When the three greatest cuisines of the world are enumerated, Ladakhi food seldom finds mention. Even in Leh, Ladakhi restaurants seem anxious to stand up and be counted by serving Mexican, Israeli, Italian, Kashmiri and North Indian – everything else, in other words, but Ladakhi. The hotel where I’m staying, Shambha La, on the other hand, prepares Ladakhi food on order and they are happiest when the orders pour in every day.
Most cuisines, especially in the age of the Internet, have several outside influences, for better or worse. Ladakh, being as geographically isolated as it is, has none, unless you count Tibet (Ladakh is called Little Tibet because of the geographical contiguity and similar culture). The result is that despite being in the same state as Kashmir, there is not a glimmer of similarity.
For Ladakhis, spice means thangyar, the yellow chilli from Manali, which is first fried and then coarsely pounded and eaten with just about everything and kurnyot or caraway seeds that grow wild in Ladakh, on the margins of barley fields. Kurnyot seems to take the place of cumin, and adds a surprisingly western flavour to soups. Barley and wheat are staples here, and the uses to which they are put are extraordinary: barley goes to make everything from tsampa to chhang, while wheat is used to make a variety of momos and spaetzle-like pasta for soups.
The chef at Shambha La specializes in tsamptuk, a delicious, heart-warming broth with lamb stock as its base, to which has been added dried yak’s cheese (called chhurpe), lamb pieces and tsampa. Too much tsampa and you’ve got a breakfast porridge. Too little and it becomes a standard soup. The management of the hotel had nothing but scorn for my standard daily order of mutton sausage and tsamptuk: they wanted to showcase the entire range of Ladakhi food.
Mutton sausages, flavoured subtly with caraway seeds, are neither smoked nor fermented. They are served within minutes of being made. Coarsely chopped pieces of mutton are used, though once upon a time it was probably yak meat that substituted lamb. It is not as if the fermented taste is unknown to Ladakh: all winter long, vegetables pickled like Korean kimchi are eaten, and the infamous butter tea, onomatopoeically known as gurgur chai contains a dollop of yak butter that has a characteristically fermented taste.
Breakfast at Shambha La usually consists of Ladakhi pickle, made with white radish, dressed with unheated mustard oil, salt and chilli powder. It turns faintly sour in one hour of being kept in the sun, and goes deliciously well with traditional Ladakhi bread, called khambiri or yeast-developed.
A few things I could not sample in Ladakh have been Changthang lamb, from the vast, underpopulated plain, contiguous with Tibet, where vegetation is sparse. Sheep reared here have an indescribably rich flavour. Paba and shkew, which the management of the hotel deemed too homely to unleash on a guest, are home-style staples for farmers.
Fun fact: soups are either Ngamthuk, Tsamptuk, Thentuk, Gyethuk or Chhanthuk, depending on the mix of ingredients.