The staple food in Ladakh is 'Tsampa', which is made by lightly roasting barley in a large metal pan, partly mixed with sand to prevent the barley catching alight. The barley is then sieved to remove the sand and the roasted grain is ground in a watermill. The resulting meal is sprinkled with 'Gurgur' (salt water) or mixed with a small amount of liquid to form cakes. Salted butter tea or 'Chang' (a locally made Beer) is often drunk with the Tsampa. These dishes are called "Cholak".
Other Ladakhi Temptations
Apart from Tsampa there are few other delicacies too that one should get a taste of while visiting Ladakh :
Pava - peas and barley flour boiled in water for a long time until the peas are hard.
Chalak - a mixture of tea, butter, sugar and Tsampa.
Khambish - bread made from wheat flour.
Thukpa - water and wheat flour made into noodles and dropped into boiling water and then served with a flavoured meat sauce.
Gugur Chai- salt tea, made from green tea, salt, soda from the Nubra valley, butter and milk.
Curd- made from yak milk.
Moe Moe- steamed Tsampa dough, usually with meat in the middle like dumplings.
Gyatug - a dish of long, vermicelli like strips of Tsampa over which minced meat and a flavoured sauce is poured.
Skir - a hotpot of meat, potatoes, grain and sometimes vegetables.
Kambir - small round breads, sometimes tasting sweet.
Holkur - Ladakhi biscuit made of sugar, nuts and grain meal. Normally baked by the host himself to be served to the patrons.
Chinese Tibetan Cuisine
There is much Tibetan influence and you will find many Chinese-Tibetan dishes like Chow Mein or 'Kothay' - meat or vegetables wrapped in thin dough and fried or steamed.
The Food Variety
One may be surprised to see potatoes served in Ladakh . Moravian Christian missionaries brought them in from Germany in the last century. There are still about 200 Christians residing in Ladakh today. Food can get a little boring in Ladakh, the variety of vegetables and fruit grown locally is very limited - Barley, Potatoes, Peas and Onions are virtually the only locally grown produce on sale although fruit trees can also be grown in some areas. Mustard and a variety of herbs are also grown in Ladakh.
Although food production is limited in Ladakh what does grow there can be quite outlandish. The long daylight hours and the extra strength of the sun's ultra violet rays at this altitude creates wonderous garden produce - Cabbages with heads that have exceeded 14 kg, Radishes or Potatoes weighing up to 2kg, Turnips which reach 5kg!
Tea & Butter Tea
The tea habit initially came to Ladakh, as to all of Tibet, from imperial china, but due to the closing of the Tibetan border tea now comes from India. One may find Chinese / Tibetan tea smuggled over the border from Tibet on sale in the bazaar in Leh. It's more rare than expensive and the quality is not too high. The tea is often transported in pressed blocks, which can frequently be seen as offerings in monasteries.
Traditional Ladakhi tea is made with butter and tastes more like a soup than our idea of tea. The tea is initially made very strong, brewed for a long time, then diluted to a drinkable strength. The tea is then put into a butter churn, a wooden vessel about 15 cm in diameter and 80 cm long, and bound with brass at the top, bottom and in the middle. A spoonful of salted butter is added and churned into the liquid. This broth is then reheated and drunk continually until it is all gone.
Every Ladakhi, no matter how poor, has his own tea vessel. In rich families the tea is served in three part silver cups, the lower cup stands on a small pedestal and the cup itself is covered with a lid. The tea is generally drunk warm, not hot and during the colder part of the year the lower cup serves as a handwarmer. If one is invited for tea anywhere in Ladakh one will find that one's cup is refilled as soon as one takes a sip. Tea drinking continues until all the tea made is finished.
Tea is usually drunk during prayer ceremonies at Gompas and one may be offered some, in that case one will be expected to have one's own cup, an item every Ladakhi carries everywhere he or she goes. Cups are on sale at all the street stalls in Leh and at the general stores. In monasteries and for an average family's breakfast, the tea is accompanied by Tsampa, which is either sprinkled into the warm brew, or kneaded into lumps and dipped into the tea.
Chang - The Local Beer
Beware of the effects of the native beer - Chang. High altitude and too much alcohol do not mix well! Nevertheless one should try some of this local alcoholic beverage. One should also try Chang in a village at some stage, as it usually tastes much better. Chang is a beer, home brewed from barley and millet partially seasoned by the addition of pepper and sugar. It is not filtered before serving so dregs and grains are found 'swimming' in the liquid. In short, Chang is a most unusual pleasure for the palate. In Ladakh one finds, as in the other Himalayan states with a population, which belongs to the Tibetan group, no manufacture of spirit liquors.
Note: Much food and produce comes up from Kashmir, but only in the summer when the passes are open, of course. Prices are naturally inflated and in the last few weeks before the summer season commences with the opening of the road, when tourists are already starting to flood in by air, the supplies of food can be somewhat limited. It's worth bringing in a few menu brighteners like bars of chocolate or cans of Apple juice. The usual Indian glucose biscuits are available everywhere and in Leh it is also possible to buy dehydrated Soyabean meal or biscuits, which provide a very useful and energy giving carbohydrate supplement to one's diet, especially at high altitudes.
There is no piped water system in Leh; even boiling water isn't such a positive method of purifying it at such a high altitude since the boiling point is much lower. Remember to keep the fluid intake up as one can easily become dehydrated.