Saturday, July 11, 2015

Botanicals of Himachal Pradesh

One of the more memorable aspects of the visit to the family's hill house in Mashobra, Himachal Pradesh was the botanicals of that region. For this post, I’m going to define “visit” and “botanicals” a tad broadly.

En route to the Himalayas, but in a flatter and often barren area, multi-lane highways pass by dozens of buildings that reflect two Indian traditions. One is the large and elaborate wedding venues with architecture like in Bollywood movies. These often masquerade as temples on steroids. Or on ganja (more on that later). The other institution is the roadside stand, or dhaba, where travelers grab quick, but tasty, food.

One Sunday we made an hour plus trip from Delhi to have brunch at the most famous of these—the Amrik Sukhdev Dhaba. This facility is said to hold over 2,000 people and I’d bet more than 1,000 were chowing down that day. Their specialty is the paratha (a pan-fried, layered bread) generously garnished with butter. My favorite was the one stuffed with gobi (cauliflower).

On the drive to the hill house, we left Delhi without a proper breakfast, so we stopped at the smaller Zhilmil Vaishno Dhaba for an early lunch. Not surprisingly, our meal was parathas, but these were stuffed with mooli (radishes). If you read my essay on driving the Himalayan hills, you’ll know this became my new favorite paratha filling.

These roadside stops appear again as one begins the climb into the hills. One stand was precariously perched on the edge of a cliff as we neared Solan, not far from Shimla. It was aptly named Sweet Hot Point, and if they didn’t want to “lose their lunch,” wise diners would have taken in the view first, then taken in the food.

One last tidbit about eating along the route. On the trip home we grabbed some roasted corn from a roadside vendor. “Grabbed” is the operative word here. One of our entourage was standing beside the car, partially eaten ear in hand, carelessly hanging at his side. Before you could say “Grab-N-Go” lunch, a monkey had snatched it up and run off.

Speaking of animals along the route, we took a drive in the mountains above Mashobra. Here and there, families from even further north stood roadside with their yaks. The hairy creatures were decked out in colorful textiles, waiting to be photographed. One enterprising clan had brought clothing from their village so tourists could dress like a local. My sister-in-law snapped me (in my own native dress) between two of these irresistible creatures.

Along the route and near the house, there’s an amazing variety of flowering trees and wild blooms. If they were animals, they’d be feral. From an aroma perspective, my favorite are the wild lilac bushes.

A close second is Rat Ki Rani, or Queen of the Night, aka Night Blooming Jasmine. True to its name, its blossoms come out in the evening. They’re so fragrant that they retained their potency days after we were home in Delhi. At breakfast, you were sure they’d run their course. But by dinner, they were enticing us once again.

My visual favorite is a flower with ten celadon petals and five scrotum-like seed pods on pistil arms. Its purple and white center section has three aubergine antennae and countless “hairs.” The leaves look similar to those of a marijuana plant, but they’re not related.

However, marijuana also grows wild throughout this part of India. Enterprising folks sneak onto people’s property at night to harvest bhang. It also grows wild along the highway back to Delhi, so we did our harvesting in the daytime. We were stopped in traffic, and collecting some seemed like a good use of time.

A few hundred meters up the road, the police pulled over our car. “Going to the big house in India,” I thought. “Ironic, since I never smoked pot even once back home.” In my mind I prepared a plausible explanation. “We were just picking lovely botanicals as souvenirs of my trip to Himachal Pradesh. See? Wild lilacs, Rak Ni Rani.” All of these were mixed in with the bhang in the area behind our seats. As it turned out, India’s finest were checking papers to be sure our driver was a proper employee, not a gypsy cabbie.

So ended the field trip to Mashobra and my study of botanicals in the Himachal Pradesh. And no, we didn’t smoke the bhang. We put it in a large vase in the dining room, along with the wild lilacs and the Rak Ni Rani. At breakfast, I breathed deep whiffs of the lilacs. At lunch, I judiciously sniffed the wild ganja. At dinner, I inhaled the Queen of the Night. Ah, the stuff dreams are made of!

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