Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

This Green Gravy Is What We Ate in the Himalayas When it Rained Catastrophically for Three Days Straight

by 
Tania Banerjee
August 10, 2021

“It is very easy to go breathless here, both metaphorically and literally,” my husband muttered.

We were on a mountain top, the Kedarkantha peak, at an altitude of 12,500 feet in the heart of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand state of India. Heavy clouds spiraled up from the western gorge and the wind cut creases on the sheets of snow. The sun shone bright in the eastern sky and I was laden in five layers of winter garments, including a down jacket, but warmth still eluded me. After all, there’s a reason why the Himalayas are called the Third Pole.

We slushed through snow and sludge for five days and completed the high-altitude trek. After coming back to civilization we decided to pamper ourselves. Instead of heading home to scorching Mumbai, we checked in for a three-night stay at a British-era cottage in Mussoorie, a hill station nearby.

Our plans were fantastic. Our days would start with the view of the snow-capped peaks through the glass windows. We would relish it cuddled in the comfort of our blankets. On the bright patio, we would have tea in the company of tall pines that fringe the cliff. As the day progressed, we would go for walks in the local market, savoring street food. We would hop between the cafes and restaurants satisfying our gastronomic cravings.

However, we had made a mistake. We forgot to account for the unpredictability of nature.

In the afternoon, when we checked-in, the sky looked mildly cloud dappled — incredibly dramatic but hardly disconcerting. In a couple of hours, the clouds became somber. The soothing breeze transformed into turbulent wind. Rain lashed on the windows, blurring our prized view. The pines swayed violently. Temperatures plummeted, and soon the cold made my teeth chatter — something that hadn’t happened in Kedarkantha summit was happening at a lower altitude.

A leisure holiday had turned into a struggle for survival.

We starved indoors. It was unsafe and too cold to venture outside. The cottage didn’t have an in-house restaurant or any other occupants. It only had a lone caretaker — a person who came to our rescue just in time.

“You must be hungry. I can make you palak paneer and parantha for dinner. Would you like some?”

“Yes,” we said in unison.

No items found.

About an hour and a half later, he returned with the promised dinner on a tray.

Ravenous and anxious, we ran to the dining area. We distributed the paranthas (lightly fried Indian flatbread) on our plates and opened the casserole of palak paneer — cubed cottage cheese cooked in a rich green gravy of pureed spinach with hints of onion, tomato, ginger, garlic and an assortment of Indian spices.

Steam wafted from the bowl. The aroma of spinach and spices drifted in the air. We dipped the serving spoon into the curry and scooped out generous helpings on our plates. Tearing the parantha, we wrapped bits of the palak paneer with it and delivered the scrumptious packet straight into our mouth. In the numbing cold the spicy, creamy spinach elixir restored our body heat and made sure we could catch some sleep.

Nature was not benign even the next day. The downpour had continued, precarious Himalayan roadways were shut, and people remained cooped up indoors.

The caretaker rang our bell around 9 in the morning.

“I can make you food again, if you are OK with eating the same dish as last night,” he announced.

Of course we were OK. We felt lucky to have someone take care of us even under such dire weather conditions.

Happy with our affirmative answer he squelched away, shaded under his umbrella that was fighting with the wind to maintain its shape. At noon, he served us lunch — this time the parantha was replaced by roti (Indian flatbread). The palak paneer tasted as fulfilling as it had the night before.

The weather remained frightful for all three days and it turned out our caretaker had a surplus of paneer, spinach, onion, tomato, ginger, garlic in his pantry. So, for three days straight we devoured on palak paneer for lunch and dinner.

It is very natural to grow tired of a dish after such binge eating, but surprisingly our reaction was opposite.

Though palak paneer is a popular dish across north India, it was almost absent in our east Indian Bengali household. Our trip to Mussoorie changed that forever. Now, palak paneer, a dish that lies at the elusive intersection of nutritious and delicious, is our kitchen staple.

Rainy Day(s) Palak Paneer

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Serves 2 with Indian flatbreads (roti or parantha)

Ingredients

2 5 oz packages of Fifth Season spinach, or 12 oz of frozen spinach, thawed and drained

1 block or ¾-1 lb paneer (Indian farmer’s cheese), cubed

2 small onions, roughly chopped

2 tomatoes, roughly chopped

1-inch knob of ginger, roughly chopped

5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped

1-3 fresh green chilies

1 tsp cumin seeds

2 tbsp of store bought plain yogurt, butter or cream

2 tbsp neutral cooking oil

Salt to taste

 | 
 | 
Serves 2 with Indian flatbreads (roti or parantha)

Ingredients

2 5 oz packages of Fifth Season spinach, or 12 oz of frozen spinach, thawed and drained

1 block or ¾-1 lb paneer (Indian farmer’s cheese), cubed

2 small onions, roughly chopped

2 tomatoes, roughly chopped

1-inch knob of ginger, roughly chopped

5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped

1-3 fresh green chilies

1 tsp cumin seeds

2 tbsp of store bought plain yogurt, butter or cream

2 tbsp neutral cooking oil

Salt to taste

Ingredients

2 5 oz packages of Fifth Season spinach, or 12 oz of frozen spinach, thawed and drained

1 block or ¾-1 lb paneer (Indian farmer’s cheese), cubed

2 small onions, roughly chopped

2 tomatoes, roughly chopped

1-inch knob of ginger, roughly chopped

5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped

1-3 fresh green chilies

1 tsp cumin seeds

2 tbsp of store bought plain yogurt, butter or cream

2 tbsp neutral cooking oil

Salt to taste

Directions

1. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a pan on low and add the cumin seeds. Heat for 30 seconds, shifting the seeds around with a spatula.

2. Turn the head up to medium, add the onions to the pan and sauté for 2 minutes.

3. Add the tomatoes, ginger, and garlic cloves to the pan. Sauté for about 10 minutes on medium-low.

4. Add the spinach and allow to wilt down -- about 2-3 minutes.

5. Turn the heat off and let the sautéed vegetables cool for a few minutes.

6. Add the fresh green chilies, and the sautéed vegetables into a food processor or blender. Run it until a smooth green paste is obtained.

7. Heat the rest of the oil in a pan and add the green spinach paste. Cook it for 2 minutes on low.

8. Beat the yogurt, butter or cream until there are no lumps. Add it to the pan while continuously stirring with a spatula. 

9. Now add the cubed paneer into the pan, keeping aside one cube for garnishing. Cook it for 2 minutes on medium-low.

10. Add salt according to taste. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring the gravy regularly.

11. Garnish with grated paneer and serve hot.

About the Author

Tania Banerjee

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