A CHEF GOES FOR­AG­ING IN LADAKH, COMES BACK WITH 70 KGS OF FINE FOOD

A for­ag­ing trip to Ladakh re­veals more res­tau­rant-wor­thy in­gre­di­ents than any­one thought pos­si­ble

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - News - Text by Chef Pra­teek Sadhu Pho­tos by Ashish Shah

For­ag­ing with your own hands cre­ates an en­tirely new sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards your in­gre­di­ents

I’ve never been a fan of early morn­ing flights, but trav­el­ling to Ladakh doesn’t leave one with many op­tions. I rush home af­ter the night’s ser­vice, pack my tools and head to the air­port.

I’m ex­hausted, but full of ner­vous en­ergy. This is the sec­ond time I’m head­ing to Ladakh in my adult life; mem­o­ries flood back from the time my fa­ther was posted in a small vil­lage called San­jak be­tween Leh and Kargil. We would pluck apri­cots and ap­ples straight from the tree; wood sor­rel grew with wild aban­don. The tastes of a dozen dif­fer­ent herbs from the re­gion have stayed with me, their names long for­got­ten.

I meet Ashish Shah at the air­port, the pho­tog­ra­pher who had done one of our ear­li­est shoots at Masque. His work speaks for it­self, and I re­main in ad­mi­ra­tion of his skill, work ethic and gen­eral go-get­ter at­ti­tude. Ashish is my for­ag­ing buddy for the next five days, along with Me­hdi, the most cru­cial of this un­likely trio: he’s the one who will drive us around the deep in­te­ri­ors of Ladakh in search of sea buck­thorn, apri­cots, and what­ever else we can find.

HOME, SWEET HOME

We land in Leh. Still only half awake, I open my eyes to the mighty Hi­malayas un­der whose lap I was born. I left Kash­mir at a rel­a­tively young age, but the con­nect re­mains strong; step­ping out of the plane feels like a home­com­ing of sorts. Our dear Me­hdi, lucky him, is still sound asleep when we land, but gets us to our ho­tel where we spend the next day ac­cli­ma­tis­ing to the al­ti­tude.

At dawn, we be­gin the drive to Nubra via Khardung La, the world’s high­est mo­torable pass. As Ashish clicks away, we drive past fields of a grey­ish-pur­ple. In­trigued and with a sneak­ing sus­pi­cion of what we’ve stum­bled across, we stop to ex­plore. We wade into the fields and I stoop over to take a

whiff; the fa­mil­iar, flo­ral scent hits me like a brick. Sure enough, we’ve stepped into a trea­sure trove of wild laven­der, and I’m left awestruck by how in­cred­i­ble In­dia re­ally is. While we’re look­ing West for in­fu­sions and scented bath bombs, this bounty lies un­touched within our bor­ders.

Af­ter mak­ing Me­hdi prom­ise to stop on our way back when I have my tools handy, we con­tinue to Nubra. I look on to mes­meris­ing views, the laven­der play­ing on my mind – there are a thou­sand dif­fer­ent tea and cock­tail pos­si­bil­i­ties, or some­thing with fish, per­haps? It’s a rough drive to Tur­tuk, the vil­lage we’re head­ing to in Nubra, but worth it: we’re wel­comed by a vast jun­gle of sea buck­thorn, the main rea­son we’re here. The beau­ti­ful, tiny or­ange berry is a vi­ta­min C tsunami and grows abun­dantly here, where lo­cals use its thorny bushes largely for fenc­ing.

We start the next day with steam­ing cups of noon – mean­ing salted chai – typ­i­cal to the Ladakh and Kash­mir area; the Ladakhi ver­sion is unique in that the but­ter is emul­si­fied be­fore­hand, dif­fer­ent from the Kash­miri one I grew up drink­ing, but still a life­long favourite.

We gear up to be­gin for­ag­ing. We’ve had to buy army gloves to pro­tect our­selves from the thorns, and en­listed an ex­tra three sets of lo­cal hands to help. We spend the next five hours set­tling into a steady rou­tine: hold the stem, hit it with a stick, col­lect the fall­ing berries. Of a tar­get of 100 ki­los, we man­age 30.

As dusk falls, we call it a day and trek to the top of a nearby hill for some re­lax­ation. How­ever, in this land of end­less sur­prises, we are met in­stead with views of end­less buck­wheat farms, their flow­ers in full bloom. In a month’s time, they will be ready for har- vest; un­til then, we sit back and breathe in the seren­ity, then dive in, wad­ing through waist-deep fields un­til mid­night.

BRING ON THE BALTIS

The next day: more salted tea, more sea buck­thorn. Hold the stem, hit the stem, col­lect the jew­els. The lo­cals chime in with tra­di­tional Balti songs and di­rect us to­wards a typ­i­cal lunch in Baltistan: pan­cakes made from fer­mented buck­wheat bat­ter, eaten with dried buck­wheat leaves and yo­ghurt. This is eas­ily my most mem­o­rable meal of the trip, and I eat the same dish for two days straight.

The berries have thrown us a bit off sched­ule, and our hunt for apri­cots is de­layed by half a day. We be­gin in­stead the fol­low­ing morn­ing, walk­ing up a hill to be met by a trio of de­light­ful old ladies who run the apri­cot farms. They ex­plain to us the dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties they grow: one prima- rily to be eaten fresh, an­other to be dried, and a third used most of­ten for chut­neys and pick­ling. I spend the next four hours walk­ing through the farms with them, tak­ing notes on what to do once I get back home. My big­gest con­cern is do­ing jus­tice to the fruits; the chal­lenge will be work­ing them into dishes with­out bas­tar­dis­ing their sweet­ness and nat­u­ral flavour. Ac­tu­ally, scratch that – the pri­mary chal­lenge is to get all the pro­duce back to Mum­bai with­out dam­ag­ing it.

I’ve car­ried an ice­box with me, but one look at our yield and I set off to buy more buckets. The berries are es­pe­cially del­i­cate, and un­for­tu­nately so are the buckets we find in tiny Tur­tuk; we’ll have to repack them in a stur­dier con­trap­tion once we get to Ladakh.

An­other morn­ing of noon chai and we set off, this time with tools handy. We make pit stops where the laven­der grows thick, hop­ping out ev­ery now and then to cut it fresh. Once we ar­rive, the day is spent gorg­ing on thukpa and mo­mos and dis­cussing how to in­cor­po­rate all this bril­liance into our new menu at Masque. For­ag­ing and farm­ing with your own hands cre­ates an en­tirely new sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards your in­gre­di­ents; my fo­cus lies in cre­at­ing unique plates that do jus­tice to the pro­duce.

BACK ON THE GROUND

Still, all the beauty in the world could not make me re­lin­quish my ha­tred for an early morn­ing flight. It’s com­pounded this time by the 70 ex­tra ki­los I’m car­ry­ing back with me and the fact that I can­not use my credit card to pay for it thanks to tech­ni­cal is­sues. At 5 am, we scram­ble to find an ATM, rush back to the counter, and hop on the flight. I’m ea­ger to get back to the kitchen – with pro­duce this del­i­cate, ev­ery mo­ment counts, and some amount of loss is in­evitable. I head straight from the air­port to Masque, where the team is ready and wait­ing to un­pack the buckets for stor­age.

We spend the next four days run­ning through tri­als and taste tests; not un­til day four do we suc­ceed in get­ting our sea buck­thorn ice just right. A del­i­cate ring of it is set atop a light mousse of black pep­per from the south, gar­nished with pine salt and fen­nel flow­ers. We be­gin run­ning it on the menu that same night. The apri­cots will fea­ture on our next, paired with duck, if all goes as planned.

While we’re look­ing West for in­fu­sions and scented bath bombs, the bounty of wild laven­der lies un­touched within our bor­ders

Sea buck­thorn berries, also known as Leh berries, are mainly found in Chushot, Shey and Nubra Val­ley of Leh

Black pep­per mousse is the pre-dessert the chef serves at his res­tau­rant us­ing the berries

(From above right) Lo­cals wear fit­ted army gloves to pro­tect them­selves from the thorns dur­ing the for­ag­ing ac­tiv­ity; (inset Fresh apri­cots plucked by the team

The group takes a small break dur­ing for­ag­ing to re­lax

The team at work with Me­hdi and lo­cals en­listed to help

Chef Pra­teek poses with wild laven­der in the fields

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