#1000Kitchens is a series that goes into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this edition, Pooja Pangtey cooks a traditional Kumaoni meal at her home in Bombay.
“This is very emotional for me.” Pooja reaches into a ceramic jar and pulls out a palmful of beautiful lentils. “This is the last of my grandmother's masoor. It was her last harvest in Kumaon. She picked them herself, before she died four years ago.” Dal won’t usually keep this long, but in the hills, they are stored in heavy wooden trunks that keep out insects and moisture.
We are huddled in Pooja’s bright kitchen in Bandra, where garlic chives are strewn on the counter, and a half-peeled pomelo sits by a box of eggs. “We took the house because the kitchen has two sinks. Imagine that! What a luxury, in Bandra.”
The masoor in her hand looks nothing like masoor we’ve seen in supermarkets. They are a range of colours, covering the spectrum from egg-yolk yellow, all the way to earthy reds and browns. “I love when things aren’t uniform. Commercial growers breed for corporations, where everything must be graded and standardised. But is that what the consumer wants? Why do industries get to decide the definition of what is beautiful…” she trails off. “That’s changing now, of course, even in fashion. People want to see diversity.”
Pooja has inadvertently dressed to match her very red kitchen. “I couldn't find any pants,” she giggles looking down at her pleated red skirt. Her laughter is a delicious release of energy; high-pitched, entirely unselfconscious, and as we learn, very infectious. Her cupboard is stocked with jars holding the most intriguing contents. A thick lemon preserve, Khasi mushrooms, jamboo, gandraini. Distilled pink salt, Kashmiri garlic. Thickly caramelised ghee that smells like toffee. She holds out a spoon for us to taste, and we sigh in unison, our mouths full of a caramelly, better-than-butter flavour.
Lunch with Pooja Pangtey, one half of Meraki, a pop-up that showcases hill cuisines from the Himalayan region and the North East, is not a simple meal. She works with few ingredients, and simple, traditional techniques, but her flavours are larger than life. “We think about flavour and texture a lot in the hills. The same ingredient, crushed or chopped, will taste different. Our food is also centred around preservation and fermentation.” Her cupboard is also home to a mind-boggling variety of dals. "When it gets cold, we need protein and fat. We eat lamb and stews, and we store fat to cook with. But a different kind of dal is made every day.”
Pooja has just returned from the Kochi Biennale. She tears open bags of jackfruit and tapioca chips to pair with the hemp chutney she has just made, and we chat, comparing notes on where to find the best sardines and anchovies in Fort Kochi, this season’s installations at Aspinwall House, and why it is that Chicken 65 in Bombay can never hold a candle to its southern equivalent.
“Would you like some kombucha?” she says, popping open a bottle. Pooja’s kombucha is a local favourite, stocked at several restaurants in the city. She hands us a glass, and takes a sip herself. “Ooh, this is beer!” she giggles. Her boyfriend Abhishek Chinchalkar, heads Bombay Duck Brewing, a craft brewery that makes artisanal ales. “Well, I guess we can start with beer instead,” Pooja grabs her glass and flits back into the kitchen.
The star of the meal she is cooking is a traditional Kumaoni dal known as Dupka or Dupuk. Masoor is soaked and coarsely ground, then slow-cooked on a low flame, to make for a gentle, soupy dal. Pooja describes it as bean milk; light, wholesome and nourishing. It is seasoned sparsely, with salt and gandraini, or yarrow, a medicinal plant that aids gut wellbeing. Alongside, a crisp radish salad, seasoned with toasted sesame, and red chilli roasted in mustard oil. “I spent the morning searching for the sweetest radish in the market.” She crunches into a stick of radish approvingly. A pot of steaming hot rice, a pink pomelo salad, and a spicy green pisi loon or ‘namak,’ to scoop up on cool cucumber sticks. Made with garlic greens, mint, chill, pink salt, it is eye-wateringly delicious, moving from tangy to red-hot spicy in a single bite.
“In the hills, we eat with the seasons. Some foods are eaten in summer, to cool the body; some are saved for winter.” Pooja returns to the hills often, visiting her family home, researching cuisine, local ingredients and their medicinal properties, working with indigenous communities to document traditional recipes, and learning the rules of foraging as she visits the forest with them. The homesteading culture of the hills means that most families grow their own food, with a keen ear to the seasons, following cross-plantation to maintain the equilibrium of their eco-systems. Preservation and fermentation remain a large part of the way they cook. The jamboo she adds as a final flourish to the Dupuk, is a favourite with Kumaonis. It is a seasonal Himalayan herb that is dried after harvest, and used through the year to flavour dals, vegetables and meat. Fried in hot ghee, where its flavour (“I think of it as Himalayan chive”) is re-vitalised, it is then added to the pot.
We sit down to eat, and pick up the conversation where we left off, leaving the heat of Bombay for balmy afternoons in the tropical streets of Fort Kochi.
Recipe for Slow Cooked Kumaoni Dupuk or Bean Milk
3 cups of masoor dal
6 cups of water
Yarrow or gandraini
1.5 tbsp ghee
2 tsp jamboo (or jimbu, a Himalayan herb). *If you dont have jamboo on hand, you can use cumin instead.
Soak the dal in water for 6 to 8 hours.
Drain and blitz to a coarse paste in a blender, or by hand on the sil batta/ grinding stone. Don't grind it too fine, the paste should retain a bit of texture.
In the meanwhile, soak the dry yarrow so it rehydrates.
Tear and add to the pot along with the paste, pour in twice the volume of water, and allow to cook for 40 minutes on a low flame.
Watch the pot carefully and keep stirring, as it can burn easily, even on low flame.
When the dal and water thicken and bubble, taste. If the raw flavour has gone, it is ready for seasoning.
Add salt to taste.
Heat ghee separately and when it begins smoking, add jumboo or cumin.
Use this as tadka, i.e., add to the dal just before serving.
Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen; photographs by Aysha Tanya; and illustration by Asha Das.
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