Travelling chef Aditya Bal feels humbled by his recent trip across India. Visiting, cooking and eating in small towns and villages that most city slickers have never heard of, Bal says, “Many people don’t have the luxuries that we are used to, yet they just get on with life and are happy.”
With the fourth season of his show Chak Le India airing on NDTV Good Times, Bal reveals that the hospitality he encountered, whether in the Chumba district of Himachal Pradesh or the tiny Parsi village of Udvada in Gujarat, astonished him. “They don’t mind feeding a crew of 12 people and lay out a feast with whatever they have,” he says, adding, “And if we didn’t have a place to stay, they offered their homes to us. Though India’s still a nation of individual principalities, our patriotism and hospitality unite us.”
This Himalayan territory, far away from the usual tourist traps, actually has the longest single running dynasty in the country. Says Bal, “This region is steeped in history, and the people here are from the Ravi valley civilisation. It’s close to the Manimahesh river, which is considered to be the abode of Shiva, and so you’ll find many temples here.”
Given the cold climate, the main cuisine of the area includes meat and fish, unlike the rest of Himachal Pradesh which is largely vegetarian. “The Ravi river system provides fresh fish, which is commonly fried and eaten,” Bal says, adding, “This area also has a large central park featuring stalls of street food from around the country— momos, pao bhaji and chowmein.”
The area is also famous for having 101 mutton recipes, though many of them have been lost over the years. “The people of the area cook their mutton in buttermilk, fruits or pomegranate seeds and jaggery, tending to focus on an isolation of flavours rather than mixing everything together,” Bal adds.
This little Parsi town in Gujarat, only three hours by road from Mumbai, has one of the most important fire temples in the country. “It’s a very quiet town, with lovely old Parsi houses and genuinely warm people,” says Bal, adding, “Since it’s so close to Mumbai, it gives you a chance to look at the historical aspect of this community that has contributed so much to India.” Though the community’s dwindling numbers has led to the town’s current state of disrepair, the charm of old architecture, Irani bakeries, and Parsi restaurants serving authentic cuisine makes it worth the trip. “Despite being in Gujarat, this town is like a whole other time zone, allowing you insight into the lives of this shy community,” Bal says.
The only hill station in Gujarat, Bal admits this area, populated mostly by local tribals was a surprise to him. “I had no clue about it! Since it’s at a height of about 3,000 feet above sea level, the weather is pleasant even at the height of summer.” The place is popular among Gujarati locals, and so you need to be careful to avoid the tourist traps. “The local cuisine is simple —black dal with bajra rotis and a spicy green chilly chutney that you can eat by the lake. We enjoyed our meal at Mahila Gram Udyog, run by tribal women, dressed in their finery,” he adds.
PATRA- NI –MACHCHI
* 2 medium pomfret
* 1/2 cup grated coconut
* 4 cloves of garlic
* 4 green chillies
* 1 tsp salt
* 1 tsp sugar
* 2 tbsp malt vinegar
*1 bunch of coriander leaves
* Clean and skin the fish, cut into medium size fillet.
* Dry roast the grated coconut, green chillies, garlic, salt, coriander leaves and transfer to a grinder, add the sugar and vinegar and grind to a fine paste.
* Season fish with some salt.
* Cover the fish with the paste/chutney and wrap in foil.
* In a pot of water add green chillies, garlic, a few lime wedges and coriander leaves and bring to a boil.
* To steam the fish put it in a colander over the boiling water.
* Let it steam for 10 to 15 minutes or until the foil packets are puffed up. Check for
doneness by flaking the fillets with a fork. Close up the foil packets again.
* Serve the fillets wrapped in foil, with some lime squeezed over the top.
CHAMBA-STYLE FRIED FISH
* 2 small fresh water fish like trout or carp
* 1 inch of ginger
* 3 cloves of garlic
* 1 small bunch coriander leaves
* Juice of 1 lime
* Refined oil to deep fry
*1/2 tsp turmeric powder
v 1 tsp red chilly powder
* 1 – 2 tbsp chickpea flour
* Salt to taste
* Gut and clean the fish leaving them whole, cut it halfway through the central bone
* Make a paste of the turmeric, red chilly powder and salt with a little refined oil, rub it into the fish thoroughly.
* In a mortar and pestle, crush ginger, garlic, salt and coriander leaves into a fine paste.
* Rub this paste into the fish to coat them well.
* Put besan or chickpea flour in a plate and spread evenly, add fish one at a time, pressing down gently, making sure the fish is well-coated with besan on both sides.
* Shake excess flour gently, repeat the coating process with the second fish.
* Keep in fridge for 15 mins.
* Heat up the oil in a wok until it’s hot but not smoking. Add the fish one at a time and deep fry on a high flame till golden brown and crisp on the outside.
* Serve hot with a tomato, cucumber and onion salad and a few wedges of lime.