“If there is one thing we never run out of, it is food.” As the statuesque Bhuvan Kumari, our host and owner of The Cottage at Jeolikot near Nainital ushers us into the cozy open-air dining area in her neat little homestay, we instinctively know it’s going to be a good meal. A cool breeze carries the delicious aroma of fresh food from the kitchen. Yes, the crew is a little tired. And hungry. The Utsav—Thalis of India trail across the country has been exhilarating, delicious, and quite exhausting too. A train from Delhi to Kathgodam, and then a 45-minute drive up the hills has brought us to The Cottage located in this tiny village, and even though we’re here to explore Kumaoni food, the green hills and crisp mountain breeze are lulling us into a holiday mood. As we gather around the table where our Pahadi meal has been laid out, we’re overcome by curiosity to peep into the simple, home-style kitchen at The Cottage—it is where the action is unfolding. Millet flour is being kneaded, bright-coloured vegetables are being chopped, green and red curries are being stirred and smooth grey seeds are being pounded with green chillies. At the helm of the Kumaoni kitchen is Kamla, a seasoned local, draped in a bright red sari and an easy toothy smile.
A basket of tender Nettles before it is steamed to remove the sting
Naturally curious, we dip into the dark green Bichchu booti ka saag. It appears much like Palak paneer without the cottage cheese cubes. “Eat it with Madue ki roti, that’s the traditional pairing,” Bhuvan Kumari tells us. Madua is a variety of Himalayan millet that closely resembles Ragi. Thick, coarse rotis fresh off the griddle are served with a generous dab of ghee. We watch as Kamla’s fingers deftly flatten a ball of dough into a neat roti, it is as fascinating as the story she's telling us of the millet that once grew in abundance, but is now losing favour with farmers. The saag has a sharp bitter aftertaste balanced perfectly by the nuttiness of the millet roti. Tender leaves of the bushy nettle are picked with a pair of tongs, and immersed in boiling water to remove the sting. The cooked leaves are then ground, mixed with besan paste and seasoned with cumin, mustard and red chillies to make this simple, vitamin C-rich saag.
Much after polishing off the saag, millet rotis, dal and raita from our plate, we continue to sit around the table with Kamla, the kitchen staff, and the matriarch Bhuvan Kumari, listening to stories of how she built her cottage, brick by brick. Somewhere around that time, we’ve licked clean the bowl of Bhang ki chutney.
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