One of the best parts of travelling to Ladakh is trying out the local food and bringing back recipes to remind you of your trip. The Ladakhi cuisine is very different from the Indian cuisine, it is not spicy and it mainly originates from the culinary traditions of Tibet. Barley flour, called tsampa, is the traditional staple food of Ladakh.
To make sure that you get to sample all the delicious food that the region has to offer, here is a list of the top 10 dishes you shouldn't leave Ladakh without tasting.
Thukpa is a much-loved classic of Ladakhi cuisine. It is a clear soup with vegetables and noodles made of wheat or barley flour. This dish also often contains meat such as pieces of chicken, mutton or yak. Thukpa is customarily served with spicy “chutney” to further enhance the taste. There are multiple versions of this noodle soup and all kind of savoury ingredients can be added for a subtle blend of flavours.
Thukpa is one of the most consumed food in Ladakh and it is very popular in other regions of the Himalayas too. It is available in all local restaurants in Leh at a budget price and it is the perfect dish to keep you warm in winter.
Arguably the most famous dish in Ladakh, momos are dumplings originating from Tibet which are generally stuffed with minced meat, vegetables (cabbage, potatoes, carrots, onions, spinach) and cheese. Momos are either steamed or fried (be prepared for this tough choice at the time of ordering!) and they are usually served with chilli sauce and a soup as an accompaniment.
Momos are cooked in a traditional steamer called “Mokto”. It is a metal container with water at the bottom and several compartments on top of each other with holes for the steam to circulate. Momos are often shaped like a lotus flower or like a crescent. Momos are not only popular in Ladakh but also in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Bhutan, Nepal… They are always part of the menu during special celebrations.
You feel like to eat something sweet? A few restaurants in Leh have even started serving chocolate momos for dessert. Not really traditional but worth a try!
Skyu is another traditional soup-based Ladakhi speciality. It is a stew made with barley or wheat dough kneaded into thumb-sized flatten balls. It is slowly cooked in a pot with water, meat and root vegetables such as potatoes, turnips and carrots. This mouth-watering dish is often prepared in villages and its recipe has remained unchanged for centuries. This heavy and high-calorie food containing energy in the form of carbohydrates is a favourite during the cold winter months when the temperature in Ladakh falls to below freezing and for those doing trekking.
In villages, it is also habitual to include fresh milk as a main ingredient. In that case, the dish is called oma-skyu, “oma” means “milk” in Ladakhi language. A particularly tasty variant that you must try if you have the opportunity.
Tingmo or Timok in Ladakhi is a steamed Tibetan bread that is eaten with dal, cooked vegetables or meat. It is staple food for the people of Ladakh, similar to white bread or “baguette” in French cuisine. Tingmo is a soft and fluffy plain bun made from white flour and it does not contain any filling. It is best when served hot (after having been steamed for around 15 minutes) and it goes very well with stews. Tingmo is very similar to the Chinese “Hua Juan” (also known as Flower Bun or Mandarin Rolls). Tingmo is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is a favoured tea-time snack too.
Chutagi is a famous pasta-like dish with a rich vegetable-based sauce. This is one of Ladakh’s signature dishes and every local restaurant in Leh has its own secret Chutagi recipe. “Chu” means “water” in Ladakhi and “tagi” means “bread”. Therefore, the literal translation of “Chutagi” is “water-bread”.
Chutagi is a delicacy consisting of bow-tie-shaped pieces of dough cooked in a thick soup made of potatoes, carrots, peas, and local leafy green vegetables (similar to spinach). A non-veg version of this dish with meat is also very common. A delicious Ladakhi culinary speciality which is very nutritious too!
Yak cheese, “Chhurpi” in Ladakhi, is made from the milk of the domesticated yak called “dzomo”. A dzomo is actually a hybrid between a yak and a cow. The female of this crossbreed produces nearly three times as much milk as a female yak.
Chhurpi is white in colour and the taste is mild, similar to Italian ricotta. There are two varieties of Chhurpi: soft and hard. Due to a scarcity of vegetables and fruits in Ladakh, this traditional cheese is widely consumed. It is an essential ingredient of the local people’s diet because it is a main source of vitamins and proteins. Chhurpi is found with all kind of food in Ladakh such as thukpa and it is used as a filling for momos.
Butter tea is a traditional pinkish beverage of the Himalayan regions. In Ladakh, butter tea is also known as “gur-gur chai”. Its particularity is that yak butter and salt are added to the boiling water infused with tea leaves. This very caloric drink is excellent for cold weather and high altitude. The butter also helps keeping the lips moisturized, replacing lip balm!
Ladakhi people drink salted butter tea every day. It is also the traditional beverage served during weddings and other special occasions. In the Ladakhi hospitality tradition, the host constantly refills the guest’s cup to the brim as soon as a few sips are drunk so that the cup is never empty. If the guest does not wish to drink more, the cup should be left full until the guest leaves.
Chang is a traditional alcoholic beverage, Ladakh’s “local beer” made from barley with 5% to 7% alcohol. People have been drinking chang for centuries during festive occasions. For marriage proposal, the boy’s uncle offers a pot of chang to the girl’s family. For a child's birth, family and neighbours bring chang to the parents along with butter and flour.
As a sign of respect, chang is served to guests with a small piece of butter on the brim of the cup. Before drinking, the guest dips a finger into the beverage and flick a few drops in the air as an offering to the gods. It is usually done three times for the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
Khambir is a delicious traditional leavened wheat-based bread. The handmade round-shaped fermented dough is baked over a hot stone and then directly in the ﬁre. The bread is even better to eat when it’s freshly baked and still warm. Typically, Ladakhi people eat Khambir with scramble eggs or vegetables for breakfast. The bread is also served as a snack with butter tea. Khambir can be stored at room temperature for more than a week, it is a popular staple food in Ladakh.
What about ending this list on a sweet note?
Apricot (or “chulli” in Ladakhi language) is the most popular locally-grown fruit in the region. Apricot culture was introduced in Ladakh in the early 20th century from China and Central Asia. Beautiful apricot orchards can be found in different parts of Ladakh located at lower altitude such as Sham (west part of the Indus valley), Nubra valley and Dha-Hanu valley.
Several products are made from this fruit. Apricot jam is a delicacy that you will surely enjoy for breakfast! Apricots are also used to make syrup and the seeds are used to make kernel oil. Dried apricots are a favourite among Ladakhi people.
This well-known restaurant is the place to go if you are looking for Ladakhi and Tibetan food. It is often crowded with tourists and you might want to book a table in advance. When the restaurant is busy, waiting time for food can be long.
This restaurant serves local food as well as tasty Indian food (dal makhani, paneer butter masala, naan…). This place is popular with locals and tourists alike.
This small vegetarian restaurant is a great choice for authentic Ladakhi and Tibetan cuisine prepared with best quality and fresh ingredients. Here, you can have some of the best momos and thukpa in town.
This second-floor restaurant overlooking the Main Bazar is somewhat a local institution. It serves delicious traditional dishes from Ladakh at an affordable price. You can try butter tea here.
The main branch of this restaurant is located in Alchi village, 68 km from Leh. There is another branch in Leh itself, near the Jama Masjid mosque. The place is cosy with Ladakhi-style decorations and an open kitchen. The menu has lots of authentic local specialities (both veg and non-veg). Chutagi, Khambir and fresh apricot juice are highly recommended.
This fancy eatery is well-known for serving mouth-watering dishes from Ladakh as well as from other parts or Asia (Chinese, Thai…). The overall quality is excellent and the prices are very fair.
This restaurant offers a wide range of food: Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Italian… If you want to try Ladakhi cuisine, treat yourself with a plate of vegetarian momos. There is a rooftop with a good view on the Main Bazar.
This rooftop cafe offers an excellent choice of food. You can sample authentic Ladakhi dishes, a great way to dive into local culture. Skyu and thukpa are yummy. The terrace has a great view of the busy market and the Leh palace.