Naba Basar discovers the secrets of healthy, organic and innovative mountain cuisine from Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. She shares her experiences of the mountain regions adventure, hospitality, social customs, lifestyle in a series of features for The High Asia Herald readers.
Food should never be the sole reason to travel. Fortuitously for many, it is a popular trend for both domestic and international travel. Travellers are classified into different types: Some prefer a ‘quick-bite’; others who wish to eat, not only to satisfy their hunger pangs but for the sheer pleasure of experiencing the food itself – seeking pleasure in taste, aromas, developing their palate, enjoying the texture, indulging in preparation, presentation and sometimes interacting with the chefs and the servers. Many still prefer the local food, prepared on the road-sides or in a local home.
I prefer experiencing the local cuisine — homegrown, organic and natural tasting simple food. I strongly believe in, “travel like a local”, “live like a local” and “eat like a local”!
For breakfast the inhabitants in mountain valleys of Karakorams, Himalayas and the Hindu Kush normally serve, eggs (poached, fried, omelette) and sometimes flatbread (roti) with home-churned butter.
Hunza valley is one of the most alluringly beautiful places in Gilgit-Baltistan. The lush green terraced fields, fruit orchards, culture, history and soaring glacial peaks attract thousands of people from across the world and Pakistan.
It is home to one of the healthiest and happiest peoples in this part of the world, whose health records qualify them as one of the “world’s longest-living, most illness-free peoples for hundreds of years” thanks to the diet and lifestyle of the Hunzukutzs. They still prefer growing their own food and include a range of nutritious, health-promoting, organic, super-rich foods in their diet which is quite unknown to the rest of the world. One can’t complete a trip to Hunza without experiencing the authentic and local food and always bring what you can with you — dried fruit, jams, honey, oils and herbs.
For breakfast the people of Hunza normally serve, eggs (poached, fried, omelette) and sometimes flatbread (roti) with home churned butter. Hunza bread is considered to be an important breakfast item. It is made with wheat flour (sometimes a portion of maize flour for extra flavour and texture). The bread is then baked in an earthenware pan.
Phitti in Burushaski and Ptok in Wakhi is the most common breakfast food. Thick and nutritious, with a crusty outside and a soft interior but is time-consuming to prepare. The savoury bread is served with salted milk tea, for most Hunza people do not prefer adding sugar.
Wheat is the most cultivated staple food in this region. Other grains that are harvested include buckwheat and barley. Everyone here knows the difference in taste between phitti (wild-yeast bread) buried and baked in hot ashes, baked on the stove or in an electric oven. Most commonly now the bread is baked in a heavy-based pan on the stovetop or qamichdon/qamochdoon.
During my three-day stay in Chipursan, the last valley of Gojal, upper Hunza on the Wakhan corridor border of Afghanistan had the advantage and opportunity to live a local-life and eat the local food from breakfast to dinner. For breakfast, you must try Phitti or Ptok – a crusty whole-wheat bread which is soft inside and baked in fire. Diram Phitti – a bread made from sprouted wheat flour which gives a natural sweetness to it and is served mixed with butter, almond or apricot oil. The apricot oil creates a sweet aroma to go with the smoky flavours from the wood used in cooking.
In Gojal, Wakhi people call it Ptok, in Burushaski, it is called Phitti and in Gilgit Shina speaking people call it Chupatti. The bakery baked ones aren’t the same, so purchase only if you are really craving it.
Once I was invited into a home in Gulmit, Gojal and the lady served fresh milk with freshly rolled crusty whole-wheat bread. The bread can be stored for days and not rot — thanks to the weather and pollution-free environment. Often it is eaten as a snack with evening tea.
My son and I are personally fond of Phitti/Ptok and Arzooq (bread made from flour, eggs, butter and milk) and assorted bread made using wheat and apricot or walnut oils, served with ‘namkeen chai’ (salted milk tea).
In Skardu, we had this delicious tasting, homemade Keseer at upper Kachura lake. A pancake cooked in apricot oil served with local butter. Your palate has to get used to the taste of apricot oil which is slightly sharp-tasting. I am extremely fond of Hunza apricots, in any form — fresh or dried, sweet kernels, oil and jam. It is always great to pick up some local flavour of your destination.
In Kalash, we were camping at Faizi bhai’s home-turned resort and he suggested his wife cook special walnut bread for our breakfast. A thick wheat bread cooked with walnut oil and crushed walnuts as a filling. These bread will leave you full for hours, even if you took a small slice.
Maltash xae Giyaling (Hunza pancakes) is a mountain crepe made from hand-milled whole-meal flour that is coated with apricot, almond or walnut oil, and served with fresh butter.
“These pancakes are a traditional dish prepared when a woman visits her parents’ house after her marriage. It is eaten with chai (milk tea)”, explained Chand Bibi at Hunza Food Pavilion at Karimabad. She served the local pancake drizzled with honey.
The place is known for its completely authentic, organically prepared local Hunza Valley dishes.
The three stages of making Shirik. It is a local Hunza and Gojal bread made for special occasions. It is made from wheat, dried apricot juice (chamus), milk, turmeric (haldi), masala and cooking oil.
We had this at Hussaini, Gulmit, Gojal, upper Hunza. The bread is served on the first day of Eidul Azha.
Giyaling/Garal is levelled bread, with a range of wheat or grain flours and served by spreading butter on it. It is a savoury breakfast, cooked on usual and special occasions. Normally it is best with namkeen chai (salt tea). It has a delicious smoky flavour if cooked on a flat iron plate that usually comes from a wood-burning stove or fire.
This delicious Eid breakfast of Pai (hand-made local yogurt) and Shaapik (roti) was served by Gulshad Begum, who insisted and invited us over on Eid’s first day at her mud-house near Borith Lake, Gojal.
It is a simple and hearty dish served with love, on dastarkhwan, a hand-embroidered beautiful white cloth stitched by the old yet strong lady — exuberant to serve a guest. It is a perfect combination with a light cup of hot milk tea with a dash of Himalayan pink salt. (To be Continued)
Nabar Basar is a teacher, freelance writer, author and traveller. Born and raised in Karachi, she stepped out of her comfort zone as a single parent and explored Pakistan. Her passion for nature and adventure started in 2013 with exploring mountain ranges across Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, travelling solo, in small groups and backpacking, in public transport, living in local homes and enjoying the simple food the mountains offer. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or https://www.kitabain.com/nababasar