CUISINE: THE THREE CHEFS OF GULMIT

Published January 16, 2022
Malika Sultana ladling out piping hot Qaq Moch (dried apricots and noodle soup) | Photos by Syed Zubairuddin Shah
Malika Sultana ladling out piping hot Qaq Moch (dried apricots and noodle soup) | Photos by Syed Zubairuddin Shah

At first, there’s nothing much to see at Qulha Gulmit, situated near Hunza, except for the tall, rocky, barren mountains. It was early October and we had taken a trip to the nearby Attabad Lake. We wanted to check out Roomy Yurts — which offers outdoor sleeping canopies, fashioned in the shape of the tribal tents seen in Drilis: Ertugrul — at the insistence of a friend who is enamoured by the popular Turkish TV series.

It was here that we discovered something unexpected.

After we admired some of the hand-crafted local rugs spread across the floors, the friendly manager at Roomy Yurts who was showing us around pointed us in the direction of a rug-weaving industry, set up by local women in a mud-thatched house, located at the back of the yurts. Finding the rugs too expensive for our thin wallets, we ended up buying the next best thing: wallets!

By noon, our party of five (the driver-cum-tourist guide included) was beginning to feel very hungry when one of the rug-making women directed us to some local women who had set up a traditional restaurant.

Located near the Gulmit Polo Ground, Bozlanj Traditional Restaurant turned out to be quite an eye-opening experience for us tourists. ‘Bozlanj’ is the local name given to a herb found naturally and harvested from the mountains of Hunza. It is used by the locals to make tea. What was to be a quick bite at the café turned into a full-blown culinary experience for us — and one that I can never forget.

Tucked away in an unassuming part of Hunza is a traditional but extraordinary restaurant run by three women who are proud to showcase their ancient ancestry and culinary roots

Earlier, we had encountered a few local women who seemed to shirk and shy away on seeing ‘outsiders’ in their midst. This led us to believe that we, as tourists, must be unfamiliar with certain customs, traditions and etiquette that must be observed while interacting with members of the opposite sex. But our apprehension proved to be unfounded when we struck up a conversation with the enterprising women who ran the restaurant.

Tahira making fresh noodles for the apricot soup
Tahira making fresh noodles for the apricot soup

The owners-cum-chefs of Bozlanj Traditional Restaurant, Malika Sultana and Rashida Begum, and their kitchen assistant Tahira Begum, greeted us with candour and warmth. Sensing our hesitation, they opened up to us with their warm smiles and endearing attitude. As a result, we found ourselves ordering everything on the menu!

After the ice was broken and things literally warmed up — in the dining area as well as the kitchen — we asked them if they had met with any resistance from the village’s menfolk or elders for starting a restaurant business.

Pat came the reply in the negative. “When stepping out of the house to do this business alongside men, there can be no room for bashfulness,” said Malika Sultana.

She and her two colleagues have been running the café for about five years now and they conduct business along strict, professional lines. What amazed us were the menus, which gave detailed descriptions of the dishes in flawless English. Finely printed with food imagery along with names, ingredients, descriptions and pricing, Bozlanj café’s menu would put to shame any popular urban eatery. Simply amazing!

The food was another level of amazing altogether.

There was an assortment of both sweet and savoury: stuffed / garnished flatbreads (chapatis) such as the sweet Gral pancake (wheat tortilla topped with mulberry jam), the savoury Ghilmindi (buckwheat pancakes), the savoury Sem’n which is a sweet-tasting wheat tortilla served with a sweet sauce, Urzu’k and Chilpek (traditional paratha and bread roll), Molida (shredded chapati cooked with buttermilk lassi and topped with apricot oil) and Qaq Moch (sweet-tasting dried apricots and noodle soup).

Ghilmindi (buckwheat pancakes)
Ghilmindi (buckwheat pancakes)

In the kitchen, the trio put on their colourful embroidered caps before starting the prep for the feast. Tahira began sifting aata (whole wheat flour) and then kneaded it before flattening it with a rolling pin and set aside another portion to pass through the noodle-making machine.

Malika Sultana put the skillet on the stove and began cooking the flatbread, which she later garnished with savoury toppings and/or sweet sauces. She also put a large cauldron of water on the stove to boil the fresh noodles in while she braised the dried apricots for the Qaq Moch soup.

She spiced the dishes with a mere hint of red chillies (for our taste buds alone), some garlic, sesame seeds, flaxseeds and, last of all, salt. The photographer went wild clicking the three women at work behind the stove. As the heady aromas started wafting into the dining area from the kitchen, they only served to flare up our already whetted appetite.

It was then that, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a man and some women working on a vegetable patch, harvesting potatoes — a sight one rarely comes across in the city. I diverted the attention of the others from my party to the activity outside, in order to take their minds off the unending wait for the food, and the sight kept us thoroughly entertained.

After a while, Tahira went to pluck carrots, spring onions, cabbage and fresh coriander directly from a home garden patch, with our photographer scurrying behind her to capture the entire process.

It took Malika Sultana, Rashida and Tahira the better part of an hour or two to prepare the extensive menu but, by the end of it all, the table spread was impressive and boasted an array of local delicacies that are eaten on a daily basis as well as on special festive occasions.

Yak meat, widely consumed in this region, also made its way into our savoury Quruth Moch (meat and noodles soup). We found it tough compared to beef, but it was filleted into fine strips and cooked thoroughly. We ended up basically eating our way through the entire traditional cuisine of the Hunza region.

I managed to speak to a few walk-in customers dining there who said that they found the taste of the food served to them spot-on and very much like what the womenfolk in their families make at home. It is also a local custom to cook such dishes at home to be given to other households on special occasions.

After polishing off every last bit of morsel that was served to us, we ordered Bozlanj tea from the menu. Then, it was time to say our goodbyes to our new friends when pat came a request for a group selfie, which we were only too glad to be a part of.

With promises made to stay in touch through social media (Bozlanj has its own email and a Facebook page as well), we bid adieu to Malika Sultana, Rashida and Tahira and soon found ourselves on the road back to Hunza city, happy in the knowledge that we were taking back cherished memories and a part of their gastronomic culture with us — in our overstuffed, protruding bellies.

The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @ faisal_quraishi

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 16th, 2022

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