When I told the East London Eaters that I was setting off for a two week shot through northern India, the second thing they waxed on about was the street food (the first was the chaos of the train system.) These well-travelled foodies spun tales of unforgettable curries, earthy lentil chaat, piping hot milky chai, crispy samosas stuffed with spiced potato. I was warned to bring loose trousers and to pace myself.
What I found was that there is very little northern indian food – Bengali thali, Delhi dal, Kashmiri grilled lamb – that isn’t done better right here in merry London. From White Chapel to East Ham to Wembley, the well-established Indian neighbourhoods, unsurprisingly, have brought the best versions of their native cuisine to the UK. (Granted at ten times the price… but hey London rent probably eclipses the mortgage on a third-hand peddle-cart by a few orders of magnitude)
The real standout cuisine – the cuisine that I became fanatical about – was the simple, home cooked fare that I received in the small breakfast room of my homestay family in the nether regions of that most obscure of Indian regions: Ladakh.
A quick geo-political lesson from an unqualified aficionado: Ladakh – nestled up near the Chinese and Pakistan border – is a former Buddhist kingdom that – although conquered by some Mughal or Raj or another a few hundred years ago – still maintains its Drukpa Buddhist grace, an unavoidable air of peace, and an ethnic and cultural homogeneity owing to the fact that the whole joint is hemmed in by the Karakoram and other assorted 18,000-foot-plus Himalaya mountains and is serviced by only two treacherous roads (Google: Zoji-la and Kardung-La) that are only passable 3 months of the year. Ladakhis spend the other nine months under bitter cold blue skies subsisting off of glacial melt water and barley flour. The fact that Ladakh is a part of India is a bit of a novelty to the perpetually smiling Ladakhis, who don’t seem to need much of any governance (or any other outside resource for that matter).
This isolation shows itself in colourful dress, polite custom, legendary hospitality, and to my keen interest: Spicy, rich soups and dumplings made with ingredients largely grown by each individual family.
Amma-le – my adopted mother and food host for a week – served Breakfasts on a low carved wooden bench surrounded by small embroidered cushions. She’d bring in a tray of hot, flaky, handmade flatbread criss-crossed with crisp griddle marks. The bread would be doused in local honey or sticky jam made of tart thorn berries. Some mornings I was treated to a thick cake made of hot tea and butter mixed into barley flour. The cake would be plucked apart and dunked into mild, yellow curry. All of this was washed down with copious amounts of achingly-sweet, milky, black tea served from a jerry-can sized flask.
The dish of my obsession was Amma-le’s Thukpa: a Spicy, brothy soup made from ginger, garlic, turmeric, mystery spices, floating bits and whatever vegetables just came up in the garden (bok-choy, kale and other hard greens during my stay)The hot broth is then bulked up with smooth, Tibetan inspired barley-flour dumplings that absorbed the spicy broth. My Thukpa moment was a dinner served after coming in with numb fingers and runny nose from the chill of an all-day motorcycle ride across the glacial Namshang La pass. The soup went straight to my belly to light a fire that pushed the circulation back into my extremities. This sort of home-grown, home-made cuisine fuming with smells and flavours impossible to pick apart is just the type of food that when encountered again will only remind me of the one specific place.
Now that I am back in London, perhaps the fragrant taste of a well-executed rogan josh or aloo matar will remind me of my Indian adventures. But more likely, they’ll just remind me of lazy Sunday night trips to the curry house in Mile End. But…What I will definitely be trying to recreate for my feasts and gatherings is the mysterious tang and spiciness of that warming Thukpa soup served in the darkness of a power outage with the wind whistling down from the snow-capped Himalaya visible in the full-moon outside of Amma-le’s breakfast room window.