My last trip to Himachal had many memories that have been hard to shake off in this past year of lockdown. One such memory is of a bowl of steaming-hot noodle soup that we wolfed down every night in Mcleodganj, called 'thukpa'.
At its core, thukpa is just that - a noodle soup similar to the famous dish from Kung Fu Panda, minus the secret ingredient, of course. And as such, noodle soup is not a novel concept by any means! Nearly every Asian country has its own version of this dish equally steeped in culture and flavour. Singapore has the 'laksa', Vietnam has the 'pho', Japan has 'ramen', while India has 'soupy Maggi'. Sorry, scratch that last bit. It was only a poor attempt at a ridiculous joke. 😅
While the base construction of each of those dishes is different, the key ingredients are always the same - noodles and broth. And if I were to be a bit bold, I could say that the Tibetan rendition of this dish is not even half as intricate or complex as ramen or laksa. But why then is it so magical?
To understand this concept, let us first categorize soup. It is not really an appetizer, and it is definitely not the main course. The reason soup finds a place on most menus is that it is synonymous with comfort and familiarity. There is a reason why we offer chicken soup to someone who's sick and not piping hot grilled chicken! It's the warmth and comfort of the broth that makes people feel well cared for. Noodle soups magnify the same feeling multifold while filling up your tummy with necessary ingredients as a part of a balanced diet.
Thukpa does the same. The clear ginger broth offers warmth and relief, while the noodles and momos provide the necessary carbs and protein to make it a meal. But what makes it so magical for me is the hospitality that accompanies it.
I cannot forget the entire day of walking and hiking throughout Mcleodganj, after which we desperately craved some hot comfort food. Based on the suggestion from a couple of fellow travellers in our hostel, we decided to try out a small Tibetan joint called Four Season Cafe. Upon arriving at the cafe, we found the front door shut and assumed that the owner had closed up for the night. But suddenly, this elderly woman peeked out and beckoned us in like lost sheep. Apparently, she kept the door closed to block the cold draft from outside.
As soon as we sat down, the aroma of the ever boiling broth hijacked our senses. The lady offered us some fried noodles to munch on while we eagerly awaited our food to arrive, much like impatient kids hungry after a day's play in summer. Of all the food we ordered, the thukpa was the first to arrive and oh, what a soup it was! The only way that I can describe the flavour is if you could imagine your mom feeding you chicken soup on a cold winter night while you lay snuggled under a blanket by the fireside, grabbing the occasional hug from her to shake off the chills. That's thukpa in one bite. The lady knew the magic her bowl of goodness expelled because she beamed at us when she arrived with the remainder of our order. It was her way of letting us know that now that we felt safe and comfortable, feel free to eat at your own pace. 🙂
Spurred on by the experience of that bowl of wonder, we decided to give another newer Tibetan joint a try the next night. It was a tastefully decorated place called Kizyom, run by a Tibetan Lama and his wife. The food there was equally inviting and exceptional, but the Lama went out of his way to make us feel at home, and it WAS his home in a manner of speaking! He got a fire crackling in the fireplace, played some soothing Tibetan music, and sat talking to us about his experiences in the town. He personally asked for our opinion on every dish served and noted every detail that we mentioned. The most surprising intervention happened at the end of the meal when my wife complained of severe cramps in her stomach.
It was a case of mild winter sickness that had manifested in the form of acute cramps in her stomach. The household Himachali remedy is to rub warm oil on your belly and wrap the gut in a shawl or a scarf. Since we had neither at our disposal, the Lama's wife offered to help. She massaged my wife for a few minutes by the fire and even lent her a shawl that was clearly from her private collection. Her husband offered to drive us back to our hostel and even waited with me outside the restaurant for ten minutes while we flagged a cab down. That was our last night in Mcleodganj, and all we had was for some thukpa for dinner. 🙂
So now, how would you describe a dish that not only feeds you two nights in a row but also makes you feel at home? What do you call a simple soup that extends into familial banter and long-lost hospitality? Isn't magic nothing but something that logic, science or rational thought cannot explain?
That's thukpa then - magical.