Lost & Found: Rushina Ghildiyal, Smita Deo And Nilza Wangmo On Reviving Regional Cuisines

regional cuisine

There’s nothing like a hot plate of bhaat and toor ki dal or some tangy fish curry with rice to come home to when you’ve had a long day. And that comes not from complicated processes of cooking, elaborate masala, or something exotic. It comes from simple ingredients that have been nurtured and grown with care from local homes. As you get adventurous with your gastronomical exploits, exploring the cuisines of the homeland is worth a shot. It’s time to return to your own roots, a ghar waapsi for your plate if you will. Through our series, Lost & Found, we speak to various culinary experts who are at the forefront of this culinary revolution, the one that involves reviving the regional cuisine of India. After deep-diving into Parsi, Bannuwali, Assamese and Malwa cuisine, the next stop on the revival train is food from Uttarakhand, Karwar and Ladakh. Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, Smita Deo and Nilza Wangmo shed light on the three respectively.

Nilza Wangmo Lonpo

Ladakh-based Nilza tries to generate awareness and interest in Ladakhi cuisine through her local restaurant Alchi Kitchen. “Ladakhi food was vanishing from the table. Since there was no outlet serving it, tourists were very much interested in eating our traditional meals. So we opened a restaurant where one can experience it. My grandma’s health and age (97) have also been an inspiration behind reviving the local cuisine–she only eats homegrown food,” Nilza says.

Prior to the Alchi Kitchen, Nilza ran a tourist camp in Kargil in 2008. A flash flood in 2010 washed out everything and she was left with nothing, not even a job. That’s when the idea of reviving Ladakhi food came about. “Since childhood, I was fond of cooking and later when I was looking to start a venture, it was my mom’s idea to start a restaurant where we can serve Ladakhi cuisine and that’s how the revival of our traditional cuisine began,” she says.

Regional Cuisine
Nilza Wangmo Lopo

Although her relatives had doubts about the business idea, Nilza stuck her ground. Today, Alchi Kitchen has gained popularity with recipes that come from Nilza’s grandma’s kitchen. And now, there’s also a branch in Leh. In fact, even Bollywood celebrities like Kriti Sanon, Rakul Preet Singh and Tiger Shroff have visited the restaurant.

 

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It’s interesting to note that Nilza runs an all-women kitchen. In 2019, she won the Nari Shakti Puraskar from the Government of India for promoting Ladakhi cuisine and sponsoring girls’ education.

Table Talk

Influenced by Central Asia, Ladakhi cuisine is roughly known to us from the 10th century. It predominantly consists of barley, meat, wheat, dairy products and wild plants. The extreme climate of Ladakh has influenced the traditional diet that includes mountain herbs and spices. Alchi Kitchen brings you a slice of Ladakh through its signature dishes–Stuffed Khambir (a local sourdough bread stuffed with chicken), Chutagi (Ladakhi hand-rolled wheat pasta with vegetables or mutton) and Yarkendi Pulao (a Central Asian style Pulao, but with apricot, mutton and almonds).

regional cuisine
Solja (Butter Tea)

The Impetus

Besides spreading knowledge about Ladakhi cuisine through Alchi Kitchen’s social media page, there’s a lot more that Nilza does to revive her culinary culture. “I also do cooking sessions weekly. During the off-season, I often do pop-ups in various other cities outside Ladakh,” she shares.

regional cuisine
Chutagi

Future Preps

Nilza plans to conduct cooking sessions for a larger group of people this year, and conduct Ladakhi food pop-ups at 5-star hotels in big cities.

Regional Cuisine
Yarkendi Pulao

Smita Deo

The culinary expert and home chef who loves to cook and feed is known for her book, Karwar to Kolhapur Via Mumbai–an anthology of her memories and recipes. Fortunately, Smita’s cookbook came at a time when people were on the hunt for something different in Indian cuisine, as opposed to the same old butter chicken or kaali dal. So when the book was introduced, it was accepted with open arms.

Regional cuisine
Smita Deo

The Ingredients

Currently residing in Mumbai, Smita constantly shares recipes of Karwari and Kohlapuri cuisine on social media. Her roots are from Karwar, Karnataka. “I come from a village, Awarsa that is 30 km away from Karwar,” Smita shares. Being a coastal village, fish, lentils and coconut curries are staples here. Numerous rivers flowing here give rise to fertile land, so rice paddies and gourds are grown in abundance. Maasli aambat (fish curry) and maasli tukdah (fried fish) with sheeth (rice) is a typical plate of Karwari-style food served in our home.

Regional Cuisine
Masli Ambat

In terms of flavours, it is simple and mild as everything is grown in the backyard kitchen. “You’ll find garden kitchens with wild creepers growing in Awarsa homes. We grow everything from bottle gourd and pumpkin to coconut, chicoo, mango, jackfruit and breadfruit trees. Our food is made from locally available ingredients served on a banana leaf. So a banana tree has to be there in your house,” Smita says.

Regional Cuisine

“Where I have grown up eating mild food, I got married into a cuisine that is absolutely robust to taste,” she adds while talking about how she knows so much about Kolhapuri food. “Kolhapur is a city in Maharashtra that is usually very hot, so the food is also hot. There’s a misconception that Kolhapuri cuisine is spicy but it’s actually hot (masaledaar). You have great soil and goats grazing there gives you fantastic mutton. The staples are bhakri made with naachni, jawari or bajra, and leafy veggies, besides mutton. Breakfast includes missal, vada pav, pohe or sabudana khichdi. And every meal is incomplete without thecha,” she adds.

regional cuisine

The Impetus

Smita has always been appreciated for the food she cooked, especially what she’s learned from her mother, grandmother, kaaki, and mother-in-law. People always want recipes for the dishes she cooked. There came a point in her life when she was dealing with a lot of mental health issues. And that’s when her husband coaxed her into writing a cookbook. “I had always thought about writing a cookbook, but I kept it aside thinking that I just don’t want to have a book with recipes and pictures,” she says.

“I didn’t want people to try my recipe just because it looks good in the photo but because they know the story behind it. I want them to know what Karwari and Kolhapuri food are about, and how I spent my childhood in the village, including how I experienced fresh food being cooked on a woodfire at my ancestral home. So I wanted to bring that nostalgic feeling. Karwari and Kolhapuri cuisine is unique, simple and delicious. Plus I wanted people to make people realise that Kolhapuri cuisine is not a spicy cuisine, everyone can have it and relish it. So that is one of the reasons I decided to write this book about my journey of food, and whatever I have learned,” Smita adds.

 

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Route To Revival

After writing her book, it didn’t stop there for Smita. “I used to curate a lot of pop-ups and have food festivals in quite a few of the five-stars across India, before the lockdown. There used to be a thali with Karwar and Kolhapuri cuisines. During the lockdown, I conducted a lot of talks on social media and demonstrated many recipes. I also did online cooking sessions to introduce people to recipes from Karnataka and Kohlapur,” she says.

regional cuisine

Upcoming Projects

Currently, the chef is working on her next book on Kolhapuri food. “Kolhapur is a princely state and has a lot of culinary heritage from the Shivaji dynasty. The Royals still live there. And now the cuisine of neighbouring states has affected Kolhapur as princesses who come from different regions to Kolhapur after marriage, make their cuisine a part of Kolhapuri food. So I’ll be documenting this–food culture in Kolhapur and what it’s famous for,” she concludes.

 

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Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal

In-depth conversations surrounding Garhwali or Uttrakhand food only began about 3-4 years ago in the culinary world. Prior to that, there was only one individual who actually put something out there with respect to the cuisine. Culinary chronicler and food consultant, Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, has been promoting Uttarakhand cuisine that she was introduced to, from her marriage into a Garhwali family. The food writer’s first documentation was on Garhwali food in April 2005. And from there began her culinary chronicles. Since then, she has been giving a voice to not just Uttarakhand food but every other Indian regional cuisine.

Curious Components

So what really made Rushina dive deep into Uttarakhand food? Put simply, it was curiosity. Even when she wrote her first essay on the cuisine, she had to rely on the information she got from her husband’s family as there was nothing available on the internet. She spoke to the women in the family to get a deeper perspective on the ingredients and cooking methods. “It’s only in recent years that people have picked up that baton and also because Uttarakhand became an independent state around the same time that I got married. It’s taken that long for the state to come into its own identity. Its cuisine is still forming. I think it’s only in the last few years that I’ve seen conversations happening around Garhwali or Uttarakhand food,” she adds.

Regional Cuisine
Garhwali Summer-Monsoon Cusp Thali

The Origins

For a cuisine that’s never been documented before, we were curious to find out how it actually formed. Rushina says, “Uttarakhand was both politically and geographically cut off for a very long time. It was part of Uttar Pradesh about 20 years ago. It was almost forgotten. And that’s why, you couldn’t access the cuisine. So, the cuisine has basically developed independently and people used what was locally available, whether it was the grains, legumes or spices. Nepali invasions and the Sikh community coming into power at some point in history also added to the food culture. There are two distinct branches of Uttarakhand food- Garhwal and Kumaon and both draw from local resources. Both have meat as we come from tribal origins, but we don’t have any elaborate choices. Our cuisine is really heavy on protein from plant-based sources.”

regional cuisine
Garhwali Til Chutney

Digging Deep

Rushina got into food blogging and started her own consulting company, wherein she advised various F&B services. She ran her kitchen studio but shut it down in December 2019. She also worked with companies that spread awareness about Uttarakhand food. “I worked with a very prominent hotel chain to help them develop their Uttarakhand menu that celebrated the region’s culinary culture,” she shares. Simultaneously, Rushina has been working on a book that documents everything about Uttrakhand food.

Parallelly, she has been promoting Indian regional food. Over the course of her career, Rushina promoted other home chefs and helped them build a brand. From virtually visiting over 100 kitchens and documenting the specific spices used in them through Spice Chronicles with RMG, to launching the Culinary Chronicles program for chefs to share stories on native food, Rushina had left no stone unturned in reviving Indian regional food.

But when she realised she could do the same with her own culinary culture, she started spreading more awareness about it. “When I ran my studio, I realised that I was very good at helping home chefs thrive. At that time, we introduced a segment called Culinary Legacy, which was a demo and dine series. We had one every month where we hosted a home chef. But it wasn’t only about people coming in. It was a chance to interact and understand the cuisine from an expert and then taste the food. While doing this, I realised that I had been documenting the food of Uttarakhand. But outside the restaurant, nobody knew about it, because you couldn’t find it. And even now, there are only a couple of places where you can actually eat that food. Even in Uttarakhand. That got me sort of going in. It’s one thing to sort of have a written record of something. It’s another to keep it alive by having people taste it. That’s when I started doing my pop-up at the studio,” she shares.

regional cuisine
Dal – Kumaoni Bhatttwani

To Learn & Unlearn

Of course, no successful journey comes without obstacles. And Rushuna had her share of them. People often stereotype her food thinking that it’s simple and boring. But it’s actually not and in sync with whatever is the current trend. “When we look at Uttarakhand food, the living practices, composting, and the whole plant cycle, it is inherent to our culture. It’s food for wellness. But it has been very difficult whenever I’m trying to promote Uttarakhand cuisine. I’ve had problems when the food authorities of our country say Uttarakhand food is nothing,” she says.

So how does Rushina overcomes this challenge? She simply says, “I feed people every chance I get. I can write poems about my cuisine but if you taste it, you’ll have a memory of it, right?”

What’s Cooking?

While Rushina continues to decode each and every element of food, be it dals, chutneys or curries, there’s a lot more on her plate this year. All her learnings on Uttarakhand cuisine are being translated into a book, which is set to release by the end of this year. She has also collaborated with acclaimed chef Thomas Zacharias on the Wild Food Projects with Locavore. She is working with Verushka Foundation to mentor young people who are neurodivergent in culinary arts and create employment opportunities. The second round of her APB Cooking Studio’s APB Culinary Chronicling Internship program will commence soon.

The Stance Of Regional Cuisine Right Now

The pandemic further piqued our curiosity about regional, homegrown cuisine. “Health became a priority and home kitchens became the answer to variety, comfort, and food that is not expensive. That’s how we expanded our palate. Now, there’s pride in culinary identity extending to younger generations as well,” Rushina says. She believes that the only way to be the voice of regional cuisine is to go back to your roots. “Get your hands dirty in the kitchen with your age-old family recipes. To educate people about your own cuisine, you need to give it the respect it deserves!”, she adds.

As for me, I’m lucky to still be able to wake up to the sounds of tadka or the smell of fresh herbs from my kitchen where my mum is bustling about prepping food. And while there may be days I crave pancakes and waffles, I know that the first bite of my grandmother’s prawn curry always hits different.

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