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Wedding Party at Balrampur House Nainital

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Come winter and the various parts of India come alive with their offerings of winter specific cuisine. The season is truly a food connoisseur’s delight! As some ingredients make their way to vegetable markets and at sweet grocer’s shop, the foodie in me runs amok. All invitations are hungrily eyed and even manipulated (Never mind the extra kilos!). For this is the season when gajak, rewri, dhodha, tilkut and chikki are a necessary survival kit and not merely the sugar laden calories. And the hospitality demands that every dinner table has the mandatory presence of dry fruit embellished gajar ka halwa ! For the enterprising, there is methi ka laddoo , posta dana ka halwa and bajre ki tikiya. And my friends from Varanasi tell me that this is the only season when they get to savor the dew infused malaiyos.

Surprisingly where all this north Indian food tends to be on the richer side of the food scale, I find that the food of simple minded Kumauni’s in Uttarakhand remains nutrition centric despite severe winter. Here the focus is more on heat generating food products which provide high energy. So though the perennially favorite bal mithai and the leaf folded singori continue to be on the platter (N.B. Foodies please head for Mamu halwai ki dukan in Mallital bazaar, Nainital), the jhangora (barnyard millet) kheer and gulgula (a deep fried snack made of wheat flour and jaggery) also make an appearance on the dining table. The kumaoni cuisine tends to keep the use of dairy products minimal and is largely plant based. Be it the roadside dhabas which offer delectable variety of fritters (potato, onion, gourd ,cabbage,colocasia…..) served with green chutney and trademark Kumauni cucumber raita or some pleasant native selling farm fresh corn roasted on charcoal amber on an off the road trek , the simplicity of kumaoni cuisine shines through. Truly the food is an apt reflection of the life of a region.

A peek into the daily food habits of the local populace shows marked inclination towards use of pulses. Be it ras (a lentil curry), dubke ( curry with lentil pakoras) or phaanu, they provide perfect combination to savor with the staple food – rice and chapatti (either wheat or buckwheat). For the colder winter days, bhatt ki chudkani (bhatt , also called black soybean, is a pulse native to this region) flavored with jambu and gandhrauli ( indigenously available spices) is a favorite. So is Gahat ki dal (gahat , also called kulath is a pulse with medicinal properties and has high warming effect on the body). The preparation for the severe winter days begins in the peak summer itself. When the sun shines bright, the courtyards and terraces in Kumauni households can be seen lined with rows of badis and mangodis put out to dry. Mangodis are small roundels made of soaked and grinded moong dal paste and badis are roundels made of urad dal paste. These roundels are sauted or deep fried and put in gravies to get a dish ready in a jiffy. In short, they are every homemaker’s savings for a rainy day. Freshly grounded dal preparations like badil (solidified dal cakes akin to Gujarati dhokla) and gahat stuffed chapati also come handy and are actually looked forward to. Along with thechua (the crushed radish salad) it’s a complete meal.

Winters are also the time for leafy veggies. The Kumaoni cuisine lays great emphasis on incorporating them in everyday food. Kafuli , kaapa, paleu are preparations of fenugreek and spinach leaves . Sisunak saag is a nettle leaves preparation. Most of the dishes are accompanied by chutney which introduces the sour flavor in the daily food as tomatoes are minimally used in this cuisine. Interesting ingredients like hemp seeds (bhang), dadim (small pomegranates) and til (sesame) in combination with green chilly, coriander leaves and pahari lemon (slightly larger in size than the normal ones) make the most palate- tickling companions. And no, they don’t have giddying side-effects! Hemp has been long used in this region to give that umami flavor to curd based dishes. For the sunny winter days, the saana hua neebu is on every kumaonis wish list. It’s a snack with pahari lemon and radish as the main ingredients, tempered with green chilly, curd, hemp seeds, sugar, honey and salt – a divine mélange to celebrate the warmth of the sun god! Throughout the winters, aloo ke gutke , a spicy pahari potato preparation which is an all time favorite tea-time snack of the region and urad bhuda, a spicy urad and til snack are gulped down with endless rounds of ginger tea.
The desserts in kumaoni cuisine are not procedure-intensive and quite simple to make. So apart from bal mithai (a roasted khoya sweet) and singori (khoya wrapped in Molu leaves and pinned with clove) which are mostly brought from shops, the rest are all made at home. Be it roat (a sweet bread made of wheat flour and jiggery), singhal ( a deep fried preparation of semolina ,banana, curd and sugar usually made on auspicious occasions) or kesar halwa (a special offering to deity on vasant punchami), the sweet tooth can be indulged in at short notice and without much hullabaloo about weight-watching! So a visit to kumaon hills should be on your radar, not only just for its scenic beauty but also for its gastronomically healthy and taste tickling native cuisine.

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