Swirling the scarlet liquid on my tongue, I was unable to discern the flavour that otherwise seemed so familiar. I asked for a little more of the rhododendron juice to understand why it tasted so different; that’s when Chef Arjun Adhikari quipped: “You’re probably missing the sugar and additives.” This was a straight crush of the petals, raw and stark, with a hint of bitterness from a few stray stamens. It was only the first time in Garhwal that I met “buraansh juice” for what it was, and downed it in its element.
Up until now, it was synonymous with being the sweet summer cooler I grew up with in Kumaon. As I nursed the beverage, this quintessential welcome drink across Uttarakhand, at hotels and homes, and in juice shops and family reunions, brought Kumaon and Garhwal together in my glass. These eastern and western parts of Uttarakhand, which may differ in many ways, have a common cultural thread stringing the State together: its food, with flavours that taste of home.
At the turn of the century, it was a historic time for Uttarakhand which was declared a separate State in 2000. It was in the struggle for Statehood that I remember the two rival regions of Kumaon and Garhwal coming together for the first time.
The seed of rivalry first came from Uttarakhand’s folk anthem about a wild fruit—”Bedu pako”, a song about a wild fig ripening round the year that has been claimed by both parties since its creation in the 1950s.
The other major rivalry was sparked over the patron goddess of the State, Nanda Devi, the Goddess of Bliss. The State’s highest mountain (and the country’s second highest after Kanchendzonga) is also named after her. Several wars were fought between the two territories to lay claims to the goddess, and the deal was sealed by King Baaz Bahadur Chand’s conquest of the Goddess’s statue in Garhwal. The then king of Kumaon established it in the ancient capital of Almora at the beginning of the 18th century. The victory is celebrated in Kumaon till date in a rural festival called “khatarwa”, and the symbolic burning of the effigy of the king of Garhwal further increases the bitterness.
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It was only fitting for me, then, to connect the two rivals through the palate.
When Chef Adhikari offered me a tall glass of the customary rhododendron juice upon my arrival at Barefoot Bungalow in the aptly named hamlet of Buraanshkanda or “land of the rhododendron”, he promised it would be the most authentic version of the drink. The promise was kept even in the lunch spread he prepared—an introduction to Garhwali cuisine through which he also helped me draw comparisons to the food back home. I was surprised by his knowledge of both, but my curiosity was laid to rest when he told me that his roots were Kumaoni, although he had grown up in Garhwal.
I dug into “aloo jakhia”, a starter of boiled potatoes tossed with chopped onions, white sesame, and “jakhia” or wild mustard, served in a beautiful copper vessel. Vastly different from Kumaon’s favourite potato dish, which is fried, spicy, and laced with cumin, this version had a more zingy, salad-like appeal. The rye tempering in the raita was replaced with cumin, the horse gram lentils were a version cooked in an iron wok and tempered again with “jakhia” instead of “jumboo” or the high-altitude chives that Kumaon loves.
Everything was familiar, yet different. This was hands down the best and most complete “thali” I had had in Garhwal, for across small eateries and restaurants, the local food is usually limited to a “dish of the day”. The massive meal called for a nap in my cottage’s cosy room overlooking the Bandarpunch massif of the Garhwal Himalaya, and I sunk into the warmth of my electric blanket with a full belly and happy heart.
Close to Buraanshkhanda is the famous Surkanda Devi temple that I visited the next day, more for the hiking views than the pilgrimage. The climb tired me out enough to want a tea break, which led to the discovery of a tea shop selling “arsa”, a rice flour and jaggery sweet cooked on special occasions and sold at such shops as temple offerings. The deep fried, chewy sweet immediately hit home with the memory of my grandmother’s “rote”, its Kumaoni equivalent.
The next sweet affair I had was the “seviyan kheer” after a huge meal at my next stop near Rishikesh. While it’s not strictly a “pahadi”dish, the milky “seviyan” is one that has ubiquitously crept into dinners and dessert menus of Uttarakhand.
Ashraya on the Ganga is where the river meets the sky, and where I had seviyan in its “pahadi special” Kumaon-meets-Garhwal dinner. The wild farmstead with stellar views of the Ganga grows a lot of the food that it serves, and my request for a mountain meal was complied with, with a special “Kumaoni raita” thrown in. The spinach-laden version was green as opposed to the bright yellow, mustard-laden concoction the latter traditionally is, but paired with piping hot “madua chapatis” (local millet bread) and “bhaang chutney” (made from hemp seeds) that is unanimously loved by Kumaonis, Garhwalis, and visitors to this mountain State alike, it was the meal where I found truce on a plate.
On my way back, I made a last stop; no visit to Garhwal is complete without a pitstop at the iconic Kalsang cafe in Dehradun, home to one of the biggest Tibetan settlements in the region and which is now an essential part of the State’s identity. The bestselling dumplings aside, I tried some “laphing”, a Tibetan snack, with some soup this time, which became, literally, the last supper I signed off with. Neither Kumaoni nor Garhwali, the meal was Tibetan and yet a local one, a spirit that embodied my entire culinary trip.
Shikha Tripathi is a writer footloose in the Indian Himalaya, specialising in stories woven around nature, sustainable living, changing ecology, and the outdoors.