Being born and brought up in Himachal, I have had the privilege of exploring traditional food (Dham) that is served in different regions of Himachal Pradesh. The dishes do vary in different districts as does the taste. One thing that is common is the affection and passion with which the botis (the head cook) prepare this traditional feast.
The origin of Dham
A unique aspect of this Dham is that it is entirely vegetarian and is cooked by people who are Brahmins by caste. The Himachali Dham has its origin in Kashmir and it was around 1300 years ago that a King by name of Jaistambh on a sojourn to Kashmir was so impressed by Kashmiri wazwan that he directed his cooks to prepare similar food back home, but without inclusion of meat. This led to birth of Dham which in its earlier days was reserved only for the King and his royal clan.
With passage of time, Dham has made its way to home of common people with the same being served on special occasions like marriage. People who feast in the Dham have to sit down on ground and take the food served in big dried out leaves.
Ideally, a traditional Dham in Himachal consists of seven to eight dishes. These are made in big copper vessels that are traditionally known as charoti. Dal is one of the major components of this Dham with variations of maa, chana and toor being used in different districts. Sweet rice and pooras are also served either in the beginning or end of the Dham.
The number of dishes served can also increase with the social status of people. Nowadays, Dham is also served in hotels and you can enjoy the traditional cuisine in a well lit restaurant. The Dham at its minimal does contain around five dishes. This must include mash daal that has been cooked at slow flame for over five hours, Chana daal, Karhi (with extensive use of Buttermilk), Kattha (with tamrind and spices) and some sweet (this can be sweet rice, pooras or traditional mitha which is usually made by soaking of Boondi in sugar paste).
Madra and rajmah are also served in Dham, especially in districts of Kangra and Chamba. While sweet is served in beginning of Dham in Solan district, it forms the part of food served in the last in most of other districts.
A special fact to mention here is that no onion and garlic are used in preparation of dishes, yet the food is so yummy that you would lick your fingers too. In districts which experience heavy snowfall, exception in Dham has come in the form that meat has become a part of the cuisine.
Dham traditionally varies in taste in different part of the state but the essence of serving food with love and passion remains the same. Next time when you get an invite to visit Himachal Pradesh, do make a mention to your host to let you be a part of the Dham. The experience you will take back with you, will definitely last your lifetime.