ASIAN FOOD

Notes from Leh – The Hindu

There is also one item that takes prime position on the shopping lists of the locals — the beloved cherma

It is around 10 a.m. on a blisteringly cold Monday morning in early May as I find myself making an emergency grocery supplies run at one of the many stores that dot Leh’s pedestrian-only Main Bazaar. It was just the evening before when it was announced that the trial weekend lockdown imposed upon the Union Territory of Ladakh would now be extended throughout the coming week. Indefinitely. A precautionary measure, I’m told, as the rest of India is all but submerged under the deadly second ‘tsunami’ of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My purchases are of the usual bread, eggs, biscuits, instant noodles kind that is the want of any penny-pinching backpacker to the Himalayan wonderland that is Ladakh. But for the locals shopping alongside me, it is a whole other story.

Sure, there are huge sacks of rice and wheat flour being schlepped upon the backs of porters who scurry about the soon-to-be-shuttered bazaar. But there is also one item that takes prime position on the shopping lists of the locals. The beloved cherma.

Known as Leh berry, wonder berry, drilbu or the honorific ‘Ladakh gold’, it is the immunity boosting seabuckthorn berry that is being purchased, en masse, in its myriad avatars. From being imbued in jams and juices to oils and even sacks of the dried up berries, the seabuckthorn berry is omnipresent.

Berry berry good!

Roughly the size of a small, oblong pea, the orange-red hued seabuckthorn berry’s medicinal value has been recognised and prized in the region for centuries. With the ancient, local Ladakhi amchi medicine system placing a high premium on the seabuckthorn berry and its curative properties. Recorded as early as the 8th century in the Tibetan medical classic, the rGyud-bzi, it is said that the berry not just contains a good amount of Vitamin C — said to be 12 times more than an orange — but consuming the berry also boosts immunity, besides being a great tonic for one’s hair and skin.

This, thanks to its high levels of potassium, calcium and Vitamin E. Interestingly, seabuckthorn is the only fruit which contains all types of Omega acids (Omega 3, 6 and 9) as well as the rare Omega 7. I quickly add a couple of bottles of the bright orange coloured seabuckthorn juice to my basket, while I chug down a third right there in the grocery store, even before I square off my bill!

The slightly oily, viscous textured juice has an acidic taste similar to that of a weak mango panna. One that takes me a while to get used to. But it’s a different story with the delicious dried seabuckthorn berries, a small bag full of which I soon purchase a few yards away from a lady at the Tibetan Refugee Market adjacent to the Main Bazaar.

Foraging for gold

I ask the lady about its harvesting, which she tells me is more on the lines of foraging — as one cannot generally cultivate seabuckthorn in the traditional sense. This gathering happens in the autumnal months, from September to November every year, with a lot of care and attention given to the task. Not least of all because of the precarious, hilly terrain the berry shrubs prefer to grow wild amidst.

In Ladakh, the thorny seabuckthorn shrub grows at an average altitude of 2,400 metres above sea level in the Leh, Nubra, Changthang and far north Zanskar valleys. This, I later learn is the direct result of India’s Cold Desert Afforestation Programme that cut a wide swathe across the nation’s Himalayan belt from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.

The drought-resistant and tough-to-cultivate seabuckthorn plant specimen was specifically chosen for greening the mountain terrain after a little scientific intervention to boost its growth. Not just in Ladakh, and its neighbouring regions such as Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, but also in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh farther east.

New superfood?

On my last morning in Leh, I make sure to pack an array of seabuckthorn berry-based products to bring back home with me to Mumbai. It feels like I’m precariously teetering on the edge of serendipity, with a drone of questions buzzing through my mind.

Is this perhaps what it felt like before the acai berry stepped out of the Amazon rainforest and became a rage the world over? Ditto for moringa and matcha? Is the seabuckthorn berry the newest superfood discovery of the decade…?

The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.

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