Shringi Vatika. It's a small signpost in the middle of nowhere. But on the worldwide web, it's a name you come across often when you're exploring the Tirthan Valley. Which is why we stopped fro a taste of Himachali food. "But betey, I don't have it ready right now. If you want, I can make it for lunch tomorrow." And that's how we sat down to one of the few local, home-cooked meals I have had in Himachal.
Built above a section of gurgling water, Shringi Vatika is a simple home-stay, run by Aunty who's from Delhi (rumoured to have had a 'love-marriage') and her husband who helps her and who had actually cooked for us. The settlement is named after Shringi Rishi and Uncle belongs to a long line of priests designated as mediums to the Rishi. But now that he helps Aunty with her business, he has relinquished duties to a nephew.
Which is good for us because the dishes being served one after the other are a family tradition. First comes the deliciously evil-sounding Bichhoobooti Soup (Nettle Soup)!! Made from tender nettle plucked with an implement (plucking by hand would make the skin itch), it is a delicious green in colour and is flavoured with a hint of mint. We're told how lucky we were to have eaten it at all! If the electricity had failed, the grinder wouldn't have worked and grinding by hand was not an option.
Next up is Siddu. The Gujiya-shaped envelope of whole-wheat flour (ground in their personal little flour mill powered by the stream below) is stuffed with an exotic paste of walnut (from the tree behind the house), poppy-seed and some condiments. Steamed, it has an understated flavour and is served with chutney or ghee. Chicken/lamb variants are available at most restaurants around the valley.
And then comes the Sweet Rajma. It has kidney beans and that's where the similarity to any Rajma or Chilli dish you've ever had ends! The Rajma comes in a sweet gulab-jamun-like syrup and is rich with raisins and dry fruits. Eaten with with plain white rice, it is a royal dish served on very special occasions like weddings. And Delhi-type tourists looking for some culinary adventure!
After our very novel meal, we walk down to teh little room Uncle has carved out of a rock, we swing against teh backdrop of mountains, hear teh river tinkling below, ooh-aah over the weeds (exotic lilies for Rs.150 a stem when accompanied by Big-City-Bright-Lights, free when accompanied by mountain air). Looking up at the house from its apricot, plum and walnut tree studded garden, we marvel at the effort Uncle has put into creating and crafting every detail.
And back up there, we marvel at the bill of Rs. 400-something for our wholly-organic, sumptuous feast.