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Taste exchange: from Ladakh to South India

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How a restaurateur from Ladakh is using a trip across South India to expand her horizons

Greens, chives and cumin that grow wild in the mountains are the best, and “you can’t grow them in your kitchen garden, it won’t taste as nice”, emphasises Nilza Angmo, the Ladakh-based restaurateur, who is currently on a three-city tour of South India.

Angmo’s palate reflects that of the region: dominated by “green leafies”, especially spinach, of the arid, mountainous variety, that are characterised by strong flavours.

In Chennai for a short visit, Angmo has been interacting with chefs, both sampling the cuisine of the city and offering her own line of expertise, as an exercise in broadening horizons and putting the somewhat lesser-known palate of her region on the culinary map. Chennai is one leg of the Ladakhi food festival, titled Project Apricot Blossom, that she has embarked upon, with Hyderabad and Bengaluru comprising the rest.

Angmo’s customers back home may well find some Chennai-inspired adornments to her servings

Angmo’s strong emphasis for wild plants is a surprising break from her otherwise staid and mild demeanour. But her passion makes sense, considering the effort she needs to put in, to ensure a steady supply of raw material across the year.

“We have to collect them in the summertime,” she says, “We make small cakes out of it and dry them, to be used for the rest of the year.”

Having said that, there are some plants that she prefers to grow herself, for her restaurant Alchi Kitchen, in the small Ladakhi monastery town of the same name. Her apricots, cauliflowers and cabbage are all grown organically in her own orchard. “We also have turnip, radish, carrot… all the roots. And vegetables that don’t grow naturally in Ladakh, like brinjal, we don’t use,” she says. Some of her neighbours have greenhouses, she says, that ensures cultivation of at least green leafy vegetables all year round.

Alchi Kitchen sees a steady flow of foreign visitors in season, and because the town isn’t a bustling tourist destination like Leh, things are leisurely enough to allow for some warm and precious culinary interactions between the chef and her guests. Angmo’s customers often want to learn how to cook her preparations, and in turn, teach her some family recipes of their own, not unlike her current experience with chefs and enthusiasts in Chennai.

Enriching as these experiences are, the recipes closest to Angmo’s heart are her grandmother’s. “She used to make a pasta-like dish, in milk sauce,” recalls Angmo, “She used to love that, cooking it in a stone pot, the milk sauce seasoned with some black pepper and palak. She used to keep it cooking for a little bit more, so that the pasta would stick to the bottom of the pot. It lent it a caramelised flavour and she loved it.”

The caramelised taste and the flavour of the stone pot and wooden chulha has stayed with Angmo ever since, and she occasionally recreates it with her family, amid the hustle and bustle of the restaurant. “We sometimes light the fire with cow dung, and make it,” she smiles.

Angmo is open to experimentation, and her customers back home may well find some Chennai-inspired adornments to her servings once she’s back. “Some chutneys here — the coconut and brinjal ones — would go very well with the dishes I make,” she says.

Her adventurous plans aren’t restricted just to her recipes, however. She plans to expand her operations as well. She wants to introduce the cuisines she’s learnt on her trip — especially Hyderabadi biryani and rasam — to her customers in Alchi once in a while, besides setting up branches in some other parts of Ladakh.

So if you ever travel to the northern tip of the country, and are surprised by a hint of Chennai on your plate, you’ll know whom to thank.

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