Much of this remote, arid region of North India is inaccessible five months of the year due to heavy snows. Yet, it has a rich food culture worth exploring, where the few ingredients available are used to create flavourful delicacies.
Stuffed flatbreads cooked on a charcoal stove. Tangy fresh apricot juice. Succulent handmade dumplings served with tomato chutney. These are just a few of the delicacies on offer in Ladakh, a region more known for its trekking routes and high-altitude motorcycle passes than its cuisine. But the region’s food culture, passed down over centuries, tells a heartwarming story of hardship and resourcefulness. For a remote area, Ladakh’s cuisine has some surprising multicultural influences, too.
Destinations Unlocked:Let our travel expert Stefano help you find your perfect Culture trip
Looking for an expert's perspective?Uncover my top 3 recommended places from each continent on the map.
1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
A rich, multicultural heritage
Once an important stopping point on the Silk Road, Ladakh attracted traders from Tibet, China and the Middle East, who brought their food customs to the region. Tibet had an especially profound influence on Ladakhi food culture.
Two of Ladakh’s most well-known Tibetan-inspired dishes are thukpa, a noodle soup, and momos (known locally as mok moks). Several restaurants in Leh offer upmarket versions of these dishes, serving momos stuffed with everything from minced chicken to yak cheese, and thukpa crammed with fresh vegetables.
The versions served in Ladakhi homes are a little more rustic. Thukpa, which translates to ‘overcooked’, is a soup thickened with flour and often flavoured with chhurphe, a dried cottage cheese.
Making mok moks becomes a social event in any Ladakhi home. Groups of women grate home-grown vegetables and cook them with butter, cheese, salt and pepper. A spoonful of filling is placed onto a round of dough, which is then sealed. Everyone has their own unique way of twisting and pinching the dough shut.
Cold climate influences traditional food in Ladakh
Over time, trade in Ladakh slowly dwindled and countries began to close and reinforce their borders. This remote, windswept region suffered centuries of isolation. Cut off from the outside world, Ladakhis were forced to use only locally-sourced ingredients.
As a high-altitude desert, the temperatures in Ladakh sometimes drop to -30°C, so only the hardiest crops grow here. The glacial rivers running through the region are used to irrigate small terraced fields of alfalfa and barley. Groves of apple, apricot and walnut trees can also be found in these fertile river areas. In the warmer months, vegetables like potatoes, beans, radishes, spinach and carrots are grown. These fruits, vegetables and grains are used in the staple dishes of the region.
Barley is ground at local mills (rantaks) and used to make a variety of stove-cooked flatbreads. They are eaten alongside dishes like baril, a dip made of ground apricot kernels and walnuts. Barley flour is also used to make noodles for the hearty soups that characterise the region’s cuisine. One of the most popular is skyu, a stew served with vegetables, cap-shaped noodles and occasionally, scraps of meat. Kholak is also eaten widely throughout the region. It’s a simple dish consisting of ground barley powder, which is added to liquids such as tea or chhang, a fermented barley drink.
The Ladakhis keep hardy livestock, such as goats, yaks and cow-yak hybrids known as dzos. These animals provide dairy products that enrich many local dishes. This includes tangthur, a dish of green vegetables in buttermilk and the region’s most popular drink, butter tea. As the name suggests, the tea is made with butter and salt. It’s a rich, high-calorie drink suitable for long winters.
Foraging and preserving food
According to Deachan Angmo, a Ladakhi woman studying rural development, the region’s inhabitants substitute their diets by foraging. “This is wild garlic, which we use to flavour our dishes. These are stinging nettles. We use them to make soup”, she says, pointing to the small plants growing on Ladakh’s bare, rocky slopes.
Later, walking along the Markha River, she points out trees with distinctive orange berries. “That’s a sea buckthorn plant. We use the berries to make juice as well as syrup for the winter as it has a lot of vitamin C.” The berries are tart and as addictive as sour candies. The juice itself is a lot sweeter, as it’s artificially sweetened with sugar.
With such a short growing season, Ladakhis have traditionally needed to become resourceful when it comes to storing food for the winter. Leafy greens are dried and powdered, while root vegetables are stored underground. Certain types of apricots are made into jams, while others are dried and later soaked in water to make a drink. Caper bushes also grow wild in Ladakh and the shoots are picked and made into a relish.
Tourism in Ladakh
In the mid-1970s, Ladakh opened to tourists and every year sees an increase in visitors from across the world. This has altered the Ladakhi food culture. The region’s capital of Leh has restaurants offering food from around the world. More groceries are available to purchase. In previous years, many Ladakhi people ate meat out of necessity, but now the increased choice of ingredients has enabled them to convert to vegetarianism, in line with their Buddhist faith.
But according to Thinlas Chorol, social entrepreneur and founder of the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company, tourism also has negative effects. “Now we’ve moved to a cash economy and people buy foods that are easy to cook, like Maggi noodles”, says Chorol. “The trouble is, these foods don’t have much nutritional value. The Ladakhi people used to be sustainable before tourism, but now they’re forgetting how.”
Before tourism, most of the population of Ladakh were smallholders or farmers, growing their own crops. But now, residents are giving up farming in favour of jobs that generate greater income. Those who do farm have dropped traditional methods in favour of harmful pesticides and fertilisers.
Many local NGOs and health organisations – such as SECMOL (the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh) and LEHO (Ladakh Environment and Health Organization) – believe it is important to return to a more ecologically-friendly way of life. Their goal is to make Ladakh an organic region by educating Ladakhi people in sustainable methods and providing incentives for organic farming.
However, they still want the region to embrace modern developments. At the SECMOL campus, students learn about traditional Ladakhi food culture alongside sustainability, science and governance, as they grow, preserve and forage indigenous foods. Recently, an NGO named Juley Ladakh organised a cultural exchange programme, where Japanese chefs taught Ladakhi residents how to make Japanese soba noodle dishes from local buckwheat. And at the same time, restaurants like Alchi Kitchen, Namza Cafe and Syah are working on elevating and showcasing Ladakhi cuisine to help generate pride in local dishes.
Collectively, these businesses and organisations aim to champion traditional ingredients, improve education and use staple foods to access a more cosmopolitan food culture. Hopefully, this is the direction that Ladakh will continue to move in – rooted in culinary tradition while employing innovative farming methods and cooking techniques.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.