In 2013 when Nilza Wangmo decided to start a restaurant that serves exclusively Ladakhi food, her idea was straightaway discouraged by everyone. Her friends and family thought no outsider would want to eat the local meal and it was a failed mission. But she was determined. “All I knew was to cook Ladakhi food. But my friends and family members said Ladakhi food is so bland and no one would eat it. But I wanted to introduce our local food to the world and that was my mission,” said Wangmo, who received Nari Shakti Puraskar in 2020 for promoting Ladakhi cuisine.
Nestled in the neighbourhood of the ancient Alchi monastery, Wangmo's Alchi Kitchen is a typical chansa or Himalayan kitchen with cosy wooden interiors and glass cabinets filled with traditional utensils. From rare local dishes such tain tain, a buckwheat crepe paired with giri (apricot kernel) chutney, skyu (wheat pasta stew), chutgi (bow-shaped wheat pasta), khambir (fermented Ladakhi bread), churpey (cured Ladakhi cheese) and wild greens to noodles and soups, Alchi's star dish is the timsthuk, an earthy noodle soup brightened by Ladakhi peas, dried cheese and wild chives.
Buckwheat Mok Mok |
Cooking up some desi delights
While Ladakh is incredibly popular as a tourist destination, most eateries refrain from serving authentic Ladakhi dishes. There are only a few restaurants serving the universally popular mokmok (momos) and some basic snacks and desserts made of apricot. Therefore, Alchi Kitchen is the first-ever eatery in the mountain territory which serves traditional Ladakhi cuisine, with a modern twist. “I experiment a lot with my food. I don't change the basic recipe but I do serve different Asian cuisine with Ladakhi touch.”
Persistent to make her dream come true, Nilza, who hails from Alchi, a remote hamlet around 66 kilometres from Leh, started Alchi Kitchen with a training school. But soon in a year, she had to shut it. “Very few people came to learn because no one believed that learning to cook Ladakhi food will help them,” she said. In 2014, Alchi restaurant was born and in a few years, Wangmo had a guest list of some of the A-list Bollywood celebrities along with at least 100-150 customers a day.
Nilza Wangmo with actor Lisa Ray |
Nilza Wangmo with actor and director Nandita Das |
Nilza Wangmo with actor Adil Hussain |
Not without my mother
Brought up at her maternal grandparents' home in Stok village, Wangmo lost her father even before she was born. Her mother, who she said was her inspiration and consociate at the Alchi Kitchen, worked very hard to support Wangmo. In fact, she learned cooking from her maternal grandmother and mother. However, financial constraints at home curtailed her dreams of pursuing higher studies, as she had to drop out midway through college and search for livelihood options. It was then that she started working at a guest house in Kargil.
“Kargil is dominated by the Muslim majority and women aren't allowed to work. There were issues and men never wanted a woman working at a guest house, but my mother supported me and I continued working,” she recalled. Things were already downhill for the mother-daughter duo when a natural tragedy struck further and the entire place where Wangmo worked was flushed out due to heavy floods in that area. “Luckily we escaped and there was no guest there. We lost everything in that flood but we survived and hoped we would do something,” Wangmo added.
Nilza Wangmo with her grandmother |
Her parental family refused to allow them at their 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, the same place where the restaurant stands now. “I have seen worst in the past so small things don't bother me much. I have left all difficulties behind,” said the 43-year-old Wangmo,” who lost her only support system, her mother, in 2021 to COVID-19. “She was the strongest and only support I had. She used to take care of the kitchen so I would run other errands but when she passed away I had to shut the kitchen in Leh for the time being. She is the only thing I wish I had now,” said Wangmo.
While Ladakh has always been in the headlines for its political and military unrest, Wangmo said, women in Ladakh are more progressive and have more opportunities than women in the rest of the country. “Women in Ladakh do all kinds of work, there are no social stigmas because we women need to take care of ourselves. Women are more independent in Ladakh than anywhere else. Women have their own ventures and don't depend on government jobs,” she claimed.