Preserving Summer Ladakh's Age-Old Storage Traditions

In Ladakh, where winter brings extreme temperatures and heavy snowfall, people rely on indigenous practices of storing food
The valleys of Ladakh. Credits Hans Jurgen, Unsplash
The valleys of Ladakh. Credits Hans Jurgen, Unsplash

To make a comforting bowl of Thukpa during the winter in Ladakh, preparations begin as early as
May. The vegetables in it are harvested and stored long before the snow sets in the herbs are dried in the months when the sun still shines bright, and the yak meat is hung to freeze days before Losar celebrations begin in December.

Remains of the Season

Located in trans-Himalaya and at an altitude of 2,900-5,900 metres above mean sea level, winter in Ladakh leans towards the extreme. The cold-arid desert experiences sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall, lasting at least six months. During this time, the only thing people in Ladakh can depend on for food is what they grew in the five summer months, from April to September. As Ladakh remains cut  off from the rest of the world for these six months of harsh weather, the locals have developed indigenous storage and preservation techniques practised even today. Impressively, these techniques are anything but complex and exclusive, even if the situations confronted might be.&ldquoTo understand our food culture and why we eat what we eat, it is important to understand the agro climatic and geo-ecological factors of the land,&rdquo says Kunzes Angmo, food researcher, chef and founder of Artisanal Alchemy in Leh. Through her venture, Angmo has devoted herself to introducing people to authentic Ladakhi cuisine through experiential dining&mdashthese include three-hour-long sit-down meals, complete with an exploration of Ladakh&rsquos history as narrated by Angmo herself. &ldquoAt the end of the day, what you eat depends on what the earth sustains. This predates any other factor considered important, like food policies, exports and imports, and even religion,&rdquo Angmo admits. Unique storage techniques were not the only discovery spurred by Ladakh&rsquos strained connectivity. Angmo explains, &ldquoSometimes, due to heavy snowfall, we were disconnected from the very next village and not just from the rest of the country. Every family, therefore, was a self-sufficient unit who grew what they ate and ate what they grew.&rdquo To imagine carrots and turnips on the plate during any other time but in winter seems unlikely. However, these &ldquowinter vegetables&rdquo are grown and eaten fresh in Ladakh during summer. &ldquoEvery house has a trench-style room on the lower floor, which is completely dark and has no ventilation. This is where we keep the vegetables, grown in summer, covered with mitti or dry soil,&rdquo says Angmo. Since the temperature can drop to -20 degrees Celsius, the vegetables are covered with a thick layer of mitti, which is much warmer, to keep it from freezing and not rotting. This process of &ldquoroot-cellaring,&rdquo in a dark and closed room traditionally known as tsothbang, ensures that the vegetables stay fresh and edible until May. Angmo shares another way of storing these harvested gems in wait for the winter. &ldquoMy parents would also fill up big sacks with all the vegetables set aside for winter and dig up the garden to bury it. This would be covered with a layer of mitti for the same reasons.&rdquo The pit, known as sandong, is at least 150-180 cm deep and 90-120 cm wide. Once winter is over, the leftover vegetables are taken out, and the ground is filled with earth again to keep it ready for the next harvest season.

Under The Sun

&ldquoIn my village and across Ladakh, the technique of sun-drying vegetables and herbs has been around since ancient times,&rdquo says Nilza Wangmo, chef and founder of Alchi Kitchen and recipient of the prestigious Nari Shakti Puraskar. The foraged herbs would be washed carefully and kept in the sun for a few hours until they were dry. Padma Yangchan, who was also awarded the Nari Shakti Puraskar for contributing significantly to reviving Ladakh&rsquos age-old culinary traditions, laments the same. She says, &ldquoEarlier, the same thing would taste so different. It would be so much more flavourful.&rdquo

Making The Meat

The practice of dehydration is not limited to fruits and vegetables but also includes meat and dairy products. This is specifically prevalent among the Changpa nomads in Changthang&mdashsince they&rsquore always on the move, carrying dehydrated meat is easier and lighter. In villages across Ladakh, dehydrating meat begins much later, during the Ladakhi New Year, also known as Losar. &ldquoThe animal (most commonly yak) is sacrificed and is kept as it is for a few days till it gets frozen. After that, thin strips are cut and hung up in a dark room (a common feature in every house) to dry. Some people also rub salt on it,&rdquo says Yangchan. The dried yak meat is most commonly used in thukpas, but Yangchan mentions another ancient local preparation using frozen meat, which resembles the French tartare (raw meat dish). The meat is pounded and then mixed with spices, like yellow chilli flakes, salt and pepper. The dish, known as Shapchen or Sharjen, finally comes together when simmering cha khunag (light green tea) is poured over it.

Of The Past

Ladakh&rsquos unique storage techniques and dehydrating methods resulted from its unique circumstances. For the longest time, the region had no choice but to depend on itself to make it through the six months of lapsed connectivity and severe scarcity. However, things have changed. &ldquoIn villages and among older communities, these traditions continue to prevail. Earlier, what had to be grown, can now be easily found in markets, even in winter,&rdquo says Angmo. Self-reliance is not the only characteristic that bloomed even in harsh conditions. Earlier, people knew how to live harmoniously with nature. For instance, for the longest time, sea buckthorn was not a part of meals, as it is now. Angmo says, &ldquoOur ancestors never harvested sea buckthorns. Instead, it was left for birds to feast on during the winter months.&rdquo Although the younger generation has left these traditions behind, moving on to more convenient methods is one of many drawbacks. The primary issue is the lack of mention and documentation of these unique and innovative practices the region has depended on to survive the year&rsquos most challenging months.

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