Mutton, Motorcycles, Momos and Maggie – A foodie’s journey across the Indian Frontier

And yes, I am perfectly happy with my awesome alliteration abilities.

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The picture above- with a little shack of a restaurant and a rumble of motorcycles in front of it- perfectly represents a lot of our meals on the road. You see, for a while now I’ve been wanting to write about both the ride and the food I experienced on the motorcycle trip I had some time ago in Kashmir. The issue was that this blog was created mainly to focus on food, not so much experiences. What I realized, however, was that while the food and the ride were somewhat separable, they provided each other with some much needed context. Could I have explored more in some of the culinarily rich stops on the journey? Of course I could’ve, but the mindset we were in when we only had a day or two in most of these places is important to keep in mind. There’s also the fatigue that comes with riding eight to twelve hours a day at high altitudes and varying temperatures, so even if we didn’t voluntarily realize it, we searched for energizing and warming foods on the road. So this post will go over the food I encountered during the journey, and there will be another post on here to talk about the ride itself (coming soon!)

(A note about the food pictures: A lot of the pictures of the food in this post were taken in low light on a phone camera. While they most certainly could have been better, my phone- and I – are not that good at taking pictures in that setting)

So let’s get to it – here’s a look at the food I encountered on the trip!

‘Chai’ and Tea

Fun fact, the word ‘Chai’ literally just means tea. Generally it refers to the traditional Indian tea made with plenty of milk, sugar, and sometimes with spices like cardamom (also called Masala Chai in that case.) So when you order a Chai Tea Latte from your favorite barista, you’re essentially asking for a ‘Tea with milk and sugar tea with milk’ – just so you know. From the get go on our trip, both Chai and black tea were staple pick-me-ups for the road. The Chai here was made with more sugar than usual, but because of the aforementioned altitude and cold we most certainly needed it. Accompanying the Chai or tea were often some of the best views to sip to, although I’d have to say the best ever has to go to one I had in Spiti (another post I want to get around to writing)

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I also had the most elevated, highest tea in my life at Pang, at over 15,000 ft. This would have been higher if I had had another at Khardungla (17,000 + ft), which until recently was the world’s highest motorable road. (The Indian Border Roads Organization recently built a road at over 19,000 feet, which to me sounds like an excuse to make another trip!)

Maggi

Another staple available at every little roadside food shack, from Manali to Leh to Srinagar, was Maggi. For those of you who don’t know, Maggi is India’s most popular instant noodle, but also so much more. Maggi is so ingrained in the modern Indian palate that its what students eat when they’re busy studying for exams, sick people eat to get better, and mothers make their children as a tasty snack or meal. A lot of people have variations in their Maggi recipes, all of which use at least water, the ramen noodles, and the Maggi masala (spice powder). The amazing thing here was that all through the road, the Maggi seemed like it could’ve been made by the same person. It was consistently soupy, warm and delicious. I’m sure many of the bikers in my group and others who have ridden to Leh and Ladakh would agree, Maggi got us through the cold and altitudes of Pang and the Khardung La pass, and it was Maggi that we chose to eat on the cool day ride to Srinagar, enjoying it with the sun on our backs, being warmed inside and out.

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The highest tea and Maggi I’ve ever had at Pang

 

Kashimiri Kehwah

Originally, I thought Kehwah, sometimes spelt Kahwa or Kahwah, was a variant of green tea. While Kehwah can have green tea in its preparation, traditionally it is made my infusing hot water with cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, crushed almonds, saffron and honey. Apparently people substituted the saffron for green tea if they didn’t have the former. After  tasting the original, neither the substitution nor its popularity over how it used to be made make any sense to me. Kehwah in its true form has an amazing golden color, instead of the green it would acquire from the tea leaves.

If you’d like to make some at home, boil a cup of water with a stick of cinnamon, a cardamom pod and a clove. Add a tablespoon of crushed almonds, honey to taste, and when it has cooled off a little, a strand of saffron. Kehwah is traditionally served duing celebrations, especially weddings.

Trout, Themthuk, Thupka and Momos in Manali

Manali, being the gateway into a lot of the northern Indian regions, has a fair Tibetan influence. The area’s streams and rivers that start in the mountains are home to the Himalayan trout as well, so we planned to get ourselves a sampling of both when we went to Chopsticks in the main market area of town.

Sadly, it was a mixed experience. While the mutton momos (top left) were hearty, warming and tasty, the Thupka (bottom left) and Themthuk (bottom right) were mediocre. I would suggest having the latter two here only if you are not traveling closer to Tibet during your trip. The trout (top right) was served whole, fried and battered. I actually thought the trout had a very delicate, almost sweet, flavor which I quite enjoyed. The batter, however, overpowered this flavor, so I would recommend trying a trout preparation that doesn’t have a batter – like pan-fried, or steamed.

Gezmo’s and Chopsticks in Leh

I was, quite frankly, amazed at how many different kinds of foods are available in Leh. Outside of the expected Wazwan, Tibetan and Generic Indian restaurants, I came across Thai, Chinese, Israeli and Italian cuisines among others. I had some Wazwan food here, but the places I tried were so-so. There were a couple of places that stood out, however.

Gezmo’s is a German Bakery style restaurant in Leh. We had a few different foods in our group here, including Israeli Lafa (which, as far as I could tell, was a really big, stuffed and tasty Shawarma), some pretty good Momos, and a really good chocolate cake. What stood out as the most unique things I ate here, however, was the Yak cheese.

Now, what you should probably know about Yak cheese is, atleast the way they serve it in and around Leh, that it is very dry. So a small bite is no problem, but if you shove a piece of cheese down in one bite, it’ll dry your mouth and generally make you uncomfortable before you drink some water. Its for the same reason that it isn’t a great idea to put it on a pizza the way you’d put mozzarella, in my opinion. Still, tried something new and enjoyed the Yak cheese even though it could be a bit dry and overpowering.

Chopsticks Noodle Bar, not related to the one in Manali, was a very pleasant surprise for us. They had a really nice outdoor seating area which was perfect for a lunch under the sun. While all the food there tasted good, I was surprised and impressed with the Nasi Goreng, and Katsu Curry that stayed true to their originals while they are often changed beyond recognition in India. The mint cooler was legitimately refreshing,  and the non vegetarian appetizer platter (chicken satay, chicken spring rolls and fried wontons) hit the spot. I applaud the restaurant for flaunting something different like chocolate chili spring rolls, but I personally wish there was more than a very faint chili flavor to them.

Kashmiri Wazwan

Wazwan is the traditional food of the Kashmir region, and is known for being extremely spicy. Traditionally, the gravies use cooked chilli peppers as a base, seeds and all – as opposed to most Indian curries that come from tomatoes, onions, or both.  Wazwan centers around mutton or chicken and is often slow cooked the day before. Be careful where you choose to have Wazwan cuisine, however, because today most places uses generic gravies, a lot of red food color, and even pre-cook some food ahead of time – simply adding the meats to the curry just before serving. Look out for the so-called ‘Kashmiri Naan’ as well, since while Kashmir is known for its dry fruits, and nuts, they are not traditionally put on the breads that accompany local meals.

I’d have to say I only had one real experience with Kashimiri Wazawan, on account of most places we went to very obviously doing one or more of the things I suggested you look out for in the previous paragraph. This experience was at Mughal Darbar in Srinagar.

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A Wazwan Platter

Now I know a lot is going on in the picture above, but doesn’t it look amazing? This is a good example of what you should expect from Wazwan (even if you are able to order each of these dishes separately).

Let’s break it down. At about 3 o’clock on that platter is a kebab shaped like a hollow tube. These essentially taste and look like Sheekh Kebabs, even though they aren’t always called that. At about 5 o’clock is Waza kokur, or Wazwan chicken, which was good in its own right (to be honest, I focused on the mutton!) At 6 o’clock are my two favorite dishes – Tabak Maaz and Maithi Maaz – both preparations of lamb ribs that had the meat literally sliding off the bone. Finally at around 8 o’clock are mutton Lahabi Kebabs, which are a flattened mutton preparation.

Did I say finally as in, ‘That’s it?’ what I meant is there were also three curry dishes.

First from the left is chicken Rogan Josh (for non-mutton eaters in the group), mutton Rogan Josh, and Gushtaba, which is meatballs in a yogurt based gravy. Note that Rista, another popular Wazwan dish, has similar meatballs in a spicy red gravy.

Kashmiri Wazwan doesn’t traditionally have anything too elaborate for dessert, and we were told that simple fruit is often eaten after the meal.

 

Winterfell Cafe

Who knew that the Indian north would also host a cafe dedicated to the Westerosi north?

I discovered Winterfell Cafe completely by accident when we rode by it on the way to our hotel. Of course, as an avid fan of Game of Thrones, I made sure to give myself some time to check it out. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much out of the place – maybe someone had just put on a few pieces of GoT themed art to attract tourists. I further prepared myself for a disappointment when I had to go up a old, slightly shady feeling flight of stairs to get into the cafe, which was a level above the ground.

Boy was I wrong.

Not only was the cafe a great place for any fan to visit – it had amazing decor with a replica Iron Throne – but it also had some pretty good food!

I had the cottage cheese and American corn sandwich and the chicken mushroom pot pie to eat, and they even had some halfway good coffee (which may or may not actually have been out of a press). The food was Indianized in its flavors, but simple and well made. The coffee cup and sugar it came with even had a nice little logo on them. Well done!

So what food do you most look forward to trying out when you have your own adventure to the area? Seems the most appetizing?

Keep an eye out for my blog post detailing the ride itself, coming soon!

 

2 thoughts

  1. Wow Adit, the vivid description of your adventure & cuisines you tried during your motor bike trip through the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir would tempt anyone to travel through this region. Foodie experiences, sometimes pristine – sometimes rugged scenery, bonding with dad & much much more….👌

    Like

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