In a kitchen that is housed in a structure that’s around 150 years old, Pannuli Devi enjoys cooking in copper and brass utensils that she inherited from her in-laws and received as wedding gifts.
As the winter sun reaches its peak, Pannuli Devi and her daughter Pushpa serve us nimbu saan and lai ke pakode, a staple evening snack up in the mountains of Uttarakhand. We wash it down with a steaming pot of chai, and watch the sun go down on the Nanda Devi in the backdrop. Pannuli’s home kitchen in Virkhan is housed inside a structure which dates back 150 years. Her teal-coloured kitchen was lovingly built by her husband Puran Lal, she tells us, and it feeds their family of ten everyday.
Virkhan is a small village of less than 100 people, a two-hour drive from Nainital. A typical Kumaoni household kitchen here is often designed with simplicity and functionality, using centuries-old knowledge of the native mountain people of Uttarakhand. Coming from families that practise agriculture, many of them have built their homes and kitchens adjacent to their farms.
Harder items like grains and pulses are pounded on an ukhli or okhli—a pounding area created outside kitchens—by making a crevice in the ground. A tall wooden stick is used to pound items, while a small broom made with a local grass called jhaas pushes the contents back into the ground. Soop (woven bamboo trays) are used to separate husks from grains by tossing it up and down, and letting the wind do its job. In this photo, Pannuli can be seen at work along with Mamta Devi, her sister-in-law.
Usually passed down through generations, heirlooms and traditional copper and brass utensils are generally reserved for special occasions and festivals. Heavy-bottomed to accommodate the intensity of the wood fire, these vessels are perfect to cook dals and protein-rich foods which take time to break down. a Kasera (a heavy-bottomed copper utensil) is generally used to slow-cook meals.
As someone who has used this kitchen for decades, we ask Pannuli what her favourite thing to cook in this kitchen is. And, what does she like to eat? Pannuli’s favourite thing to eat is aloo ke gutke, a dry aloo preparation, along with ragi roti which she flattens and shapes using just her hands, unlike rotis made with a belan (rolling pin) and chakli (rolling board). She makes them the best in her house, she tells us, adding that even her daughter-in-laws prefer it if she made them everyday. She also loves green leafy vegetables, linguda (fiddlehead ferns), and jhangore ka khichdi (barnyard millet). But her husband’s bitter gourd subzi is her most favourite. Her husband helps out whenever he can, but mostly only after he returns home from a long day of work.
So, is there anything that Pannuli would change about her teal kitchen? She says that she loves her kitchen just as it is. Having had countless memories in there, feeding her seven children and husband, she wouldn’t change it for anything! She especially holds close the memories of her husband—“a cheerful and entertaining man”—cooking meat (a rare treat) for the entire family while singing old Hindi songs.
Avanti Kumar is a chef who left her big city life for a quiet, slow paced life in the mountains of Uttarakhand. Her days are spent farming, foraging, cooking, and creating a sustainable lifestyle in the Himalayas. Dushyant Vashisht is an entrepreneur, tech enthusiast and photographer. Together, they host guests through their AirBnb ‘Bir Terraces’ in Virkhan where guests can experience utopia in the hills.