Lukpah extraordinaire!

In a room butted up against the Monsoon-swollen River Ganges in Varanasi I think back to the eight-day bone-dry trek from which I have just returned in India’s northern province of Ladakh. India’s ample size means that in the 15 or so days B and I have been in the country we have already experienced the ends of the extremes. From Dehli’s immaculate new, post-Commonwealth Games airport and security-tight air-conditioned Metro system to their fetid waste and slum-dwellers and the humid chaos of the Old Town. Then on to the provincial capital of the Indian Himalayas, Leh, with it’s western hippies and adventure-seekers, Tibetan refugee traders and its landscape dotted by Buddist Stupas and Gompas. And now back down to wet, wet Varanasi.

Our trek took us up and over 5000mts twice within the eight days, both feats of which I barely (only ever so slightly melodramatically) survived and in turn did much better than others, yet in all likelihood won’t be repeated in my lifetime. Depending on who you talk to the journey through the Markha Valley is an ‘easy’ trek, or something that should only be attempted by experienced walkers with ‘all the gear.’

For me, it was HARD! But very enjoyable. A reasonable part of this enjoyment is the responsibility of one man – Lukpah, our trek cook. I know, you thought I was going to say B, don’t worry, he also contributed significantly to my survival as did our trek guide, not to mention the incredible scenery.

I don’t need to tell you that eight days of walking is hard work even if there were ponies to carry our camping accoutrements (clothes, sleeping bags etc). But whatever hardship we felt at the end of the day it ALWAYS paled at the sight of Lukpah putting up tents, scrubbing pots, brewing our tea, preparing veg for supper.  Day-to-day he travelled, often walking, the route we took with his camp kitchen and all the ingredients packed up on the ponies only to arrive at our next stop to settle, set-up, make us tea and prepare a 3-course supper. And how!

We were warned at the start of our trip that he was the ‘best cook’ in the organization but this really didn’t sink in until the evening of the first day when, after a restorative fresh mint tea and biscuits set on a makeshift table-clothed chest. We were then presented with a meal of steaming hot soup with spicy popadams, followed by two curry dishes, pilau rice and fresh cucumber salad and pudding. This was definitely a precursory sign of things to come. The following nights produced a dexterous array of cuisine including decoratively presented chop-suey, a fantastic chilli-paneer, macaroni-cheese, tempura spicy fried aubergines and capsicum rings, steamed sponge pudding and even a respectable pizza. Lukpah was up cooking us a hearty breakfast as well: a particular favourite being fried home/trek-made bread. The highlight for me was supper on day seven, delicious Tibetan momos.

Much like a dumpling or dim sum, momos are small, thin pastry cased parcels of vegetable, or vegetable and cheese, or vegetable and meat that come as a steamed or fried variety. And they are deliciously served with a slightly punchy tomato sauce.

What is to be applauded really is cooks that, like Lukpah, do a truly great job under conditions that many would deem unthinkable. Lukpah’s kitchen consisted of two kerosene flame stoves, a chopping board made from the cross section of a tree trunk, a steamer, an array of tin bowls, plates and pots of various sizes and a very sharp knife. He cooked in the squat position, which I’m sure he is very used to, but having tried it I myself I found almost impossible for any length of time. His selection of arrayed ingredients had to last 8 days without refrigeration (we had temperatures fluctuating between 20 degrees to -5). He was also sensitive to the purpose of the trek providing ginger tea for relief at altitude and rice pudding when B’s tum decided to give him some jip. Cooks and chefs who work in these kinds of conditions deserve to be celebrated.  So here’s to Lukpah – camp cook extraodinaire!

Vegetable and cheese momo

I observed Lukpah making these from scratch in a darkened and really quite cold tent on top of a mountain. Various livestock, cashmere goats and mountain cows, peaked in while he was cooking only to be shouted abuse at in Hindi. NB: I hope the quantities are correct but the recipe remains untested until my return.

 For the casings

2 handfuls of flour (300g)

2 cups of water (400ml)

For the filling

¼ small cabbage (finely chopped)

2 carrots (grated)

100g grated cheese

2 tbl spn butter

For the sauce

5 tomatoes

50ml tomato puree

1 tspn coriander powder

Salt and pepper

Utensils

Steamer bamboo or other.

  1. Grate carrot and cabbage into a bowl.
  2. Score the bottle of the tomatoes with an ‘X’ and place into a pot of boiling water for a minute or so until the skins start to peel. Remove from water, peel off skins a chop finely then set aside.
  3. Put the flour in a bowl and slowly add the water combining as you go to form a firm dough.
  4. Prepare steamer by boil water and oiling the surface on which the momo will be places (to prevent sticking).
  5. Fry off the carrot and cabbage mix in a little oil till it’s wilted but not dry. Add the grated cheese to the pan and stir, remove from the heat.
  6. Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato puree and coriander powder to a small pan over a medium heat and stir. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Tear off walnut sized pieces of dough into a bowl with a dusting of flour.
  8. Roll the dough very thin, place in the centre of your palm and fill with a teaspoon of carrot and cabbage mix. Firmly pinch the sides of the momo together and place in the steamer 2 cms apart in the cen ready to be rolled thin and stuffed with filling.
  9. Steam for 10-15min and serve immediately (or fry in a little oil if you prefer the fried version).