As a region, Baltistan refers to the area after the end of Nubra Valley in Ladakh. Before the partition of undivided India in 1947, Baltistan was a part of Ladakh. Presently, most of the region comprising Baltistan comes under Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and only a small part of Baltistan lies in India. Baltistan was once a separate kingdom. Rulers of Baltistan were the Yagbo dynasty, a Central Asian empire whose reign lasted almost a thousand years from 800 to 1800 AD. I’d read about Baltistan and the locals in Greg Mortenson’s book – Three Cups of Tea.
On my earlier visit to Turtuk, during the course of various conversations, the villagers would time and again bring up ‘buckwheat.’ It seemed to be the de-facto crop for the villagers to grow but apparently found no takers for the surplus grains. Majority of Turtuk did seem to be quite poor and my host Obaid was really braving it out with regards to work and poverty.
I tried to tell them that buckwheat was the new superfood in the western world and sooner or later India would realise that too and that they would then be awash with money. They did believe me but wondered in their minds if the above would actually happen.
I had travelled in a bus from Diskit to Turtuk and the locals had made sure that I learnt names of local dishes before I even reached Baltistan! When Obaidullah & his wife expressed their inability to cook the usual dall, rice and roti; I was overjoyed to tell them that I would anyway prefer their local ‘Balti food’ as compared to the mundane. This was winter and hence no question of me feasting upon the famed mulberries and other fruits of Turtuk! The Baltis make many varieties of breads all of which end in a word pronounced as khoor or khur. They taste delicious when savoured with namkeen tea or sweet milk tea.
The rich history of Baltistan is highly influenced by Central Asia due to the traditional trade links from Ladakh to Kashgar and Samarkand. Food in this region is unique and I have not eaten these dishes of Baltistan elsewhere in Ladakh, even after repeated sojourns in different seasons.
Traditional Dishes that I ate on the Indian side of Baltistan
There are a huge variety of apricots that grow in and around Turtuk, the top one is said to be Halman. The entire village is a carpet of yellow/orange when the fruits are ripe in August and September. The villagers make full use of these apricots and dry them on their roofs to use during the long winter and also to sell them in the open market. Phudinichu seems like a perfect dessert and I had great fun making it in Jaipur with the Halman apricots brought from Turtuk and Dha-Hanu region (Garkone village).
Obaidullah was very apprehensive if I would like the apricot stew or not. In the multi-purpose Bukhari, there were 2 pots put side by side and water was kept boiling to be used for tea and other purposes. Dried apricots of a mixed variety were put in the boiling water and the lid was closed. They were supposed to be kept on the fire for at least 30 mins. It was winter and the dried apricots had become very hard. First the warm water would make them thaw and then when it became sufficiently hot, the apricots would lose their kernels (small almond inside the shell).
While the apricots kept boiling, I shamelessly picked almonds and continued sipping chai. When the container was finally opened, the water had turned into a pleasant looking orange colour and the apricots had turned bright yellow. The taste was a mix of tangy and sweet which I found to be delicious. Obaid and his wife giggled when after a couple of refills, they had to tell me to eat in moderate quantities because apricots could have far reaching effects for the stomach!
Kissir (Kisir) with butter and a dip – Tsemik and darsamik (curd based dip)
It was a different day and a different home. After having troubled Obaid enough, it was decided that I try and head to another homestay in the dead of winter in January. Since a day had already passed and everyone in Turtuk seemed to know that an outsider is visiting, they directed me to Hussain. Hussain owns a simple homestay in Pharol (Farol), Turtuk and is also the owner of K2 Guest House, a top place to stay in Turtuk.
It was a cold morning and I was shivering because the Farol part hardly receives any sunlight. Hussain straightaway ushered me into the homestay, gave a cup of chai and asked his wife to make something traditional for me. Kisir seemed like a coarse dosa at first sight, but when I tasted it, the difference was immense. It was made of a different grain called buckwheat. Buckwheat is called gyas in Balti language, the flour of which is called tarma.
The dips and chutneys were supposed to be the best part of eating Kisir, but it was winter and there were no herbs or curd. I was really interested in knowing more about food in Baltistan, from Hussain. He took me inside the kitchen and we sat there, where he poured some namkeen chai from an old and artistic samovar. I looked at the samovar wide-eyed and realised it was a fine treasure from a different age.
Zaan with local butter
When Hussain conversed with me, he understood that I was really very keen in local dishes of Baltistan and not dal chawal. He asked Jamila to quickly make some zaan for me. Although my stomach was full, I didn’t resist and thought its better to try a new dish because one rarely gets to taste traditional food these days.
Out came a plate with a bowl of ghee occupying the centre, surrounded by a round buckwheat pancake. It looked quite cute and inviting, and I needed no invitation to dig in. Although it was very tasty, I could only finish half of it with the promise of eating it again in the evening. Perhaps it was the buckwheat that made it quite heavy, it was a filling meal especially because every morsel was dunked in ghee!
We went for a walk after this and saw Tsarma Processing Centre, a small establishment in Turtuk that makes tomato puree and apricot juice in bottles for selling elsewhere.
Prakoo (Maybe spelled as Prapu)
After the successful food trials during the day, I was mighty pleased with the local dishes of Balti cuisine and requested Hussain if there was any other dish that could be made easily? He decided that Zabkhoor would be difficult and time consuming to cook and asked Jamila to make Prakoo. They said it involved walnuts and almonds and other rich foods.
The description sounded pretty cool to me and I said yes. I was hoping for an early dinner at 7-730 pm but the preparation of this dish Prakoo took long and it was only around 830 that the dish was ready to be eaten. The weather had predictably turned furiously cold after a cloudless day. Prakoo was a momo type of dish, filled with a mixture of potatoes and other vegetables and smeared with a chutney of almonds and walnuts, and eaten with apricot oil. Apricot oil is also called chulimar in the local language.
I don’t know if it was improperly cooked or whether it was supposed to be eaten hot or cold, Prakoo remains a dish I did not like. It was Hussain’s kindness that he gave me something else to eat and I slept with a content stomach.
Zabkhoor (Maybe spelled as Hrsab khur)
This time, the Shayok river had not even began freezing even though it was the end of December 2016. The bus had been cancelled and we had made our way to Turtuk in a local’s car. This time I was staying in Ismail Homestay which was across the shing-e-zaaba (the wooden bridge that connects Youl and Farol – the two parts of Turtuk.)
Since I had tried other traditional dishes of Baltistan (that I’d heard of in the bus), there was the prized dish Zabkhoor that I really really wanted to eat. Ismail bhai and my story goes back to 2015 and we connected instantly. Ismail instantly told his wife to start the preparations for making this dish for dinner. He had told us with a smile that after eating zabkhoor your body will be automatically warm. I was even more intrigued now.
We sat huddled by the bukhari in the kitchen waiting for our dinner to be served. Gentle looking round flat breads were being slow cooked over an ulta tawa. They didn’t appear to be very appealing and we asked for one piece among the two of us. The ladies and kids of the house giggled, fully knowing that we will like zabkhoor and will probably ask for more! It was served with a bowl of ghee.
It was warm and gooey and really tasty. We exclaimed in pleasure and continued eating our first flat round bread zabkhoor. It had a sort of sweet aftertaste which made me ask the preparation method. The ladies tried to explain but their Balti language was no match for my listening skills and hence Ismail had to intervene. He said that buckwheat and flour is kept in a box and water is sprinkled over it, then a plant sprouts; which is mixed in the flour as well. The same process is repeated twice – thrice, after which the flour is ground in the water chakki called Rantak. The flat round breads are made from this flour.
It was an elaborate dish that really took some making, what was indeed surprising that after finishing 1 piece each of the round bread; we had started feeling warm from the inside and started taking off our jackets. We shared another zabkhoor bread and enjoyed dunking it into the home made butter. Everyone was very happy upon seeing that we were happy and had liked our dinner.
We asked the family if we could have 2 pieces of zabkhoor for breakfast the next day?
Legendary Balti hospitality meant we did that and more!
When I met Hussain on a walk in Turtuk in December 2016, he was happy to tell me that a group of Japanese researchers had come to Turtuk to research about the buckwheat grown here. The developed world and India has since recognised the benefits of buckwheat as a superfood which the traditional people of Baltistan and Turtuk have known forever.