb curry, country chicken and the mandua pavs. Wholesome, rich and satiating, the starters set the course for the evening.
It is not only the meat in the hills that is special, the daals and vegetables are beautiful and flavoursome too. Bhat ki Churkani made with soyabean is wholesome, Kumaoni Jholi is tart and refreshing and the saag is soulful. Then there is my favourite the thechwani, a curry made with potato and local Jakhiya seeds. Local varieties of rice, mandua rotis and parathas play the perfect accompaniment.
The desserts meanwhile bring it all together. Til laddos made with besan not khoya are a revelation, buransh kheer is velvety, and bal mithai, takes me back to my childhood. Together they close the meal perfectly.
The Exotic Uttarakhand Festival has been curated with great passion by Maneesh Srivastava and Vickrham Vicky who are known to curate unexplored and unconventional food festivals that focus on regional cusines. The event is on at The Hilton Gurgaon until 30th of April for dinner.