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Eating through Uttarakhand with Chef Pawan Bisht

The much-famous corporate chef of One8Commune, Verandah and Mango on his favourites dishes that truly showcase the culture, life and happiness of this flora-fauna blessed state of India

As told to Madhulika Dash

Chef Pawan Bisht, or the young chef who can make Virat Kohli, Indian cricket team captain, dance to his culinary tunes. If there could be one line that could sum up why this lad from Uttarakhand is counted among the best young culinary minds in the country, this could be the perfect testimony.

Yet, that ‘feat’ is one of the many talents that the corporate chef of Mango possesses, one of it being a penchant to discover his own legacy. And by ‘legacy’ we don’t just mean Indian food at large, but also his own roots. So, when the food brain of Mango shifted to his little village in Uttarakhand during the early days of the lockdown, it came as no surprise to many. “With restaurants not operational, it was the perfect time to invest in doing R&D. And what better way to start than from my home,” says Chef Bisht, who found the lockdown a welcome relief that allowed him to reinvest time in discovering his own culture.

“It is a gift I developed while working under Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, my omnipresent guru.” Few know that Chef Bisht was among the few talents that the legendary Chef Gorai has groomed as part of his mentoring programme, a few years ago – the other gem of this small coterie is Chef Megha Kohli, who like Chef Bisht, is a famous name today for promoting traditional ingredients and food.

Thanks to his move, today, many know of not only the state’s self-sustaining culinary practices, but food that goes well beyond the famous Madra and Bal Mithai. In a hearty conversation had over a cup of chai and khajur, we talk about food that keeps him “happy, satiated and fulfilled – not just eating wise, but in his soul” and will soon make its way to the menus. Here are a few of his favourites.

THECHWANI

Nothing to do with its similarly pronounced Maharastrian peer called Thetcha, Thechwani gets its name from the very act of crushing. Says Pawan, “In this dish, the vegetables are not chopped but crushed on a silbata – called batan una here – into this bite sizes pieces for a rich, flavoursome curry (wani). One of the oldest dishes of this ancient food culture, Thechwani dates to a time and practice when knife usage was only for hardy root vegetable or meat – and using it for others meant playing with the nutritive properties.”

“Crushing then came as the perfect alternative that not only broke ingredients easily but also retained much of the nourishing properties,” adds Pawan, who finds the classic combination of radish and potato cleverly seasoned with local masalas one of the most fascinating aspect of this commonplace dish. “The radish which is used is usually pahadi radish (pahadi mula) which has a round root and pahadi potatoes that have this unique crispness. For seasoning, he uses a touch of ginger and garlic in this dish. Radish, says the local lad, “is a star

vegetable in Uttarakhand for its nutritious value, taste and versatility. Cooked in iron kadai gives this dish a different taste and it increases its nutritious value.”

Nutrition-wise: This simple dish amazingly packs in vat-full of Vitamin A, C, E, B6, potassium, copper, calcium and other minerals. A really good source of fiber too. Had almost every second week, this helps fight the chilly weather of the hills.

BHADDU KI DAL

As all hilly people would, we Uttarakhandis too, says Pawan, “are very fond of our dal. In fact, lentils here are more valued than meat since they are not only rich source of protein, but also available round the year. One such famous dish from Uttarakhand is Bhaddu ki daal. Bhaddu is a heavy bottom and narrow neck pot made of alloy bronze and copper. It comes in a variety of shapes and sizes to suit your need and uses mostly to prepare dishes made of Urad and Rajma.”

In fact, like all traditional dishes, he adds, “the dal gets its unique flavour from two things – the water here and Bhaddu.” Cooked over 4 to 5 hours, the beauty of this dal is that it’s the best source of protein and energy required for people to survive in the hills. And since it is slow-cooked, it gets its rich creaminess from the clever use of Urad and Rajma, which are soaked overnight. Then it is all about adding turmeric, salt, ginger and a few basic masala to enhance the taste.”

SPICY KALA CHANNA MASALA

If there is one dish that bears a fond resemblance to the preparation across the country it has to be the Kala Channa, says Pawan, who often would make a bowlful to last him the entire day when the restaurants were busy as a bee. A popular snack and a breakfast dish in his village too, it is on the regular menu of the week to beat the cold weather and is accompanied by aloo ke gutke, pahadi raita and ginger tea. A brilliant example of tapas, this simplistic dish uses fresh ingredients from the kitchen garden gives a boost to the taste in this popular dish.

An incredible source of Vitamins, minerals including magnesium, phosphorus, iron and copper, this dish was once suggested for building muscle mass, regulating diabetes and maintain the health of hair, nail and skin. In fact, what is more addictive than the dish is the raita it is occasionally served with called the Pahadi raita. Pungent with that back kick of sour-sweet, this mustard and jakhiya flavoured raita is one of the most loved dishes of the locals.

AMTAOO

The best thing to have during summertime, Amtaoo is a sweet and sour mango chutney – and a beloved dish in Uttarakhand. Raw mangoes are first boiled with the skin. “Once tender, mangoes are deskinned and then a tempering of whole cumin seeds, whole coriander seeds is added along with jaggery, and then simmered till the flavours are seeped into the pulp well. This is often served with food and is perhaps the one dish that you may want to ask many servings of – I do,” says Pawan, who has found versions where fennel, raisins, grated coconut are also used and are as brilliant in taste as the classic.

Once made, it can stay upto a week and can be had just like that or as part of lunch or dinner. This dish, he adds, “was created as an antidote for heat and dehydration, but it is

also known to cure stomach problems, treats scurvy and is good for liver and intestines. Of course, its brilliant taste ensures a good appetite always.”

GADERI METHI SAAG

Gaderi is Taro Root. It has brown skin outside and white flesh. “When cooked, it has mildly sweet taste and texture very similar to potatoes, but with extra punch of nutrient goodness like fiber, which aids in controlling blood sugar, has anticancer properties, reduce the risk of heart attack, good for gut, helps in reducing the weight and so forth. But for me, Gaderi is that one amazing vegetable and flavourant that can bring a lot to a dish, the only caution is to know how to work with a dish because like many root vegetable when not handled properly it can leave a bad taste and an unpleasant sensation in the mouth,” says Chef Pawan, who learnt the art of cutting the taro and cooking it from his granny.

The trick, he adds, “to work with gadheri is to pick one that look firm with a distinct earthy aroma. Washing is a priority post which it needs to be boiled before being peeled and then tossed in mustard oil till it gets a firm structure.”

"Once that is done, it becomes as easy as potatoes, which can take on a variety of interesting flavourings. Pawan’s choice is local coriander and meethi to bring out the flavours of the root vegetable.” As for seasoning, says the chef, “turmeric, salt and a bit of chilli is often enough with a pinch of hing, ajwain and roughly ground coriander seeds.”

RAJJDA

If there is one dish that explained me how food was designed to heal us, the Rajjda was it, recalls Pawan, who often had it as a child. Today of course, he rues, “it is one of the many dishes that is limited in its know how of making to the older generation. But at one point of time it was the go-to dish to to cure Jaundice and liver problems.” But that health prowess does little to take away any credit of Rajjda to be one delicious dish.

Made using red rice, bhatt paste (black soya bean) along with desi ghee, it is Uttarakhand’s very own version of local khichdi. This easy to digest dish is an equally simple dish to make as well, says Pawan, who sautés the soya bean paste, rice in ghee and then allows it to slow cook for about an hour. It is served with a nice serving of ghee and lasoon lun (salt) made with fresh garlic, dry red chilli, cumin seeds, fresh coriander leaves, fresh ginger, green chillies and rock salt. In some parts in the state it also goes by the name of Bhatiya.

PAHADI GOSHT

While the vegetarian spread is the best here, one of the finest in fact, says Pawan, “no Pahadi food is complete without a meat dish. In fact, it is a Sunday special here – and the making of it can take you back to a century where foraging was the way to get your daily quota of your food.” The Pahadi Gosht is one of the signature dishes of the state with each house having its own version, but the common thing in all is the basic technique of cooking the meat.

For this, he adds, “the entire goat is first roasted on top of fire which gives the outer skin a smoky flavour, after which it is put in a bhaddu with water, a paste made of fresh ingredients, which usually has fresh ginger, chillies, coriander and few spices, and slow cooked till it has this rich, aromatic curry. The curry is a bit spicy so that it can produce heat in the body which helps locals to stay safe from the cold weather in the hills. If you are travelling in the hills do eat local food because it prevents altitude sickness. This is often served with madua (finger millet) ki roti or red rice (laal bhaat).”

KHAJUR

The thing about staying in hilly areas is that hunger can catch you unaware. And hence the food culture has a segment dedicated to simple but extremely satiating snacks like Khajur. Not dates, this pakwan (snack) is a traditional dish (pakwan) in Uttarakhand, also known as Rotana locally, says Pawan, who often would carry a fistful while on his various jaunts to discover the village again. “It was a favourite post school snack that I loved to have, “ he adds. Resembling the nimki from mainland, Khajur is this bite-size fried cookie made with whole wheat flour, milk, desi ghee, fennel seeds, semolina(suji) and jaggery. In some parts sugar is added instead of jaggery.

One of the fascinating dishes, back in the days it was a preferred travel food that would keep travellers well fed. Courtesy the fact that these cookies have a weeks-long shelf life, it is often a takeaway gift given to people traveling out of the state. Of course today it is a Makar Sankranti and Holi speciality as well.