Lost & Found: Chefs Kunzes Angmo And Vanika Choudhry On Preserving The Culinary Heritage Of Ladakh

Ladakh

While Ladakh still remains a popular destination on every traveller’s bucket list, like most places- the spots people choose to frequent the places well-clicked- the lake or the where the Bollywood film 3 Idiots was shot. Ask a layman what food the locals in Ladakh consume and they’re likely to say momos and thukpas. “Momos are Tibetan in origin. People weren’t cooking momos at home before the 1970s. There were no steamers except in a few families. And thukpa is as generic a word as dal,” shares chef Kunzes Angmo. It is the very bastardisation of Ladakhi food and culture that led Kunzes to launch Artisanal Alchemy–a series of curated experiential Ladakhi lunches with a narrative that foregrounds Ladakhi food history, culture and identity.

Kunzes Angmo
Kunzes Angmo

While the chef conducts curated, bespoke lunches only 10 days a month in Ladakh, she is breaking that cycle as she introduces Ladakhi cuisine to Mumbai with an aim to educate conscious diners about the forgotten culinary culture of Ladakh. Kunzes collaborates with chef Vanika Choudhry (with Kashmiri roots) of Sequel and Noon for a rare dining experience with a menu built around house-made ferments, foraged Himalayan produce, and Kunzes’ remarkable repertoire of Ladakhi dishes at Noon, BKC.

In our ongoing series of Lost & Found, we have an in-depth chat with chefs Kunzes and Vanika about this collab on this four-day pop-up, their efforts to revive the lost culinary culture of Ladakh and preserve its age old recipes and traditional dishes, their common ideologies on food, and more. 

A Shared Inclination   

Kunzes and Vanika’s inclination towards the culinary scene came from the same purpose–the need for nutritious food. 

Born in Srinagar, Kunzes only moved to Ladakh after her marriage. Her in-laws are in the field of hospitality. But that never interested her. Food did, but she was a fussy eater. “I suppose that meant trying new things and, especially after becoming a mother, wanting to give your child only the greatest and purest foods. That led me to food in general—not just Ladakhi food,” she shares. “After my son was born, I spent most of the year in a village in Nubra Valley because we wanted to raise and expose him to rural life, and teach him how to live simply till of course you had to get serious about education. However, when you live in a remote area and have access to electricity for two and a half to three hours, refrigeration is not an option. And we spent about 9-10 months a year there. Therefore, I turned to the wisdom of my ancestors on what to feed my family. And that is what made me turn to Ladakhi food and inspired me to focus on studying the staple diet of Ladakh, and learn about it from people there,” she adds. 

For Vanika, it was her bout of recurring allergies which she encountered after eating out. Having to rely on an EpiPen every time she broke into an allergic reaction wasn’t the lifestyle she wanted.  “I wanted to get rid of the EpiPen. That’s why I started paying attention to how I was raised. I’m not from a city. I grew up in Kashmir and the food that we eat there is very different from the food eaten in the big cities. Seasons defined our cuisines and I was miles away from that kind of an existence. This was a wake-up call,” she shares. And it was her search for nutritious food that led to Sequel, which is all about nourishing, wholesome food.

Her recent restaurant Noon is just an extension of this philosophy. And the idea came about four years back when she found out about her pregnancy. “I wanted to celebrate the moment and I think nature has a way of connecting us back to our roots through different episodes and circumstances. At that moment, all I wanted was to have Gucchi Pulao with a glass of black carrot kanji my nani used to make. Black carrots are indigenous to Kashmir and come winter, she would put them in an earthen pot with mustard and heirloom spices and fermented them for 7-10 days in the sun outside. And that’s really the only thing I wanted to sip on. And it was a calling to go back to my roots. And now that you’ve said it’s about lost and found, I think in that moment, I found myself, and that’s where the idea of Noon came into being,” Vanika recalls. 

The Impetus 

Kunzes developed a keen interest in finding out more about the produce grown in Ladakh as her in-laws had a lot of connections with land and people. Asking questions, observing the use of various ingredients and experimenting with it helped Kunzes get a deeper understanding of the native food available there. “As someone who has been outside all their lives, you observe certain things a lot more than what someone who has lived in a village all their lives would probably take for granted. We have a diverse range of exotic herbs; for instance, summer savory, so-called continental herbs that are local ingredients there. A local person might be using it in just 2-3 dishes but because I’ve lived out of Ladakh and have used it in other things and tried it before, you have a better understanding of alternative applications,” Kunzes says. 

And then arose a need of documenting it as there’s not much information around it. “Food is the last thing you think about documenting. You take it for granted. But if you just attempt to notice it, every spot on your plate is essentially your history; it tells you about what happened before you and why you’ve come to consume it. That woke me up to the urgency to document Ladakhi food,” she adds. 

Her attempt to express and write about Ladakhi food began with the bastardisation of Ladakh cuisine. Many tourists still believe that momos and thukpa are Ladakhi food, which is untrue. Moreover, in order to appeal to the tourist version of what you know, local establishments are selling what people want to eat, which is not traditional. Even if you’re selling Tibetan momos don’t put masala in it, make it true to what it is,” she urges. 

Noon’s Philosophy 

Although Vanika’s roots are from Kashmir, Noon’s primary focus is ingredients. “We’ve been working with our farm partners in Ladakh over the last two years, whether it’s things that are cultivated there, that are indigenous to the region, or foraged there, and that’s why we refrain from using a certain cuisine. We don’t just do Kashmiri food, it’s very ingredient-driven, it’s about understanding these ingredients, the history of food in these specific regions, and then translating them for a modern evolved palate,“ Vanika says.

The aim is to familiarise the diners about indigenous ingredients from Ladakh, which don’t make it to the mainstream menus. “We’ve incorporated summer savoury in the pop-up menu. It is so sought after in French cuisine, but how many people know that it’s actually native to Ladakh. Another example is black buckwheat, which is the best pseudo-cereal you can have. It’s become a big rage in California and other parts but I grew up eating buckwheat in the fasting periods. The entire Himalayan belt has always eaten it. So buckwheat is not an ingredient that’s new to me. I remember all through the fasting periods since I was a kid, my mother and grandmother only ate Kuttu (black buckwheat). Then we also used water chestnut a lot, which is another ingredient that you don’t see in menus. It was eaten as a form of a roti with yoghurt, or with potatoes, or with an anardaana chutney which is actually hand-pound for 45 minutes for the right consistency in a mortar and pestle. These ingredients are almost lost and the whole genesis was to showcase this through our menu,” Vanika adds.

Aligned Vision

It was at one of Kunzes’ lunches where Vanika met her and bonded over their aligned food philosophies. Both the chefs are passionate about conserving their culinary heritage and educate people about it through their food. For the Artisanal Alchemy x Noon Pop Up, both chefs have used ingredients and cooking methods that their mothers and grandmothers made use of.   

“When I ate at Artisanal Alchemy, I was just completely blown away because the food comes with the narrative of exactly what we do at Noon. I loved how Kunzes had woven this whole experience together with the right storytelling of what has influenced food at what time and how it’s travelled through different regions. And you don’t see that in any restaurant. It made me wonder why there are not more places like this where they’re actually preserving this culinary tradition. On asking the Ladakhi farmers what they eat, very rarely they get the chance to eat Khambir, which is a Ladakhi sourdough with butter for breakfast, but because they are short-pressed for time, they’re just eating something else. And instead of having Chhutagi for dinner, they’re switching to dal-roti-sabzi. While there is nothing wrong with that, it’s not Ladakhi food. They have an abundance of amazing biodiversity around them. I don’t see even in the homes using all these foraged ingredients. And I thought it was almost at the brink of erosion before I met somebody who was actually preserving all of this. And that’s when we struck a conversation about a pop-up in May,” Vanika adds. It’s important to understand that we cannot look at food in a progressive way, unless we understand the history, even if it is translated for an evolved modern palate.

Reviving & Retaining

Held from November 10-13, the Artisanal Alchemy x Noon menu transports you to Ladakh with not just what’s on your plate but also with Kunzes and Vanika explaining every dish with so much detail. You’ll come out as a conscious diner, appreciating the culture even more. 

The very first dish, Zathuk (a meaty soup) and Tsong Thalhrak (a type of bread), breaks the misconception of Ladakh being known just for noodle soups or thukpas with noodles. There are over 30 varieties of thukpa and this soup is just one of them. The Black Buckwheat Tartlet brings attention to the ingredient in a quirky way while also focussing on a type of sun-dried cheese called churpey used in the dish. Nolen Gur Garum Tomatoes are sun-dried tomatoes, again highlighting the technique. It is paired with a type of Ladakhi biscuit (Khura) which is super addictive–trust me, you’ll want more. 

Ladakh
Nolen Gur Garum Tomatoes | Khura, Kosnyot | Green Garlic Butter

Another Ladakhi delicacy you’ll get to taste is Chhutagi–a soup full of vegetables and handmade wheat pasta. Fun fact: locals in Ladakh are known for making al dente pasta like the Italians but the technique is different. Instead of cooking the pasta separately and then putting it in the broth, Ladakhis cook the pasta directly in the broth. Barley is another staple grain grown in Ladakh and I loved its use as a crumble paired with the Dark chocolate mousse. And of course, the very comforting Yarkhandi Plou is the highlight in the pop up.

Ladakh
Sugu- Chhutagi | Sundried Turnip | Smoked Green Garlic Oil

The Way Forward

The upcoming pop-up is just one step in familiarising people with Ladakhi food. Chef Kunzes will continue with her monthly lunches in Ladakh as well as share information of the traditional dishes from the region on social media. Vanika, on the other hand is busy documenting all findings in her upcoming book, Preserve which is all about preserving these ancient Indian culinary traditions, primarily focused on J&K, Maharashtra, and the work that she’s been doing with the farmers in Ladakh.

The Noon x Artisanal Alchemy Pop Up at Noon, BKC is from November 10-13

Time: 7 pm onwards

10-course menu priced at INR 5,000 plus taxes

For reservations, contact: 7506677720

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