Food and Beverages To Try While Visiting Ladakh
Ladakhi food is hard to find! Unfortunately mass tourism has given undue advantage to food from the north of India and pushed home cooked recipes off the restaurant menus! But dive deeper and you will find little gems which serve unpretentious, simple and rustic food that people eat. Again the food differs quite a bit from one region to another and between Buddhists and Muslims, and there is quite a bit to be explored and enjoyed.
Ladakhi food has much in common with Tibetan food, the most prominent foods being thukpa (noodle soup) and tsampa, known in Ladakhi as ngampe (roasted barley flour). Edible without cooking, tsampa makes useful trekking food. Strictly Ladakhi dishes include skyu and chutagi, both heavy and rich soup pasta dishes. As in other parts of Central Asia, tea in Ladakh is traditionally made with strong green tea, butter, and salt and called gur gur chai. Most of the surplus barley that is produced is fermented into chang, an alcoholic beverage drunk especially on festive occasions.
Below are some of the common and famous Ladakhi food we tried through our travel in Ladakh. Based on our experience with food in Ladakh these are the food to try in Ladakh.
A bowl of freshly made chutagi
Chutagi is made from simple and flavourful ingredients
This classic and traditional Ladakhi dish is a wholesome and nutritious dish which literally translates to water-bread where Chu in Ladakhi means water and Tagi stands for bread. Chutagi is the Ladakhi version of pasta soup where the pastas are made from wholewheat flour dough. The dough is first rolled flat and then cut into circular shape. These circles are then fold into the shape of bowtie and cooked in a flavourful vegetable broth. Vegetables used in making chutagi are mostly seasonal vegetables that are available in the high regions of Ladakh like potatoes, radish, carrots, beans and local leafy vegetables. The broth is first made by boiling all vegetables in it and wholewheat pasta are then added towards the end. Chutagi is a filling dish which is suits well with the cold and harsh winter of the region. There is a meat version of chutagi where lamb or yak meat gets added into the broth.
Nothing is more desirable then a bowl of thukpa in cold wintery night in Ladakh
There is nothing more desirable than a warm bowl of thukpa during cold nights in the mountains of Ladakh. Thupka originated in Tibet, and is a staple and most consumed dish in Ladakh and other parts of the Himalayan range. Thukpa is essentially a soup noodle – the noodle is made from wholewheat or barley flour and the soup is light flavourful clear vegetable broth made using garlic, onion and other local vegetables. Thukpa can be served as a vegetarian dish or as a non-vegetarian where chicken or minced yak or lamb meat gets added. The secret of a good thukpa lies in the quality and flavour of the broth.
A wholesome dish - Skyu
Skyu is a traditional Ladakhi dish and is very similar to chutagi being a pasta soup which is wholesome and packed with nutrients. But unlike chutagi, in skyu the shape of pasta looks similar to a small ear! The pasta is made from the wheat or barley flour dough where small balls of the dough are kneaded into small flattened ear shaped pasta. The vegetables used in skyu are mainly root vegetables like potatoes, turnips and carrots, though greens like peas and spinach are also used. Similar to chutagi, the vegetable broth for Skyu is prepared by boiling the vegetables and then pasta gets added into it. In many parts of Ladakh, yak or goat milk is added to finish the dish. Adding the milk adds another layer and elevates the taste. The dish is often called as oma-skyu when milk is added, oma means milk in Ladakhi. The non-vegetarian version of skyu has mutton in the broth. Skyu is mainly preferred during the winter as it provides much needed energy and keeps the body warm during the winter nights.
Momo - the most popular food among tourists and travellers in Ladakh
Momos are extremely popular in Ladakh and other parts of Himalayan region stretching towards the hills of North-East of India. The popularity of this dish has made it a famous street food through the length and breadth of India. Essentially a dumpling, momo consists of a casing made from wheat flour dough which gets rolled into a very thin sheet and stuffed with vegetable or minced chicken or meat in a shape of crescent or half-moon. Once stuffed, the momo gets steamed in a special container called mokta. Vegetables commonly used in momo are finely chopped cabbages, carrots, potatoes, onions and other locally available vegetables. Best eaten hot, momos are served with a bowl of clear flavourful soup and a dipping sauce made from garlic, tomato and onions. Nothing beats eating a plate of freshly made steaming momos with a bowl of soup in the cold nights in Ladakh after all day of travelling through the mountains.
A piece of Khambir with a cup of Gur Gur chai
Khambir is a staple breakfast in the region of Ladakh. Made from fermented dough of whole wheat, khambir is brown in colour, round in shape, thick and dense. The bread is prepared by first baking it over a hot pan and then directly over fire. Khambir is enjoyed best when it is still warm and fresh with a cup of butter tea or gur gur chai. It can be eaten even after a week once made and is a popular and staple food among nomadic and semi-nomadic people of Ladakh.
Balti Dishes or Baltistani Cuisine:
Baltistani cuisine is very different from the rest of the Ladakh due to unique Balti culture and tradition which gets reflected though their food. The use of ingredients is also very different from the rest of Ladakh. In Balti cuisine, ingredients like buckwheat, walnut, mint, barley are extensively used. While visiting Turtuk we had the opportunity to try out some Balti dishes from a restaurant called Balti Kitchen. Some of the traditional Balti dishes we tried during our visit to Turtuk were:
Moskat - a traditional Balti dish
Moskat is a pancake made from buckwheat flour and served with walnut sauce. The sauce is thick in consistency and is made with crushed walnut paste, onion and herbs like mint. The pancake is made from a batter made by mixing the buckwheat flour with salt and water. While serving, the walnut sauce is poured over the pancakes.
Parku - a wholesome and heavy dish with nutty flavour
Parku is a pasta dish where the thumb shaped pasta gets mixed in a thick walnut sauce. The pastas are made by hand pressing small balls of dough made from barley. The walnut gets blended with water and few herbs like mint into a smooth paste and heated over fire to create the sauce. The pasta gets boiled separately in water and once soft, gets added to the sauce and mixed well before being served. Parku is a wholesome and heavy dish with nutty flavour. It’s helps to keep the body warm during the cold months.
Mamtu - similar to momos, belived to be originated in China
Essentially a dumpling, Mamtu is a traditional Balti dish and a staple food for the Balti people. Popular as a starter dish Mamtu is popular throughout the region of Baltistan and parts of central Asia. It is believed that Mamtu has its root in China where tradesman travelling on silk route used to carry this dumpling with them to be consumed en-route. The thin casing of Mamtu is made from the dough which is prepared by mixing flour and salt with water. The filling used in Mamtu can be either chopped mixed vegetables like potatoes, turnips, cabbages, onions or minced meat – either beef or mutton or a mixture of vegetable and meat. The ball or half-moon shaped Mamtu then gets steamed until soft and cooked through and served with a spicy sauce.
Gur Gur Chai or Butter Tea:
A cup of Gur Gur Chai is always refershing
Essential in everyday life like our cuppa of tea, as well as in festivals, social gatherings or simply to welcome guest to home, Gur Gur chai or butter tea is a traditional Tibetan beverage. This high caloric drink is widely consumed in Ladakh and in rest of the Himalayan region. Made from yak butter, salt, milk and tea leaf infused warm water, the butter tea (also known as Tsaza locally) made by churning all ingredients in a long cylindrical vessel until mixed well. The name of the drink came from this cylindrical vessel which is called gur gur. Though the other theory is the name gur gur came from the sound that is produced while churning all ingredients. This salty buttery drink helps to keep the body warm and hydrated in the Himalayan high-altitude region and helps with altitude sickness. Gur Gur chai is best paired with a piece of khambir at any time of the day, but specially for breakfast.
Sea Buckthorn Juice:
Sea Buckthorn berries which produces the refreshing juice
Also known as Leh berry, sea buckthorn is a thorny shrub that bears bunches of small size orange-coloured berries. Native to Himalayan region of India, sea buckthorn bushes can be seen almost in every valley in Ladakh which are in lower altitudes, like Nubra valley. We saw plenty of big bushes of sea buckthorns along the roads. During our visit in August the plants were bearing orange berries which we were told will be ready to be harvested during fall. The juice that comes out by squeezing these berries are also orange in colour and sweet in taste. Sea Buckthorn juice is a very popular drink in Ladakh and readily available in tetra packs in supermarkets. During our stay in Ladakh whenever we checked into hotel in Leh or in Nubra, we were welcomed with a glass of sea buckthorn juice.
A local delight - Apricot Jam
Apricot grows in abundance in Ladakh and was introduced from China and central Asia during the early 20th century. A number of apricot orchards can be found in the lower region of Ladakh like Nubra valley or Sham valley. Apart from jam, dried apricots and apricot juice are equally famous. The jam is prepared by traditional methods where the apricots are first sun dried and then boiled in water with sugar, lemon juice and spices to produce a think sweet and tangy jam. Traditionally, apricot jam is served with khambir for breakfast. In Leh, all supermarkets and grocery stores sell apricot jams in jars which is a popular souvenir among tourists to take back home.