Chop off the head of the goat and with the animal’s feet tied, hang it over an open coal fire till you can easily skin it.” That is the first step in preparing the Kumaoni classic, kachpak.
I spent last weekend at Bhimtal’s Fishermen’s Lodge, being educated in the intricacies of local cooking. Many of the delightful cottages and lodges across Kumaon are run by retired couples from outside the state, so Kumaoni food is something of a closed book in one half of Uttarakhand. I struck lucky at Fishermen’s Lodge, because they have a local cook-cum-caterer on call. Mahesh Upadhyay was unleashing his cuisine on me as he cooked a far simpler meal—one that didn’t involve rubbing off half-burnt hair off roasting goats.
Local favourites: Madua ki roti, pahadi nimbu and Kumaoni spices. Photo: Marryam H. Reshi
Kachpak, which by the way is short for kaccha-pukka, is simplicity itself. All you do is mix the skin and offal of the goat with salt, raw mustard oil, chilli powder and coriander leaves. The chewy texture is, reportedly, part of the fun.
The feast that Upadhyay cooked for me was at the opposite end of the exotica scale from roasted goat’s skin. Gauth ki dukkey were al dente pakoras in spinach gravy, dry preparations of cabbage and potatoes were much the same as their counterparts elsewhere in north India, lai was a spinach-like vegetable cooked without gravy and jholi was kadhi by another name. Only the Kumaoni signature ras-bhath had no parallel. It was made of a blend of five types of dals that were simmered overnight till the lentils themselves had disintegrated. It was the water that was used for this dish that had all the trappings of comfort food. The liquid—except that that is not a particularly descriptive term—was spiced minimally and eaten as a breakfast gruel with rice.
Ras-bhath intrigued me because it was one of the few vegetarian offerings across the country that has an overtly meaty taste, though how even a Kumaoni could get dal to taste meaty is beyond me.
Like all homely meals, this one too sparkled with accompaniments. Bhang ki chutney horrified me at first, but it was a raita with a mildly fragrant chopped leaf (that’s what bhang tastes like) that won’t make you feel drowsy. Upadhyay assured me that it is perfectly in order for a young girl to ask the vegetable vendor for bhang leaves.
The second chutney consisted of pounded coriander leaves mixed with chopped garlic, green chillies and raw mustard oil. You decide which element you want to play up and blend the ingredients accordingly. The third chutney was simplicity itself: beaten curd and wedges of lemon from which the membrane had been removed, seasoned with salt. Nimbu, as it is called, has to be made with large Mediterranean lemons, the only kind that grows in Kumaon.
Practically the only exotic aspect of the meal came from using raw mustard oil in a couple of dishes. It’s the one ingredient that you’ll also encounter in kachpak.
The key to making this is to have a source of very low heat that can be left on all night. This extracts every last vestige of taste from the lentils.
25g chickpeas or kala chana
25g ghaut (kulthi dal or horse gram, available at grain or health food stores)
25g lobia (black-eyed beans)
25g whole urad (black lentil)
1 tsp chopped garlic
2 green chillies, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1tsp cumin seeds, coarsely pounded
Wash the lentils till the water runs clear. Set it to cook with plenty of water in a large vessel—for most urbanites, a pressure cooker would have to do, but in Kumaon a saucepan would be used. Bring to the boil on a high fire and then simmer for several hours, making sure the water level remains generous. If you are making it in a pressure cooker, after the first whistle, turn the gas burner down to the minimum and cook for at least 2 hours.
You should end up with a slightly thick liquid. Strain the liquid from the dal (the mashed-to-death dal is fed to cows in Kumaon). Fry onion, garlic, chillies and cumin seeds, add to the liquid and simmer for 5 minutes for the flavours to unravel. Serve in a bowl with steaming rice. The combination should have a porridge-like consistency.
Write to Marryam at firstname.lastname@example.org