“Bhaiya, ek minute”, I stopped the cab we were driving in on seeing the first sight of farming. We had already drove past Losar and Chicham village which had Barley swaying in the wind and white flowers of peas plant gleaming in the sun. That means agenda of the trip is to munch on fresh peas or have some yummy mutter paneer. My list of must have food at Spiti valley was piling up in my head as we passed through the various farms. But the first sight of farming using Yaks was close to Kibber. A small piece of land was being ploughed by a family. I had seen yaks before while driving across Bhutan and for some reason it didn’t occur to me that the same has to be expected in the high altitude Spiti valley. With hair partially trimmed down for the heat, he was just going in rounds, dragging the plough along and swaying his tail. While I stopped the vehicle to take a picture, the lady in the farm came running towards us. She did not hesitate to ask for a drop till Kibber and neither did we hesitate to give her one.
“What are you sowing?”, I asked..
“Peas.. This time less snowfall no, so no water for us. And with this, peas is all we get.” She replied and went on in a chatty Kathy mode, speaking in Hindi mixed with Spiti language with my cab driver. I stopped them in between; for one, I cannot follow that fast a Hindi and two, it did not even sound like Hindi. My cab driver and she laughed at me and sweared they conversed only in Hindi. Anyways, I once again drew her attention to me and tried to indulge in conversation. She added they farm during the summer and the crop is predominantly only for the family and not for sale. That is how most of the villages in Spiti work. And the repetitive hearing of “Is saal barf kam padi hai na” (it snowed less this time no), was not very reassuring. I couldn’t get much out of her about what to eat in Spiti valley though. She was in her own mind worried about reaching home and chatting with the driver. All I could get was, “we eat what we eat everyday” 🙂 But one thing was clear, with the abundance of barley farms swaying in the wind, barley must be the staple food.
Kibber is a small village. The moment I settled into the small room of our guest house with walls made of mud, chillness caught on to me and I was looking for something hot. The helper boy came up to check on us for coffee or tea and seizing the moment, I quickly asked for the ginger lemon tea. Kibber is at a higher altitude than Kaza, so coming in to Kibber on the very first day was not a very good idea. I was trying hard to breathe and I could feel my heart somewhere up the throat. I had read ginger lemon tea is good for it and so I got one. What came in was ginger lemon honey water. This new way of preparation is something that I have kind of hooked on to now. A glass of hot water with shards of ginger shaved in and a perfect half of lemon squeezed in with thick sweetish honey settled down at the bottom of the cup. Shaving in the ginger gave it the perfect flavour and not to strong a dose of ginger. I gulped it down and went down to get another hot cup of the ginger lemon water which to me tasted like nectar. My friend on the other hand ordered tea and was sure it was made of yak milk and totally disliked it. As the night fell and we settled for dinner, I took a look at the menu and then asked the guy serving food if there is anything specific to the spiti region. We managed to find only a guest house as homestays were not available and so was the fancy menu. It was the first day at Spiti Valley and I sincerely wished we could get something different to eat. He gave the most sassiest reply, “Oh here you get only strange food. Not what we eat!” 🙁 . So we had phulka or tawa roti with mutter paneer. Unfortunately the peas in the mutter paneer was not fresh either. We gobbled a plateful of momos and I had my sweet nectar again.
The next day the sun rose up pretty early but the chill in the air had not yet settled. The yaks and sheeps were on their way to grazing and the clinking sound from their bells filled up the air. Toast and eggs were ready for breakfast. I looked at the baiya longingly for something else and he popped the question, “Namak chai?” Yassss.. Bring it please. What he meant and brought was the butter tea. And it has been a while since I have had one. So I was happy to order one. Butter tea is common in the Himalayas. Butter tea is made by adding tea leaves to boiling water, the brew is then added to a churning cylinder along with yak butter, salt and water. So the yak butter makes it pretty thick in consistency and that kind of fat is required for the cold climate to keep you warm and keeping your lips from getting chapped. They call it butter tea, cha, namak cha and the taste kind of differs from place to place. The one that was served was not properly churned as I could pretty much feel the yak butter in bits and pieces. Maybe they did not have the churning cylinder. Those can be found even in some of the souvenir shops.
While we were just about to leave, I asked the guest house manager as where will we get to eat a proper Spitian Thali. Thali or full meals of a place is like getting to sample many traditional food in one plate and I always look forward to it. He said for sure I will get it at an Organic cafe in Komic, the highest motorable village in Asia. We were heading there for the day and I was looking forward to it. I gave a last glimpse at the yaks that were grazing by and got reminded of the first time I had tried yak cheese. It was inedible for me. It was like a piece of stone that you should just keep chewing like time pass. But here, they also shave into thin slices and soak it in water and have them. I was later talking to Shilpy Jain, a fellow traveller and blogger, she pointed me to some interesting food she had during her stay at homestays in Spiti. One such was Quo. Quo is made of cubed barley flour, potatoes and Yak cheese. Along with other spices, it makes as a quick dinner or lunch savoury dish. Yak cheese is used in many such ways.
Fun fact: Yak cheese is not supposed to be called yak cheese. Because Yak is the male and it is not the one providing milk and we don’t make cheese out of it. Chhuru is the what the females are called and so locally its called chhurpi aka chhuru cheese.
I was looking forward to savouring some yummy lunch but then there was surprise midway. On our way to Komic the plan was to stop at the iconic Key Monastery aka Kye Gompa. Kye is the most sort after and pictured monastery at Spiti, one of the biggest in Spiti too. Walking up to the doors of the monastery I could hear the prayers being chanted. I sat down in the prayer hall listening and watching to rhythm of the instruments. A short break from the prayer and the thick Spitian bread was being served to the monks. It is one of the simple and humble breakfast that you can see in the mountains. It is again made of barley and looks like a thick round naan, commonly called as Tibetan bread. I don’t have a picture because photography is not allowed inside the monastery and they were in the middle of praying. Once everyone were ready with their bread, a potful of hot butter tea came in. Can’t get anymore filling on the tummy. Bowls came out and as the monks held out the bowl, steaming hot butter tea filled the bowl to the brim. A piece of bread torn up, dunked into the tea, scoop out the butter along and savour the simple yet subtle flavours of it. Yup! I was drooling in the prayer hall inside a monastery 😀 Walking around the monastery, we landed in the kitchen of the monastery. Two huge cylindrical vessels were sitting on the kitchen top with steam popping out. I sheepishly said Julley to the monk who in turn told to help myself with some tea. My big eyes shrunk when what I poured out was not butter tea but looked like some kind of green tea. I had the cup in my hand and with utter nonchalance, I kept conversing with the monk who spoke about the history of Kye Gompa and the upcoming festival. When he urged me to have the tea before it gets cold that is when I had a sip! It was not the simple green tea. It was a herbal tea. “What does it have?” I went wide eyed and the monk chuckled at my surprised look. “It has so many things!”, he made the expression of guarding a top secret and went on with his work. “No, tell me!”, was it camphor, was it mint, what was it that was giving me such a high, I just couldn’t decode it. He was busy making perfect shapes of something out of a dough of something for the prayer. Yeah, that sentence didn’t make much sense but google is not helping me here either. He said he was making Yeghu, don’t even know if it is edible or not. I was around for some more time and kept chit chatting just to pour myself another cup of herbal tea.
It was past one and walking around Langza and Hikkim had drained my energy and the hunger pangs had set in. I saw one small cafe in front of the famous post office at Hikkim, with lot of different dish names written on it. But my mind was set on Spiti thaali that I did not want to fill my tummy with anything else. We headed straight to the Spiti Organic Kitchen sitting top of the highest motorable village in Asia, Komic Village. Their menu was pretty interesting. They had everything from seabuckthorn tea, rhubarb tea, spiti sandwich, thukpa, and then an entire sheet that read Spiti Shahi Thali. The Spiti meals was a plateful of yummy food that had, stuff Spitian bread, Barley veg salad, Rice, Butter Channa dal, Barley kheer with dry fruits. I mean whatever sounds exotic in the menu card, you can ditch all of that and get this plate.. It was tough to finish and it was one of the unforgettable best meals I had in Spiti! The Spiti sandwich that others were having around was totally different from the stuffed Spiti bread that was on my plate and the Stuffed Spiti bread wins hands down. It had a creamy filling of cottage cheese with potatoes. And that was more than enough to fill my stomach. And then was the rice with rich dal, the channa dal was just cooked enough to give a crunchy texture, slightly salty and loaded with butter. And Barley kheer, OMG! I had reserved it for the end of meal and finished my meal with this creamy kheer with cooked barley and sweet raisins.
The Seabuckthorn tea caught my attention big time. Once in Kibber where I decided to try Namak tea instead and it was available in Komic too but I had no space in my tummy to try after the meal. So when I was curious about it and was looking up online, Meghana Sanka, a fellow traveler shared her experience of having Seabuckthorn tea at Cafe Sol, Kaza. In her words, “The mention of Seabuckthorn caught my attention. Curious, I asked them what it was. They told me it was a herb/plant native to Spiti with great health benefits. So, I ordered and I least expected it to be orange. Orange – a delightful cheerful orangy tea. Very soothing, very relaxing. After that, no matter where I went in Spiti, I would order Seabuckthorn tea. I crave for it, but I wait my time to go back when I can relish it in its own land.” Her travel stories can be found at MegsOnTheRoad
The other common Tibetan dish that you usually find even in restaurants of urban cities is Thukpa. We were at Pin valley and it was cold even for the afternoon sun. The green farms were such a pleasant sight and we sat at the famous Tara guest house overlooking the farms to have a good meal. For some reason Mudh village of Pin valley was obsessed with chocolate and Nutella. They had chocolate roti, chocolate momos, nutella pancakes, hot chocoloate. Every cafe wall boasted of having something out of chocolate. But the weather demanded for some hot soup. What caught my attention was Thenthuk. I have not heard of it and so I asked for Thenthuk. Apparently it is same like Thukpa, but it is hand pulled noodles with some egg drop and slightly more fancy. The boy who took the order said, it will take time, it will take half an hour, it will take lot of time. He kept on giving reasons as why I should order something else. But I have all the time in the world and I wanted to try something new so I said I can wait. He went in and came out with, “we have ran out of thenthuk, order something else!” :/ Well, he was not in the mood to make me thenthuk and so I settled for Thukpa. Thukpa is nothing but noodle soup. But the noodle is usually handmade in this part of the country, so it is thicker. The weather was making my soup cold very quickly and I gobbled it up as quickly as possible.
As the night fell we would usually sit around the common area of the homestay and catch up with stories or watch football match as it was the season or watch movie and all this over beer or rum or ginger lemon tea. And on one such day my friend bought a snack that was made of peas. Well he didn’t stop to get the name and I was happy to munch on it and empty the packet before I could ask anyone around what it is 😀 It was more like Chakli/murukku with probably peas soaked, ground into a paste and added to it. But it was much softer and crumbly in texture when you bite into it than the chakli. It’s a poor photo pardon me 😀 No time to decorate it and take picture cos it tends to get cold then, weather is like that. We got it from Kaza market. While munching on it there was something else my eyes were setting on..
So the previous evening when I was sipping on tea and writing in my diary, the kids of the homestay ran in a hundred times to say “Julley” to the new lady in their house, that’s of course me 🙂 And my eyes were set on what they were holding in their hand. It was a white ball like thing and they kept munching on it. The kids were running around, it was tough to get information out of them and so when the lady of the house arrived later in the night, my first question was, “Your children were eating something, what were they eating??” My cab driver giggled at this question cos all he has been hearing from me is, “what is this? where will we get food? what do you eat?” 😀 So what they were having is called Tingmo, pronounced as Theemo. It is a mixture of maida aka all purpose flour, wheat flour together and steamed up. Tasted more like the outer covering of a Modak or Momo. It is best had with some curry or pickle. My cab driver got excited with our enthusiasm that he decided to cook Himachali Mutton gravy for us. So we bought mutton and he got busy hand pounding masala, it was so much fun to keep tasting the curry and the meat as it was getting prepared just like at home. So the night was all about Tingmo and Himachal Mutton Curry. Slurping, finger licking and cleaning up the plate 😀
This post has already become super long one. But I really really wanna talk about another interesting dish that Shilpy Jain shared with me. It is called Churam. Churam is made out of black tea cooked along with barley flour, yak cheese, sugar and butter. It sounds like a dessert to me and this is one unique sweet dish that am hearing from the region. However this is had as a breakfast. The yak cheese along with barley flour and tea makes it rich and high in energy to start your day. She had this at a homestay in Demul. Demul is a remote village in Spiti that people trek to and so did Shilpy, she explored almost all the villages of Spiti by trekking. You can find her travel stories at The Travel Social
I did not have Chang made of Barley this time. For some reason it did not strike me to look for arrack or chang. They are local home made alcoholic drinks. May be beer being cheap got me carried away 😛 Well those are the food that I enjoyed having during my Spiti sojourn and I wish you get to have these food at Spiti valley too. Happy eating 🙂