When Nilza Wangmo wanted to start a restaurant exclusively dedicated to Ladakhi food, her idea was straightaway discouraged by everyone, including her closest friends and family. “They believed that outsiders and tourists would find their food bland and dull. But I was on a mission to introduce the world to the authentic Ladakhi cuisine,” quips the 40-year-old.
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Persisting in her resolve, Nilza, who hails from Alchi, a remote hamlet around 66 kilometres from Leh, started Alchi Kitchen in 2016.
While Ladakh is incredibly popular as a tourist destination, most eateries curiously refrain from serving authentic Ladakhi dishes. Only a handful of restaurants do so, and even they choose to stick to the universally popular mokmok (momos) and basic snacks.
Therefore, Alchi Kitchen is the first-ever eatery in the mountain territory which serves Ladakh’s traditional cuisine, along with a modern twist. Hundreds of tourists brave the uphill journey through rugged terrains to grab a bite in the quaint little outlet, which experiences a footfall of around 100 to 150 customers per day.
A life of struggles
Nilza had always been passionate about cooking but never considered it as her vocation. Brought up at her maternal grandparents’ home in Stok village, she lost her father even before she was born.
Her mother, who is her inspiration and present consociate at the Alchi Kitchen, worked very hard to support Nilza’s education and upbringing. However, financial constraints at the home front curtailed her dreams of pursuing higher studies, as she had to drop out midway through college, and search for other livelihood options.
Things were already downhill for the mother-daughter duo when tragedy struck further. Her paternal family refused to allow them inside her father’s home in Alchi.
Broke and devastated, the two settled for a make-do accommodation till her maternal grandfather stepped in and helped them build a home in Alchi, the same place where the restaurant stands now.
The wonders of Ladakhi Food at Alchi Kitchen
During her college days, Nilza worked for a while as a part-time tourist guide. So, her initial plan was to start a tourist homestay in Alchi, a popular destination for the 1000-year-old Alchi Gompa or Alchi monastery.
However, trusting her instincts, she settled on the idea of an exclusively Ladakhi restaurant. “Cooking has always been an essential hobby for me. That gave me the courage to go ahead,” shares Nilza.
Sitting with her mother and family members, she spent an entire winter brainstorming the menu—unearthing lost recipes and adding modern-day twists to already existing ones. One of their bestsellers—the Tashi Tagye tea—was carefully curated by the mother and daughter with eight ingredients, signifying the eight auspicious symbols in Buddhism.
“Another bestselling item is the Khambir—a fermented Ladakhi bread. At home, we would eat the bread with curry, soup or salted butter tea, but I decided to prepare it à-la-carte,” shares Nilza. She added stuffing of chicken, meat and an assortment of vegetables inside the bread, thereby elevating it from comfort food to gourmet dish.
Pasta is synonymous with Italian cuisine, but little known is its unsung Ladakhi cousin Chutagi. And Alchi Kitchen is the go-to place to taste these scrumptious bow-tie shaped wonders, cooked in authentic Ladakhi sauce or gravy.
Tourists have time and again labelled the apricot, walnut or chocolate mokmok (momo) platter at Alchi Kitchen as ‘little bites of heaven.’ The buckwheat and millet innovations like crepes and desserts are exceedingly delicious while kicking in the nutrition punch for tired trekkers and travellers.
Bringing Ladakhi youth back to their roots
Interestingly, the food at Alchi Kitchen is prepared over a wood-fired oven, in full public view, enriching your senses with a wholesome gastronomic experience.
“Also, we prepare every serving fresh from scratch. Other restaurants tend to prepare their soups and gravy in bulk and reheat the same throughout the day. But, in this eatery, each dish is prepared under my supervision, then and there,” Nilza asserts.
All the employees at Alchi Kitchen outlets are young rural women, who were personally trained by Nilza to cook, serve and manage a restaurant. She also conducts occasional cooking workshops for visitors and takes care of two lesser privileged children as well.
Alchi Kitchen’s success graph has been remarkable in barely three years since its start, and Nilza hopes that this prompts the youth of Ladakh to cherish and celebrate their traditional cuisine, rather than reaching out for junk food.
“I want to turn Alchi Kitchen into a franchise with branches in other cities outside Ladakh, so more people can enjoy Ladakhi food and culture. I want Ladakhi cuisine to become a mainstream option on the menu of restaurants.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)
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