With love, from Ladakh: Chefs Vanika Choudhary and Kunzes script a perfect story with indigenous ingredients
Meet the dynamic duo, chefs Vanika Choudhary and Kunzes Angmo who are changing the face of Ladakhi cuisine, one feast at a time.
Saturday February 18, 2023,
7 min Read
Ladakh, often described as the ‘last Shangri-La’ has captivated the imagination of travellers from all walks of life. While the region’s stunning landscapes are oft-talked-about, conversations around its cuisine remain limited to the thukpa and momo.
Today, these popular and overly commercialised foods are available in nooks and crannies of several urban towns and cities, but there’s so much more to Ladakh’s culinary heritage. There’s a world of ingredients, stories and cultures that aren’t just waiting to be discovered; they are in dire need of preservation.
Taking on the mantle of educating diners and bringing to them ingredients that find no mention in mainstream menus are chefs Vanika Choudhary of Noon (Mumbai) and Kunzes Angmo of Artisanal Alchemy (Ladakh). During a telephonic conversation with the duo, it dawned upon me how these two women with strikingly different journeys have a shared purpose: to spotlight ingredient-first cuisine.
After the success of their last collaboration in Mumbai, Vanika and Kunzes are here at The Lodhi, New Delhi, to offer a Ladakhi feast from February 16-19, 2023. The exclusive eight-course menu available to 30 diners every night focuses on house-made ferments and foraged Himalayan produce. One can pair it with their craft cocktails that are equally unique in character.
In a heart-to-heart chat with YS Life, Vanika and Kunzes speak about their endeavour to bring the food of the forefathers to their diner’s plate, how they made this collaboration possible, and more.
Preserving Ladakhi culture and cuisine
While Kunzes runs Artisanal Alchemy, a company that offers curated dining experiences in Ladakh; Vanika is the brain behind Noon and Sequel, both pioneers in their own right. Sequel in Mumbai introduced us to gluten-free, truly organic, farm-to-fork and vegan-friendly meals; Noon is all about reimagining Indian cuisine with koji-based fermentation.
In both her ventures, Vanika’s inclination towards providing wholesome, nasties-free meals have taken centrestage. Delving deep into the details, we realise this has to do with the childhood she experienced. Her father, a scientist and sericulturist, was instrumental in her developing an interest in ingredient-first cuisine.
“I want to spotlight how the food lands on your plate—everything about how it is grown to its harvesting, to its soil health, and more. As a child, I saw everything from turnips, plums, peaches, and haak saag growing in my garden. That’s how I was raised,” confesses Vanika, who quit her corporate job to start Sequel seven years ago.
This approach was carried over to Noon. About four years ago, when she found out about her pregnancy, all Vanika wanted to do is dig into gucchi pulao (a Kashmiri delicacy made with long-grained basmati rice, gucchi mushrooms and spices), her absolute comfort food, paired with shalgam ka achaar (pickle made using turnips) and kanji (a probiotic drink made by fermenting black carrots and spices in water).
“My nani would ferment it in Kashmir in an earthen pot with spices and black carrots that are indigenous to the region. I think that was my calling to explore my roots and look at Indian food from the mountains: from Kashmir, Jammu, and Ladakh,” she shares, adding that they have 44 ferments in the kitchen at Noon.
For Kunzes, Artisanal Alchemy is a concerted effort to educate diners about the rich cuisine of Ladakh. Moreover, with travelogues like these in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, she believes it’s all about going a step above and beyond the borders of her land.
“We don’t want to just serve food on the plate; anyone can do that. Instead, we want to engage in a conversation about what you are eating, why you are eating, and what we are cooking. I believe that is memorable,” she says.
The much-needed collaboration
While there's much buzz about indigenous food, Kunzes believes it is really about bringing in ingredients from a remote corner of the country. There's the use of ambemohar rice and khapli wheat, which are not just nutritious but also pure in flavour profile.
"At the end of the day, how good your food tastes is dependent on how good the ingredients are. For instance, the natural flavonoids in organic vegetables impart a certain taste. We want to spotlight ingredients of a region that’s a part of the minority," she chimes in.
It is exactly this thought process that led Vanika and Kunzes to cross paths. Vanika has been closely working with Ladakh Basket, a community-driven social enterprise that works with women farmers. She spent a lot of time with them in the Changthang area, a remote village in the wilderness.
"I realised that I have eaten this food in those homes, but not in Leh. A friend of ours who runs Jigmet Couture introduced me to Kunzes. I believe Kunzes’s food is all about paying homage to the cuisine of our ancestors in the purest form. While I was dining at Artisanal Alchemy, I asked her to do a pop-up midway through the meal," shares Vanika, adding that it is probably just Kunzes who is keeping this cuisine alive in all of Ladakh.
The exclusive menu
As mentioned earlier, Noon's kitchen makes everything from miso to shoyu, to tamari, to different kinds of amino sauces. While some of the ferments may be Korean or Japanese, they are all made using indigenous varieties of ingredients.
"You won't find soybean miso in our kitchen; instead, we have miso with pigeon pea. Rajma chawal, my comfort food, has been converted into a miso that is fermented for one year. You will find amino sauces with foraging ingredients from Kashmir and Ladakh, and fermented with koji. We have a miso with ragi, and another with proso millet," explains Vanika.
The entire meal is built to represent traditional recipes, with focus on ingredients that aren't used otherwise.
"Kosnyot or wild caraway is not really used. We are using fermented strawberries with kosynot to make cocktails. We are not using seabuckthorn, which is overused otherwise. As chefs, it is important to be mindful and clear about what you are doing, and why you are doing it. The food we cook is bigger than us or our brand," Kunzes points out.
The eight-course menu that will be available in New Delhi is built around foraged and indigenous produce from remote corners of Ladakh, heirloom varieties of Indian grains, the best of seasonal produce from their local farm partners, accentuated with house-made ferments to add umami and texture to their carefully curated spread.
"From wild garlic chives from Khardung to black buckwheat, summer savoury and Moldavian dragonhead from Turtuk, to sun dried vegetables and wild Himalayan caraway—we have curated a meal using produce that is rarely seen in mainstream dining experience and that foregrounds the diversity of Indian flavours," shares Vanika.
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Her personal pick is Nolen Gur Garum Tomatoes served with Khura and Thangyir Thecha Butter. "It is native but presented in a modern format. Garum originated 10,000 years ago in Greece and Rome as a means to preserve meat. This is our take on plant-based garum. We have turned the flavour profile of something that's intensely sweet into subtly sweet, deeply umami, and a bit savoury," she explains.
After offering this rare dining experience in the national capital, their next stop will be Bengaluru, after which they will do a food trail in Ladakh.
"We are also flying in a chef from London, who is an expert in his field to complement Ladakhi elements. Every region has its unique character. This experience will be exclusive and only available to 15 diners in May," concludes Kunzes.
Note: The price of the meal at The Lodhi, New Delhi is Rs 4,250+ taxes (including Chhang or fermented barley beer). Cocktails have to be ordered separately.
Edited by Akanksha Sarma