It is becoming increasingly difficult to find local food anywhere and everywhere. Food is getting generalised as dall, aloo sabzi, roti and chawal across North India; and idli, dosa, uthappa, sambhar in South India. Over the course of my travels, I have often made sure of speaking to locals and tasting the traditional food of a place. I make no secret of the fact that Himachal Pradesh is my favourite state and after forays into all regions – here I present Himachali Dham from various regions and also suggest dhabas and restaurants where it is readily available.
What is Dham?
Dham is a traditional festive feast of Himachal Pradesh prepared during religious festivals. The origins of Dham are said to go back to Chamba Valley more than 1000 years ago. The Rajas ordered the cooks to make a meal that would justify as an offering for the Gods. The cooks prepared a variety of dishes from across the valleys and since then the tradition of Dham has continued. I think Himachali Dham can also be called as a Himachali thali since it comprises of all local dishes and is a fair representation of traditional food.
So, in a nutshell Dham can be called the traditional food of Himachal Pradesh. It is now relished at weddings, festivals and religious gatherings. Usually, Dham comprises of the following things : Madra, dal, kadhi, khatta, and meetha. Details on these dishes in the subsequent paragraphs. Instead of using cooking gas, Dham is usually cooked on firewood. The process of cooking begins one night before the actual feast, and the dham is usually served for lunch.
Brief Details of Dishes of Himachali Dham
The dishes of Himachali Dham differ from region to region and vary according to the local produce. Dham is prepared by Bhotis, who are Brahmin chefs in Himachal and have traditionally been cooking Dham for generations. Most of the utensils used for cooking food for dham are made from copper or brass.
The usual menu for a Himachali dham would be rice and madra of rajma (red kidney beans) cooked in ghee & yoghurt in Chamba, sepubadi in Mandi district and mash dal in Kullu. Generally this is followed by kadi and khatta (sweet and sour sauce) mixed with tamarind and jaggery, the dham ends with the mitha (sweet dish) – rice, liberally mixed with pounded sugar, raisins and dry fruit.
Legend & History of Himachali Dham
It is believed that more than 1000 years ago, the King of Himachal Pradesh liked the Kashmiri Wazwan so much that he ordered his cooks to prepare a similar meal without using meat. Thus a new menu evolved in Himachali cuisine, and has since been known as dham.
Features of Dham
Some dishes like dal are flavoured by smoked cooking method where mustard oil is put over a piece of burning coal and hung in the dal without dipping it. It is then covered for some time to get the smoky flavour. Himachalis locally call it the Dhuni technique.
Use of garlic and onions is usually a no-no in the tradition of cooking dishes in dham. It may vary from region to region in the present time.
Leaf plates (pattals) are traditionally used to serve the Dham, as people sit on the floor and enjoy it in community gatherings. In the modern times, plastic plates and stainless steel plates are also being used these days to serve Dham.
Dham is made in huge pot-shaped copper containers known as ‘Charoti’.
Madra is a kind of curry which is cooked slowly over low fire in a huge brass container. It is the main component of Dham across the state of Himachal Pradesh. There are 2-3 Madra dishes in a wholesome Dham. One major inclusion in the madra recipe is that of curd, which is added during the preparation process. Different types of Madra are Sepubadi Madra, Kaala chana madra, Safed Chana Madra, Rajmah Madra, Guchhi Madra.
Without further ado, here I present Himachal Dham from different regions of the state :
Chamba – Chambyali Dham
One of my most favourite of dhams across Himachal Pradesh, Chambyali dham can be said to be the birthplace of dham with regards to the history. The dishes are dominated by madra and rajmah and kaala chana is a must. The madra dishes are oozing with ghee and are to be eaten with rice. Chamba kadhi is another dish of Chamba dham with gucchi (local mushroom) pulao. Khatta is also served with available vegetables and the dham is topped off with a sweet dish. It can be sweet pulao or even halwa mixed with poppy seeds.
Now the big question.. Where to eat Chambyali Dham in Chamba? The best place to savour Chamba Dham is to relish it at one of the dhabas of Sultanpur. Sultanpur is a small hamlet very close to Chamba and is just before the intersection of the roads to Saho & Bairagarh. The dhabas of Sultanpur are quite popular and two-three dhabas serve Chamba Dham. The best one according to the locals is Mame da Dhaba.
In Chamba town, it is possible to taste a few dishes of Chambyali dham at Hotel HPTDC Iravati’s restaurant on request and order. The staff is generally helpful and one can enjoy Madra Chana & Kadhi chawal. Apart from that, in the main market of Chamba while heading to the Bhuri Singh Museum, there are a couple of dhabas that also serve dham in Chamba.
Kangra – Kangri Dham
Having heard about Kangra Dham for years, I used to wonder where to eat it since I never found out a proper Kangri Dham restaurant in Kangra – near Dharamshala – McLeodganj. It was only a year or two ago when on a hitched ride, the locals told me the secret that Kangri dham was more of a Palampur thing than Kangra town itself! They also added that even though the best Palampur dham was only to be eaten at marriages, I could still taste it at one particular dhaba.
It didn’t take much time thereafter for my first taste of Kangri Dham. Among the dhams of Himachal, the overwhelming favourite of the locals seems to be Kangri Dham.
The Kangri Dham Thali’s speciality is telia mah, black lentil dal doused in ghee and mixed lightly with spices; served with chickpeas madra, kaale chane ka khatta (sweet and sour black gram mahni) and other curries served with rice. Moong dal is also used in some dishes. Kangri dham also makes use of the dhuni technique wherein, mustard oil is poured over a piece of burning coal and is placed in the dish and covered for some time to give the smoky flavor that is called dhuni. As a Rajasthani, I know about the dhuni flavour well because at home even my dad loves dishes with dhuni technique.
Where to eat Kangri Dham? Since we already know now that Palampur is specialised in Kangri dham rather than Kangra itself; very close to Palampur, there is a small town called Maranda. In Maranda, Kangri Dham is available at Thakur Dhaba opposite Hanuman Temple, it is a prominent location on the Palampur-Kangra road. Even though few locals know about it, you heard it first from Travelshoebum!
Also, if you are visiting Shimla – Kangri Dham Thali is available at Himachali Rasoi on some days of the week. Himachali Rasoi restaurant is gaining popularity and doing a good job of serving traditional food of Shimla and Himachal.
Mandi – Mandiyali Dham (Mandyali Dham)
Among the different dhams of Himachal Pradesh, Mandiyali dham is distinct and the serving method is also different. I’ve been lucky to taste Mandiyali dham numerous times. Considering the fact that Mandi lies on the Delhi-Manali route, it can be among the most accessible of places to try Dham. The dhuli urad ki dal is a speciality of the Mandiyali dham. It is believed that Mandiyali dham follows the Ayurvedic pattern of serving food where the sweet dish is served first. Sepubadi (sepuvadi) is a favourite for homesick Himachalis living outside their state!
Check : Ten foodie delights of Manali
Boondi ka meetha (Bengal gram flour dipped in sweet syrup) denotes the starting of the meal in Mandyali dham. After that, the feast begins – Sepuvadi (Fresh spinach leaves are made into a gravy and vadi is a deep fried fritter of black lentil and bengal gram) is served with rice. Next on the serving platter is kaddu ka khatta (Sweet and sour pumpkin dish made with tamarind and jaggery) and mah ki dal (black lentil dal) made in copious amounts of ghee. A different variety of madra with kidney beans is prepared and the ubiquitous kadhi is also served to be eaten with rice. Sometimes khatte chane (sweet and sour bengal gram) are also made and served in Mandiyali dham.
The dham is finished by serving jhol – a buttermilk like drink made by mixing curd and water.
Where to eat Mandiyali Dham? As I mentioned earlier, this is the easiest available of the dhams of Himachal Pradesh. Mandi is a sizeable town and has a well constructed ISBT (Inter-State Bus Terminal). Sharma Dhaba is located adjacent to the bus stand in Mandi and also has a big board with ‘Mandyali dham‘ written on it. The price is extremely affordable too, earlier it was 60 Rupees and now it costs 70 Rupees for an unlimited Mandyali Dham Thali.
In Shimla – Mandiyali Dham is available at Himachali Rasoi which is counted among the must eat places in Shimla.
Kullu – Kullvi Dham
Kullu valley has for long been called the ‘Valley of Gods’ and has remained a traveller and backpacker favourite for decades. With regards to local food of Kullu Valley, Kullvi Dham doesn’t have many different dishes as compared to Mandyali Dham but the serving process differs. Like Chambyali Dham, 2-3 different types of madra like rajmah madra, chickpea madra and Gucchi Madra are served first with rice. The dham continues with telia maash (oil fried black lentils), with delicious kadhi, chane ka khatta and meetha chawal (sweet rice) completes the feast.
Where to eat Kullvi Dham? Kullu is a big town and lies on the Delhi-Manali highway but travellers rarely stop in Kullu because there are roads to various valleys that divert from here. Kullu Dussehra is the most popular time for visitors to explore Kullu town. To savour the full delight of local food of Kullu, Sapna Sweets is a restaurant in the main market serving Kullvi Dham and other traditional food delicacies. Sapna sweets is well known locally and the visitor can ask any local for directions.
Among other popular and distinct dhams of Himachal Pradesh (that I haven’t tasted) – Bilaspur has a similar yet different variety of dishes for dham and it is distinctly known as Bilaspuri Dham. Sirmaur boasts of a Sirmauri dham as well.
Traditional Foods and Dishes from Other Parts of Himachal Pradesh
Lahaul – While most tourists, newspapers and travel guides speak of Lahaul & Spiti in the same breath (since they are part of the same district); there are a whole lot of cultural differences between Lahaul & Spiti. Lahaul has had a very interesting history having been a part of Kullu Kingdom and Chamba Kingdom at different points of time.
Two traditional dishes that the Lahaulis love are Juma & Poti. Juma – It is made by mixing wheat or millet flour with spices and then stuffed in sheep’s intestine which is steamed to prepare the dish & Poti – Intestine of sheep / goat is the integral part of the dish poti.
The best place to try Juma & Poti for tourists and travellers are the dhabas of Darcha (near the bridge on river Bhaga) on the Manali – Leh Highway.
Spiti – I won’t take much space here to talk about Spiti as there are many posts on the same on this blog itself by dint of my having visited Spiti almost half a dozen times! Food of Spiti has been much talked about, owing to the similarity with Ladakhi food. On my first trip to Spiti Valley, we were drunk on chhang and requested the homestay owner to feed us the local Barley Pancake. It got stuck with me! I think the locals call it Aktori.
I have been having barley pancake everytime I am in Spiti Valley and can safely say that it is best to try it at Café Kunzum Top in Tabo. Café Kunzum Top is located just behind the Tabo Monastery Guest House and can be spotted while walking to the meditation caves of Tabo.
Kinnaur – Kinnaur is the proverbial land of the ‘kinners’; who are halfway between men and God and why should their food be any different? Kinnaur is blessed with highly popular tourist destinations which also means the possibility of local food is getting lesser and lesser. Fafra & Ogla are varieties of buckwheat that grow in a tiny part of Sangla Valley (Baspa Valley). The valley is bathed in pink during the harvest time in September.
Fafra (also phaphra) & ogla are essentially grains that are then ground to make flour from which chiltas (flat pancakes) are made. They can be eaten with chutneys or dips made of curd etc. Fafra and ogla have immense medicinal benefits for a host of problems like blood pressure and diabetes.
It is possible to have fafra & ogla chilta at a small dhaba opposite PWD Rest House in Sangla, and also at my friend Aman Ahujaa’s place Hotel Apple Pie in Rakcham with a prior request.
Brace yourself, this post is not over yet! Although most of the local food dishes have been enumerated above :
Traditional Delicacies of Himachal Pradesh
Siddu – Siddu is the most famous dish across Himachal and is widely available in Kullu valley and other regions as well. Siddu (or Sidu) is a steamed dish of wheat based preparation filled with mixture of various kinds. The filing can be of crushed white poppy seeds mixed with spices, and also walnuts. Sometimes potatoes, palak, and other vegetables are also used. Siddu loosely resembles momo or spring rolls.
Babroo is a fried wheat based dish made from fermented wheat flour. (Himachali version of Kachori).
Patande is a wheat based thin pancake (Himachal version of dosa) popular from Chamba & Sirmaur districts.
Askalu is a pancake sort of dish made from powdered rice flour.
Sepa is a dish made of kulath dal (horsegram) by preparing steamed balls of kulath dal.
Poltu or Pule are fried rotis made from wheat flour and are eaten for festivals across Kinnaur, Lahaul & Spiti.
As I see regional cuisines disappear, my only aim of publishing this post is to make the traveller aware of the local food and Dhams of Himachal Pradesh, and try and promote the same so that the tradition is kept alive commercially as well. If I see more dhabas selling traditional food over the next few years, it will be a great delight. Thanks for reading.