Heading off to the mountains was a long-cherished dream. I had heard of the breath-taking beauty and exotic cuisines of the mountains of Kumaon and of the valleys at the base of the Himalayan range, close to Nainital. I couldn’t wait to feast my eyes (pun intended!) on the natural wonder. Te Aroha, a boutique hotel, is located in Dhanachuli. The village lies ensconced at the very top of those hills… with hamlets scattered all around - the stone houses reminiscent of a different era.
The winding hills of Kumaon are magical. This magic unfolds slowly on the six hour drive from Delhi to Dhanachuli. I began from a sweltering Delhi early in the morning and drove through small towns in Uttar Pradesh which were no less than scorching. But slowly, as we entered Uttaranchal, the weather seemed to get cooler and the air clearer and crisp with every passing mile. By late afternoon, the heat and dust of the long drive were forgotten and we were enjoying the smooth winding roads, pine forests, mountain birds, friendly people, and awe-inspiring scenery emerging through mist which awaited us at every turn. As we passed through the fruit orchards, cabbage patches and tiny village markets, I saw local produce indigenous to that region and could only wonder with growing excitement what culinary surprises lay in store – and I wasn’t disappointed!
Te Aroha, the new boutique property is artfully designed. The hotel, its rooms and a wonderful restaurant called The Oaks, are designed around the natural topography of the mountains. The staff comprises mainly of locals whose friendly, content smiles refreshes you as you arrive.
Dinner was typical Kumaoni fare, prepared by Chef Chatursingh Farsvarn and his trusty brigade. The spread of delicacies presented included ‘Bhatt ki Churkani’ (a curry-like preparation made from a black pulse found only in the Himalayan region), ‘Aloo ke Gutke’ (a dry potato curry made with locally grown reddish brown potatoes, tomatoes, coriander and whole red chillies), Lauki Raita (made by mixing sautéed bottle gourd with curd and lots of mustard paste), Lahsan ka Pahadi Achar (garlic cloves pickled in vinegar and clove paste), Pahadi Lai ka Saag (red mustard greens sautéed with coriander seeds, garlic and red chillies) and hot rotis straight from the tandoor. You can also find some good ol’ rice and Dal Makhani because as the Chef put it, “Just in case someone doesn’t take a liking to Pahadi food”.
Each dish was unique - not to mention delicious - by way of taste and texture. The Bhatt ki Churkani, made by roasting the Bhatt, grinding it fine and cooking it with besan, was delicately flavoured and seemed to provide the body with a welcome warmth. The surprise element was the smoothness of the curry on the palate. The Aloo ke Gutke, though quite spicy, had a very refreshing flavour of fresh coriander . The raita with its strong mustard flavour was quite robust (very unlike the mild sweetish raitas one is used to) and the Lai ka Saag was perfectly cooked with the ingredients retaining their individual flavours yet complementing each other.
I was to cook lunch the next day and instead of cooking well-practiced recipes, I decided, last minute, to take the local produce and create some unique flavours. The spread then consisted of Amritsari-style Grilled Fish using local river fish, Stuffed Potato Chops (using local potatoes & mushrooms), local Tea-infused chicken with vanilla & pahadi chilli, and pears poached in local wine topped with a cardamom-flavoured crumble. The wine made from fruits of the region has a distinctly different flavour and goes well with the Kumaoni cuisine. The rugged mountain meat was a bit tough but the Pahadi dish, as Chef Chatursingh taught me, is always worth the effort and time. It was a lamb curry cooked in the mildest of spices and flavours that warmed one, inside out.
The next day, Chef Chatur drove me to Ranikhet and on the way back, we picked up seasonal Himalayan produce like Fiddlehead Ferns, Lai, a bunch of wild Colocasia leaves, local cucumbers & radishes (which tasted fabulous when drizzled over with spicy green chutney). We even feasted on local sweets like Bal Mithai (a sweet resembling chocolate fudge) & potato halwa (a soft smooth potato fudge). The food was rustic with a balance and simplicity of flavours that created a nostalgic memory for me.The only thing lacking was a good whisky (as the hotel still awaits its liquor license) but the prospect of seeing the Himalayas up close in the morning more than made up for it!