Nestled amidst the craggy Karakoram mountains in the untouched side of Ladakh lies a small village called Turtuk. Inaccessible to tourists until 2010 as it is precariously close to the border, Turtuk is part of Baltistan that interestingly lies on both sides of the India-Pakistan border.
Turtuk was annexed to India following the India-Pakistan war in 1971. It now sits in the Indian territory, right by the border of Gilgit-Baltistan, along the River Shyok. Baltistan was an important gateway to the Silk Road, the ancient trading route that connected India with China, Persia and Rome, and, hence has a unique history, culture and cuisine. Before modern borders, Baltistan was a separate kingdom. Until the 16th century, monarchs from Turkistan ruled over the united province under the Yagbo dynasty, a Central Asian empire.
Also read: Time stands still at Turtuk
Outlined by rustic stone-walled houses that lead into lush fields of buckwheat, barley, apricots and wild berries, Turtuk stands out with its green expanse and the distinct Balti Muslim culture, unlike Ladakh’s predominantly Buddhist and Tibetan culture. With panoramic views of snow-clad peaks, including that of Mt. K2, Turtuk’s colourful landscape, culture, food, language, and clothing, is a close-knit secret that is only now opening its doors to the tourist world. It takes a full day’s journey from Leh, including passing the Khardung La, one of the world’s highest motorable pass to reach this quaint and heavily guarded village of about 4,000 residents who speak the Balti language.
Land of BuckwheatKnown for their hospitality, Balti cuisine boasts of a unique flavour—that comes from traditional cooking styles and hearty local produce harvested in the fertile land. Balti cuisine is simple and seasonal—in the summers, the local fare is made out of locally harvested grains and vegetables, while meat and yak cheese is saved for winters when vegetable produce is scarce. Surrounded by fields of barley, varieties of golden apricots, apple orchards, sea buckthorn bushes and walnut trees, Turtuk is greener than most parts of Ladakh. Turtuk also boasts of a natural cold storage, an underground larder made out of stones, that stays cold throughout the year without any electrical supply. The locals store perishable food items for the rough winters.
It is also one of the largest producer of the modern-day superfood, ‘buckwheat’ aka kuttu that forms the staple of Balti cuisine. With few restaurants in Turtuk, local homemade Balti delicacies are a major attraction for tourists. Such as Zan, a savory steamed buckwheat cake served with a mixture of greens and yogurt as a dip called as Tsamig or Kissir which are buckwheat pancakes served with fragrant greens called Grangtur. They also make buckwheat dumplings in a sauce of ground walnuts, almonds, and spices. In the local Balti language, buckwheat is called gyas, and the flour is called tarma.
Garden of ApricotsIn the freezing winters, when temperatures drop up to minus 20 degree Celsius, families gather in the kitchen around the stove with chai and namkeen. Chai—the yak butter tea—is another staple invigorating Balti drink that lends comfort and warmth in a sip. Balti cuisine is incomplete without apricots or khubani as they are locally known as. Undoubtedly the highlight of Balti cuisine, apricots are served in many ways in the local fare—from fresh to dried to fermented or even coarsely ground in chutneys and dips and even as oil to dip the local breads. With every second tree being an apricot tree, the locals don’t mind tourists plucking them and eating them fresh off the tree.
The Balti cuisine rests on simple, rustic flavours that are complemented with the wide variety of greens, wild herbs and flowers that pack quite a punch with flavours and generous helpings of butter and cheese. Baley is another popular and comforting Balti dish that brings together the heartiness of its ingredients in perfect measure. A perfect accompaniment for the cold weather, this thick and hearty stew is made with vegetables or goat meat broth with textured noodles and smalls bits of meat mixed within. While these local indigenous ingredients lend the food here a distinct flavour and taste, they are also slowly making their way into the cities as modern chefs seek to bring them into spotlight with a unique twist. From sea buckthorn sorbets to apricot oils and yak cheese tacos, modern restaurants such as Masque are taking inspiration from such Himalayan ingredients and methods to plate up extraordinary menus and dishes.
Don’t forget to catch more of Balti Cuisine on Himalayas: An Offbeat Adventure
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Inside images: Rohan Tulpule