During our two-week stay in the region, we were invited to many Ladakhi kitchens called Chantsa for cha and snacks. A Ladakhi kitchen is more like a community room where one entertains guests, and families mingle and eat together. A low-floor seating arrangement padded with cushions with wooden tables across, makes the Chantsa a kind of lounge with utensils on display and an open stove that doubles as a fireplace to keep the room warm in winters. I could spot a handmade basket in every household that is used to pluck apricot and apples from the fields. Traditionally, Ladakh was an agricultural economy until tourism became the mainstay. The foods eaten by the locals are amalgamation of various cultures and regions, as Ladakh was the centre of the trade route. However, of these, the Kashmiri and Tibetan lineage are the most apparent.
One of our hosts wore a traditional Ladakhi dress called ‘Konchas’, which is a version of a kaftan, and an amulet called Kagu. She sat down with some fried Meat Dumplings, Butter tea (made of yak milk and pink tea leaves), Sheermal Kashmiri bread to be eaten with kahwa or cha) dried apricots, walnuts and almonds. I was intrigued with the big cha pots and metalware on display. I wanted to know more. She proudly revealed that in the Ladakhi tradition, when a woman gets married, she brings along utensils to set up her own house. It could be a form of dowry, but locally it is seen as something out of respect. There are no inter communal marriages between Islamic and Buddhist families, and an unclassified caste system does exist. I was curious about the wedding ceremonies, and rituals. She then went on to explain that winters are a season for weddings and they can last upto a week sometimes. Big cha pots are then taken out to serve guests, and Kashmiri Wazwan – upto 72 dishes including meat, breads, vegetables and sweets. Three to four people share food out of one big plate. A silk white scarf is offered to guests as a sign of respect. This silk scarf can also be seen in monasteries as offerings to Buddha. When a man wants to marry a woman, he sends a proposal with a pot of Chang (local barley beer) with yak butter, this white silk scarf laid upon it. Traditional folk songs called ‘Daman Surma’ are played on such special occasions, and ‘Sulma’ a traditional beaded cap with ‘dangshil and ‘lhocha’ ornaments are worn by women.
Apart from these tea rituals, there was more cuisine, that was of interest to a visitor like myself. Mutton sausages, Skyu ( handmade pasta), Thukpa ( noodle soup) with Tingmo (cloud bread) make for an ideal dinner. For breakfast, you could enjoy a homemade wheat bread called Khambeer (that is made of fermented dough) and then served hot with yak butter and apricot jam. Tsampa is another all day food option that includes roasted barley flour mixed with yak milk. Locals who work in the fields, enjoy this carb rich food.
Usually, there are not too many sweets in the cuisine. Spices used in meat curries and Kahwa are cardamom and cinnamon. We were told that a yak is a provider for the locals, crucial for agricultural tasks on the fields, carrying loads, providing fleece for fabric, its dunk is used as a fuel. Yak milk and meat are common in their diet. The average life expectancy in Ladakh was higher than in other parts, owing to this rich diet.
Learning about their culture over tea was indeed one of the most pleasurable experiences.
Sayali Goyal is the Founder & Creative Director of Cocoa and Jasmine. Cocoa and Jasmine is an independent culture travel magazine finding art and poetry in travel. They recently launched their first issue called ‘The Himalayan Issue’ that explores food, crafts, people, spirituality through photo essays, interviews and articles.