Chef Romy Gill takes readers on a Himalayan journey in new cookbook

“Knowledge comes through travel – not just online research,” says the India-born, England-based chef, author and broadcaster.

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Our cookbook of the week is On the Himalayan Trail: Recipes and Stories from Kashmir to Ladakh by Romy Gill. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Momos (dumplings), tabakh maaz (fried ribs), and tamatar te wangun (eggplant cooked with tomatoes).

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Planning a research trip to Kashmir during a global pandemic was no small feat. But, with the encouragement of her family, the support of the publisher and the advice of fellow hoteliers, chef Romy Gill took a leap of faith.

“Great things never come from staying in your comfort zone,” the Indian-born, England-based author and entertainer writes in her second cookbook, On the Himalayan Trail (Hardie Grant, 2022).

As the beauty and breadth of the book show, taking a chance paid off. Gill recounts an impressive journey from Kashmir to Ladakh, sharing 80 recipes she learned along the way.

“Knowledge comes from travel — not just from searching online,” says Gill. “When you travel, you have a lot more knowledge.”

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Floating Vegetable Market on Dal Lake
While in Srinagar, known for its Mughal-era gardens, Romy Gill enjoyed the floating vegetable market on Dal Lake. Photo of Sajjad Hussain /– via Getty Images

Gill had long wanted to write a book about Kashmir food, the land and its people. She has been intrigued by Kashmir since she was a child, watching Bollywood films featuring epic scenes from the Himalayas on her family’s black and white TV in Burnpur, West Bengal.

His father, Santokh Singh Sandhu, left Punjab when he was 16 to work at a steel mill in the company town, which attracted people from all over India. Some of Sandhu’s colleagues were from Kashmir and Gill shared many family meals with them over the years.

It wasn’t just the spectacular snow-capped mountains Gill saw on screen that captivated her – or the apples, apricots, nuts and textiles that Kashmiri traders sold each year in Burnpur. She respected Kashmiri culture and wanted to learn more.

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“It’s always been with me,” Gill said of On the Himalayan Trail in a 2020 interview with the national postas the book took shape.

On the Himalayan Trail by Romy Gill
On the Himalayan Trail is Chef Romy Gill’s second cookbook. Photo by Hardie Grant

Kashmir borders the Chinese autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang to the east and northeast, the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab to the south, and Pakistan to the north and west.

Early in their relationship, Gill’s husband Gundeep shared fond memories of his own trips from Punjab to Ladakh on a scooter. He and his friends had visited Leh, which at an altitude of 3,520 meters is one of the highest permanent settlements in the world.

Gundeep’s memories sparked Gill’s desire to visit the cold desert and rugged terrain of Ladakh (now a separate Indian Union territory). But it wasn’t until 2017, on a mission to Suitcase magazine, that she had the opportunity.

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At a farm in Leh, surrounded by rugged peaks, she cooked with her host, Charol, and his family. Momos (dumplings) that Charol’s mother-in-law, Palzes, taught him to make are one of the Ladakhi specialties that Gill features in the book.

As she did in Ladakh, Gill encourages people to visit remote villages, leave their phones behind and enjoy the local way of life.

“(Don’t) stay in five-star hotels. Stay at farms where you can cook with them, eat the food, it’s delicious. You can do so many things. So that’s what I really want people to do. Just go organic. Back to the roots.”

His time in Ladakh was encouraging, Gill recalls, and more research trips followed. When she traveled to Himachal Pradesh on a mission to The New York Times in 2019, the possibility of writing a Himalayan travelogue seemed closer to reality than ever.

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“I thought, ‘Actually, this can become a book. I meet people. I stay with them. I learn from them and then share with the rest of the world,” she says. “The book was still there, but it motivated me to do more.”

Pangong Tso
Pangong Tso – straddling India-administered Ladakh and Tibet, an autonomous region of China – is the highest saltwater lake in the world at an altitude of 4,350 meters. Photo by Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images

In 2020 and 2021, Gill made more research trips to Kashmir and Ladakh – this time specifically for On the Himalayan Trail. In addition to the uncertainty of the pandemic, there was the current security situation in Kashmir to deal with.

India and Pakistan have fought over Kashmir since partition divided the two countries in 1947, writes Gill.

After the start of the Kashmir uprising in 1989, Hindus began to face targeted attacks. Nearly 250,000 Pandits fled Indian-administered Kashmir, AlJazeera reports, and following a spike in violence this year, another exodus took place in June.

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Domestic and international tourists are avoiding the area due to the tense political situation, Gill says. (The Government of Canada recommends against travel to the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.) As a result, foreigners tend to be unfamiliar with Kashmiri cuisine – something Gill hopes to change with On the Himalayan Trail.

“People cook more. People are intrigued by different cultures. I thought even in times of a pandemic it was a good time to do it,” she says, adding that she felt comfortable despite the risks. “When I went, I had (a few) reservations. I had a little problem. But when I went there, the love I got, I didn’t get in any part of India.

Kashmir saffron
Farmers work in a saffron field in Pampore, south of the city of Srinagar in the Indian union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Photo by Tauseef Mustafa /– via Getty Images

On a research trip, Gill was joined by photojournalist and travel photographer Poras Chaudhary, based in northern India. The book’s photography – including that of Matt Russell and Matt Inwood – gives a sense of the land – high mountain passes, verdant meadows, barren slopes, frozen lakes and sacred shrines – the people and their food.

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Gill learned how to prepare Kashmiri classics such as tabakh maaz (fried ribs) from wazas, chefs who specialize in wazwan, an elaborate Kashmiri feast comprising up to 36 dishes.

Tabakh maaz plays an important role in the banquet, with the likes of ghushtaba (mutton dumplings in yogurt sauce), methi maaz (goat or lamb intestine with dried fenugreek leaves), rista (dumplings of meat in a red sauce flavored with saffron), rogan josh and sheekh kebab – which are served on a trami (large metal tray) with rice, yogurt and other accompaniments.

Since so few foreigners visit the region, these valuable Kashmir recipes and experiences were important to Gill. On the Himalayan Trail.

Cardamom (green and black), cinnamon, cloves, cumin (brown and black), ground ginger and fennel, Kashmiri chili powder and mustard oil are the essential spices in the kitchen of the region, says Gill. And, of course, “you can’t write a book about Kashmir and not write about saffron”.

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Gill’s late mother would save herself making zarda – sweet yellow rice with nuts and dried fruits – for celebrations when their family visited Punjab. Cooks use saffron to achieve the sunny hue of the dessert, if they can afford it. Otherwise, they rely on food coloring or turmeric, says Gill.

Her grandmother held Kashmir saffron in such high regard that she hid it, wrapped in muslin. Gill remembers finding the package of fabric when she was 10 and asking her grandmother what it was.

“My grandmother patted me on the hand and said, ‘You have to respect the spices. If you respect the spices, they’ll love you back,” Gill recalls. “She didn’t know what other rudders were in the world. She said, ‘That’s the best saffron.’ So, it was always in my head, and I wanted to go there and meet all these producers, all these farmers.

Gill concludes the book on the shores of Pangong Tso, a saltwater lake straddling Ladakh and Tibet at 4,350 meters above sea level. With the increase in COVID-19 cases in India, it was time to go home. But his high-altitude adventure is far from over.

“I want to go where people haven’t gone and give them the real India, the sense of India, the sense of villages,” says Gill. “Rather than say ‘The End’, I should have said ‘To Be Continued’.”

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