Traditional dhams are served on pattals or plates made of leaves.
On a recent trip to Kangra valley in Himachal Pradesh, I landed at a Kangri dham - occasion being the thread ceremony of a retired Army officer’s grandson!
A dham is typically a vegetarian feast prepared on special occasions and cooked by Brahmin chefs who are known as botis. The dishes served at a Himachali dham varies from one district to another, but the one in Kangra district is known for its Rajma ka Madra, Chane ka Khatta and Meetha Chawal.
The speciality of a Kangri dham lies in its perfect blend of spices, and also the special utensils they are cooked in. People gather at 12 noon and feasting continues till 4 in the evening.
Sepu vadi is a gravy of white lentil dumplings.
The perfect recipe
Himachali food is typically cooked in mustard oil, and most of the dishes served at a dham, are prepared with yoghurt. Cooking begins the night before the feast and in copper vessels, which is the secret behind the rare aromas and flavour of the food.
Onions, tomatoes and garlic are avoided, instead dahi is used to make the gravies. The botis, who boast of a culinary legacy spanning hundred years, maintain that yoghurt helps in digestion and is therefore the most preferred ingredient.
A traditional dham is usually served on the floor and that too on pattals or plates made of leaves. We were told our feast would comprise almost seven to eight dishes, and wiping off each dish swiftly was the best way to relish the experience.
It also made sense to finish your meal as quickly as possible because it was almost 3 pm, and the queues seemed never ending.
Khajur ki kadhi is prepared with dried dates in a yoghurt gravy.
The highlight of our Kangri dham was Maah (black lentils), Madra (a chickpea preparation), Mahni (sour gravy) and Meetha (sweet gravy).
The first thing to arrive was plain rice and a fried red chilli on the side. Then came the chole, which tasted surprisingly sour yet delicious. This was soon followed by rajma, mutter paneer, telia maah or maa ki daal.
The star dish for me was Khajur ki Kadhi, a gravy cooked with dried dates. I was told the flavour of the Khajur ki Kadhi was enhanced by smoked akhrot or walnut. It was something that I had never tasted before.
Another interesting dish was Sepu Vadi where small white lentil dumplings are boiled in water, deep fried in mustard oil and cooked in a spinach gravy.
Cooking begins the night before the dham and is carried out by Brahmins.
Our dham ended on a sweet note with the botis serving Meetha Chawal – rice cooked with ghee, sugar, saffron (in some cases food colour may be used) and a generous portion of dry fruits. My second favourite dish of the day!
My Kangri dham experience is something I will not forget in a long time. Although my heart craved some Khatti Meat – mutton cooked with smoked walnut, I was not disheartened. The Himachali hospitality had done the trick after all.