This story was originally published in TravelDine India by Vernika Awal.
Himachal’s dham lives today as the ultimate flagbearer of the state’s native cuisine, but when you look back at it, you realise it is a celebration that has largely stuck to its roots.
While India’s regional cuisines are as widely diverse as her languages, there is one clear uniting factor. For every cuisine (and this likely holds true for other nations as well)—there are two factions to food. One half of the said cuisine thrives on the best of its offerings that are made during celebrations. The other half narrates stories of survival, and how generations have managed to create essential dishes with bare necessities to stay afloat.
The story of the humble dham, the virtuoso regional platter from Himachal Pradesh, straddles both these factions.
For the common man and gods alike
Those who have grown up in Himachal listening to the region’s folklore would tell you how the dham likely dates back by centuries—back to a time when an erstwhile king ordered his royal cook to prepare a resplendent spread using only what was locally produced and available. The offering had to resemble the Kashmiri wazwan, and apparently had to be vegetarian as it was an offering to the deities the king worshipped.
Others, who prefer to trace food journeys less mythologically, would tell you that the culture of the dham began as local communities took to whatever around to prepare a celebratory spread on auspicious occasions. The dham saw meat being added to it as various rulers waged war across the region, giving little scope for agriculture to flourish.
Simplicity is the dham’s key
Nitika Sood Kuthiala, a Delhi-based home-chef, Himachal native, and a veteran of the local cuisine, emphasises that the dham, after all, is “absolutely simple food, without onion or garlic”. She adds that in a traditional dham, there are no vegetables added to the fare, and lentils and pulses form the mainstay. Curd, too, is a common feature of the dham, Kuthiala says.
Different types of pulses, such as green gram (moong), black gram (urad) and red lentils (masoor) have always been a part of Indian food—collectively called ‘maash’. With them, lobia, rajma, kabuli chana and toor dal are also used in the dham.
Served on sal tree leaves (shorea robusta) or pattal as one traditionally calls it, dham consists of steamed rice, madra (curd-based lentil curry), khatta/Mahni (sour chickpea curry), kadhi (spiced buttermilk curry), sepu badi (black lentil dumplings curry) teliyah maah (whole black lentils cooked with spices) and meetha (sweet fragrant rice). Additions and modifications to this fare depend on the district of the state that each dham represents.
The dham’s royal legacy
According to Kuthiala, it is the Kangri dham that is the “most common”. Hailing from Kangra herself, she says, “In the food of Kangra, which is surrounded by the Peer Panjal, Dhaulagiri and Shivalik hill ranges, one can see a glimpse of each and every tribe and community of Himachal.”
The representation of such regions can be thus noticed in dishes such as the madra, an indispensable part of the dham. Among all varieties, it is the rajma madra of Chamba, made with copious amounts of ghee, rajma and dahi, that stands out.
However, this changes as one travels to another region in the hills of Himachal. For instance, in Kangra, aloo-chane ka madra—made with potatoes and white chickpeas in mustard oil—is prevalent. Speaking to Raja Rupendra Pal of Kutlehar, the reason behind this shift in the variety of madra becomes apparent.
When meat was added to the platter
Pal added an interesting anecdote about how the dham, which was typically vegetarian, saw the addition of meat as an important part of the fare that it is offered as today. “As the area was always in the path of every conqueror that was going to Delhi, they went through the area of Kutlehar. There was always an on-going war, and during such times, one cannot wait for things to grow. Hence, a lot of non-vegetarian food and game meat was consumed, as meat was like mobile food that went with you wherever you went,” Pal adds.
He elaborates that pulses were the perfect companion to the meat as they could be stored and carried with relative ease as well—critical in times of war. Back in the day, some of the most common meat inclusions in the dham were khatta meat, chaa meat and dahi wala meat, and these items continue to feature in the royal dham even today.
Celebration on a pattal
Despite such diversity, there are unifying factors, too. For instance, there is copious usage of souring agents in the dishes cooked here. Explaining this, nutrition consultant and author Sangeeta Khanna, says that as the water in the mountains has dissolved minerals and the air has lower oxygen levels, it is typically harder to digest the food than in the plains. In such situations, souring agents help aid digestion.
Khanna further adds that it is because of the digestion factor that churan—medicated salts—also form an important part of the Himachali diet.
It is, therefore, fitting to note that what has not changed at all is the way dham is eaten—sitting on the floor, in a pangat, and eating it out of a pattal. It is a celebration and a great social equaliser, all rolled into a single plate.