The one common refrain – should that be the only common refrain – of the politicians of Ladakh and Jammu provinces of J&K is to shout themselves hoarse that the region of Kashmir is receiving the giant’s share of — Here follows a litany of complaints about how little tourist infrastructure reaches Ladakh and Jammu, or funds for infrastructural development, or medical supplies, cement concrete or just about any commodity you can think about. Everyone’s case is that Kashmir is the spoilt child of the state, to the detriment of the other two provinces.
It was a grouse that played over and over in my mind as I lunched with the King of Ladakh, HH Raja Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal who had flown down from his palace in Stok, near Leh, to mastermind a festival of Ladakhi food in Chor Bizarre. While the grand old flagship of the restaurant that put Kashmiri food on the culinary map is located in Asaf Ali Road, the newer, more cutting edge branch has opened its doors in Bikaner House. It is a perfect fit, because Chor Bizarre features the food of pockets of the entire country, but most famously of Kashmir, though a scant third of the total menu features Kashmiri food. After the move to the far more central Bikaner House, the management of Chor Bizarre (which so far had only one branch, in Mayfair, London) has taken the initiative of having periodic regional festivals, and the first one was the Ladakhi and Jammu one.
Ladakh is a high altitude desert (11,000 till 18,000 feet above sea level) and though vegetables grow there, on the whole, the cuisine is known to be hearty and soul-satisfying. During the course of our lunch, we were served gyathuk, momos, chu-tagir and ti-mok, all made from flour, which you could call the staple of the cuisine. Ingredients may have been scarce before the 1970s, but time was abundant and shaping dozens if not hundreds of thentuk for a family meal was light work anyway, for hands that had been doing it for decades. However, spices, varied cooking techniques (fuel was scarce too!) and a plethora of ingredients were just not available, and so, Ladakhi cooking is a series of soups with the flavour of meat, a scarce handful of vegetables and a plethora of dumplings and noodles in an array of shapes and sizes, much like Italian pasta.
Jammu on the other hand, is neither desert nor particularly high altitude, and if Ladakhi cuisine has been influenced by that of Tibet, Jammu’s food bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Himachal Pradesh. Indeed, the various kinds of rajma that grows in the Bhadarwah province is sought after even in Kashmir (as indeed are Ladakhi turnips) but the homely khatta meat and the equally sour ambal made with pumpkin belong uniquely to Jammu, though HP shares the recipe of dal cooked in yoghurt and the Kashmir Valley shares the fresh cheese called kalari with Jammu, being produced by the Gujjars and Bakkarwals – itinerant shepherds who travel between the two provinces and who store surplus milk for short periods of time in the form of a disc.
But here is the reason that I kept thinking of political one-upmanship during the lunch. Had there been any political representation of any of the three regions that go to make up the dramatically varied state of Jammu and Kashmir, they would have immediately protested against the bias that History and Culture had towards the cuisine of Kashmir and demanded that something be done about it.