“Chop off the head of the goat and with the animal’s feet tied, hang it over an open coal fire till you can easily skin it.” That is the first step in preparing the Kumaoni classic, kachpak. I spent last weekend at Bhimtal’s Fisherman’s Lodge, being educated in the intricacies of local cooking. Many of the delightful cottages and lodges across Kumaon are run by retired couples from outside the state, so Kumaoni food is something of a closed book in one half of Uttaranchal. I struck lucky at Fisherman’s Lodge, because they have a local cook cum caterer on call. Mahesh Upadhyay was unleashing his cuisine on me as he cooked a far simpler meal, one that didn’t involve rubbing off half-burnt hair off roasting goats.
Kachpak, which, by the way is shorthand for kaccha-pukka, is simplicity itself. All you do is mix the skin and offal of the goat with salt, raw mustard oil, chilli powder and coriander leaves. The chewy texture is, reportedly, part of the fun!
The feast that Upadhyay cooked me was at the opposite end of the exotica scale from roasted goat’s skin. Gauth ki dukkey were al dente pakodas in spinach gravy, dry preparations of cabbage and potatoes were much the same as their counterparts elsewhere in North India, lai was a spinach-like vegetable cooked without gravy and jholi was kadhi by another name. Only the Kumaoni signature ras-bhath had no parallel. It was made of a blend of five types of dals that were simmered overnight till the lentils themselves had disintegrated. It was the water that was used for this dish that had all the trappings of comfort food. The liquid – except that that is not a particularly descriptive term – was spiced minimally and eaten as a breakfast gruel with rice.
Ras-bhath intrigued me because it was one of the few vegetarian offerings across the country to have an overtly meaty taste, though how even a Kumaoni could get dal to taste meaty is beyond me.
Like all homely meals, this one too sparkled with accompaniments. Bhang ki chutney horrified me at first, but it was a raita with a mildly fragrant chopped leaf (that’s what bhang tastes like) that won’t make you feel drowsy. Upadhyay assured me that it is perfectly in order for a young girl to ask the vegetable vendor for bhang leaves.
The second chutney consisted of pounded coriander leaves mixed with chopped garlic, green chillies and raw mustard oil. You decide which element you want to play up and blend the ingredients accordingly. The third chutney was simplicity itself: beaten curd and wedges of lemon from which the membrane has been removed, seasoned with salt. Nimbu as it is called has to be made with large Mediterranean lemons, the only kind that grows in Kumaon.
Practically the only exotic aspect of the meal came from using raw mustard oil in a couple of dishes. It’s the one ingredient that you’ll also encounter in kachpak.