Having lived in Dehradun most of their lives, family friends Tanya Kotnala and Tanya Singh grew up on a diet of Uttarakhandi delicacies like bhat dal, baadi made with buckwheat, and chaulai, or amaranth. One of their most cherished memories is of eating pomelos, a citrus fruit locally called chakotra, sprinkled with salt, sugar and chilli powder while warming themselves in the winter sun.
Visitors to Uttarakhand are unlikely to encounter these local dishes or fruits, because Garhwali cuisine rarely ever makes it to restaurant menus even in the state. “There are almost no souvenir shops in Uttarakhand, our eateries serve chhole bhature and the traditional art and attire is hardly given any attention,” said Kotnala, a fashion designer and illustrator. “Over the years, the culture of the state has diminished.”
In 2015, Kotnala began working on an assignment for the Ministry of Textiles in the North Eastern states. While documenting the local textile heritage of Assam, she realised that something similar was necessary to revive the culture of Uttarakhand.
When she returned home, Kotnala became reacquainted with Singh, who was now a nutritionist and working on a breastfeeding campaign for the Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child Development. Together, the two decided to launch Bhuli, meaning little sister in Garhwali, a platform to revive an interest in the local art, culture and food heritage of Uttarakhand.
Since Bhuli’s launch in 2016, it has gathered over 4,000 followers on Instagram and around 3,000 on Facebook. Each post is illustrated by Kotnala in a style inspired by Aipan, the folk art of Uttarakhand.
In a recently concluded series that celebrated National Nutrition Week from September 1 to 7, Kotnala and Singh showcased seven local crops and traditional methods of preparing them. “Our objective was to pick and choose local crops that have memories associated with them, but also those that are high in nutritional value,” said Singh.
“Amaranth seeds and lingad, or fiddlehead fern, are classified world over as niche food or superfoods and sold in fancy supermarkets,” Singh added. “They are on the menus of Michelin star restaurants and this is so funny to us because we literally had these growing in our backyards. However, people tend to not see the value in these crops anymore and that’s what we are trying to change.”
A post about buransh or the rhododendron flower explains the flower’s anti-oxidant, medicinal and anti-inflammatory properties. The flower can also be used to make an excellent concentrate for sherbets.
Most recipes and crops mentioned on Bhuli’s Instagram page are seasonal. “These are meant to be eaten during a specific time of the year,” said Singh. “Like the pomelo – that is a great source of Vitamin C. It is a winter fruit and was mandatory for us to eat when we were growing up, because it helps to fight colds and the flu.”
In her blog about Garhwali cuisine, food writer Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal writes:
“Pahari food is a distinct regional cuisine by itself that splits into two branches – Garhwali food from the Garhwal region and Kumaoni food from the Kumaon region. While the roots of both branches are the same with a number of common dishes, there are distinct regional variations, sometimes in the style of preparation but mostly due to variations in locally available Ingredients…the cuisine of both urban and rural Uttaranchal is unpretentious and based on easily obtained seasonal ingredients. Recipes are wholesome, effortlessly prepared and come to the table fresh of the flame, steaming hot and comforting.”
All characters shown in Bhuli’s posts, whether enjoying a bowl of chakrota, harvesting local crops or celebrating festivals, are drawn wearing the traditional Garhwali attire worn by the pahadi people. Each outfit blends practicality with local aesthetics. In one post, a woman farmer is shown wearing the traditional ghaghra choli but with a woolen jacket, a headscarf and a cloth band around the waist to ward off the cold. In another, Kotnala illustrates a more festive look which includes hand-dyed headscraves and jewellery, like a large nose ring, that is essential for married women.
Kotnala and Singh credit the lack of interest among the local people in their own culture to migration. According to a survey conducted by National Institute for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj in 2015, “Eighty-eight per cent of sample rural households reported at least one person migrating for employment from their household.
“When we started speaking to families living in Uttarakhand about these old recipes and vegetables, many had no clue what we were talking about,” said Kotnala. “The problem is that the younger generation is moving to bigger cities for job opportunities and in most scenarios there is no one to pass the traditions on to.”
The duo also collaborate on illustrations inspired by Uttarakhand’s local folklore and traditions which depict the lives of the local women. In one of the posts, they talk about the practice of polygamy that is still observed in parts of Uttarakhand. According to a man with two wives, interviewed by Kotnala and Singh, “In old times living in the mountains was a demanding task and in order to run the house efficiently, a second marriage was arranged. I am married to two women and have seven children.”
According to Kotnala and Singh, a group of young local chefs are planning to organise a project to familiarise the rest of the country with Uttarakhandi cuisine and the duo plans to join them on this mission.