Thursday, 1 September 2011

Straight from the kitchens of Ladakh

Here's a continuation from my last post, and this comes straight from the kitchens of an army battalion posted in Ladakh! I had the privilege of trying these dishes when I was visiting them last year, and can promise you that they are finger licking good.

Before I share the recipes with you, a couple of things to note:

  • Usually Tibetans do not use any spice powders, but coriander, turmeric and red chili powder as well as ready made meat-masala powders can be added as per choice and taste. 
  • These are very basic and easy to cook recipes, and have actually been written by a Tibetan cook. Once you start preparing it, you may need to adjust certain proportions as per your liking. Increase or decrease the quantity of water depending on the consistency you want.
  • You can also use your choice of meat for these recipes. What I had was Yak meat but it can easily be substituted with either mutton, lamb or even chicken.
  • A vegetarian version of the Thukpa can be made by just omitting the mutton from it, the rest of the process remains same.
  • Most of these recipes have 'ajinomoto' or mono sodium glutamate listed in the ingredients. There are certain health scares related to the use of this flavouring, although there are certain groups that would disagree. However, in case you want to avoid using it just substitute it with either Oyster sauce or Worcester sauce. 

Bon Aptit! 

Ladakh, the land I love

Circa 2010. I had recently quit my job with no plans of going back, and was experiencing a somewhat premature midlife crisis. I needed to take time off and disappear somewhere to re-evaluate my life. As is with most people, travel has a therapeutic effect on me, so planning a trip seemed like the perfect thing to do. But this time I wanted to take off alone…no friends, no family, just me myself and I. Then came a call from a cousin, an army officer posted in Ladakh, with an invitation to go visit him.

Dilemma: Do I go off some place where I do not know anyone, all by my self and explore my inner soul or, go to Ladakh, get royally pampered and see the place in a way that no one outside the army can experience? I chose the former. 

Nah, just kidding. Ladakh was being served to me on a platter, so that's where I went. I did go alone but what happened there is another story. Everything was taken care of for me - right from a nursing assistant who came to check my BP twice a day to ensure I was acclimatising well, to a lavish itinerary that covered everything from local sights to trekking, rock climbing, fishing and of course a plethora of Tibetan dishes for me to try out. I had arrived in paradise.

I am not going to bore you with facts and figures like how high is the tallest mountain there and what the weather is like at different times of the year. For all that, there is Google. This is just my tribute to the most breath taking place in this country and perhaps even the world. So without further ado, let me show you the Ladakh that I saw. 

The map below details out the route that I covered, marked in orange. I went up east from Leh to Kiari, where my cousin's unit was located. With that as my base, I covered Tso Moriri and Chumathang. After a few days, I continued further east, all the way up to the Tibet border via Chushul (this is a restricted route and not open to civilians) and approached Pangong Tso from the Tibet side, so I had the awesome opportunity to drive up it's entire length in India. I finally returned to Leh via Chang La. 

Besides flying directly into Leh, you can also drive up to it. I believe these routes are equally awesome. Plus it's also easier to acclimatise this way as you'll be gaining height far more gradually. The most popular route from Delhi is through Manali, or you could come from Srinagar via Kargil. The latter is something that I'd surely like to do someday. But for this trip, I wanted to get straight to Leh and spend all my time exploring as much as I could within Ladakh.

Here are my top tips for you if you ever plan to go to Ladakh:

Rezang La war memorial
1. If you have any army connections, however remote, use them (don’t start calling me now!) This is one of those places where our soldiers brave all kinds of adversities to protect our borders, so no one knows the area like they do. And if they are happy to show you around, consider yourself lucky. 

2. Acclimatise. Esp if you are flying directly into Leh. Do not exert yourself on the first two days at least. Just get familiar with your acco on day one, and gradually start doing less strenuous things like browsing the local market and visiting sites that are on the same altitude. Here are some things that i did...
Head to the magnetic hill and watch your vehicle 'drive itself'
Sit by the spot where the Indus river meets Zanskar river

3. The gompas and palaces are a must see but if you are pressed for time, then just choose a couple that you’d like to see most. A smart way to do it is to cover them en route to other destinations, splitting them across days. If you try and club too many in the same day you may end up suffering from what I call a 'monastery fatigue'! Here are some of my favourites…

Stakna from a distance

Hemis - the largest and richest one

Photang Palace - Dalai Lama's summer retreat

Shey Palace - chortens at the entrance
Thicksey monastery
Stok Palace

4. Go with a sense of adventure if you really want to max out your trip to Ladakh. If all you want to do is drive around in the comfort of your car and take photos next to the lake where ‘Three Idiots’ was shot then don’t bother with Ladakh, there are a lot more easier and cheaper destinations for that.

5.  Keep your eyes wide open! There is no way that you will miss the natural beauty that surrounds you but still, just get the window seat whenever you are driving between places...make frequent stops and just get out of the car to take it all in. I have never ever seen as many shades of blue, brown, yellow, gray and green in my life as I did in Ladakh. Every curve of the road reveals something new and breathtaking.

Pangong Tso - people say you can see seven shades of blue in it, and it's true!
A dried out river en route to Chang La from Pangong Tso

6. Try and plan a trip around some of the popular festivalsEach monastery has it's own celebration, the most spectacular one being at Hemis in June. Most festivities usually take place in peak season so make your bookings in advance to avoid paying exorbitant rates. 

7. If you like shopping then go for the local stuff. Silver and pearls can be bought anywhere in the world now, so what you really want to focus on is the fabulous pashminas, tankhas and local Tibetan artifacts. You’ll also get amazing jams and fruit preserves, which make a cheap and wonderful gift for friends back home.

8. Taste the local cuisine. There are plenty of cafes these days selling things like pizzas and chop sueys, but please don’t waste your time eating that! If you do not have a very adventurous palate, at least have the Thukpa and Momos. Yak meat is overrated but if you are a non-vegetarian, go for it anyway! Also the butter tea is wonderful in the cold weather...think of it as a soup rather than tea, and you may be able to savour it better. Here are a few of my favourites, look out for their recipes in my next post!

9. Invest in a good camera before you make the trip. I am not big on Nature photography, but this is one place where I loved every bit of it just coz of the varied nature of the topography. 
I'll sign off with some of my favourite shots from the trip...
Monk-ing around
Spending an afternoon at Thicksey
My fishing spot at Kiari
Tso Moriri
Bad luck, near Chang La
Winged visitors at Pangong Tso
Little lamas at lunch, Thicksey
Prayer wheels at Hemis
Pit stop at Upshi
At peace
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