Manali - An Edible Guide
Manali is one of India’s most popular hill station. And the reasons for its popularity are plenty. Manali offers so much more than a commanding height and frosty weather all year through. Adventure junkies can do just about anything here from hand-gliding, to rock climbing. Travellers often use it as a pitt stop to reach higher planes such as Rohtang Pass - the gateway to Lahaul and Spiti valleys. The infamous hash trail is another draw that brings hippies from all over the world. And the picturesque snow peaks attract honeymooners in flocks. Manali is divided in two - the new town, which includes the crowded and less desirable Mall Road and Old Manali which attracts a mix of foreigners, and young and alternative travellers. Manali has started extending its wings down the Club House road to accommodate the throngs of visitors. Despite it being overburdened by tourist, especially in the peak summer seasons, Manali has a magic to it that I find hard not to keep coming back for. But what really sets Manali apart for me is the smorgasbord of exciting cuisines. Who would imagine eating anything from Korean to Italian at an altitude of 6,398 feet in the middle of Himachal?
You are more likely to find good pizza on an average in Manali than Delhi, and the options are endless. The best part is they know how to do it right, for almost every pizza kitchen is equipped with a wood-fired oven. For great vegetarian pizzas try Casa Bella Vista - especially their delicious Four Cheese Pizza (Rs.350). Walk up to Old Manali to Pizza Olive and dig in to their scrumptious Pesto & Sun dried Tomato Pizza. And if the carnivore in you feels left out, ham and salami are there to please. Done with pizza and you want the whole Italian spread? Then don’t miss Il Forno - set in a 100 year old Himachali home in the midst of a lush green garden. The garden cafe is perfect for warm sunny lunches while, the inside is a cozy wooden area, straight out Hansel & Gretel. Due to some dispute the restaurant is no longer run by its Italian owner Roberta - so far the food tastes the same but not sure how long it will sustain itself without her. Until it does try their Mutton Spezzatino, which is heart warming stew to get you through the cold walk home, mushroom lasagna, and of course the fiammetta - true chocolate decadence.
|Pizza Olive |
It would be an utter waste to come to Manali and not get your hands on some local river trout. Johnsons Cafe and Bar not to be confused with Johnson’s Lodge next door - is a beautiful spot for lunch. Grab one of the tables set in their lovely garden that seems to be in perpetual bloom, while munching on one of their very many trout options. Here you can get your trout baked, fried, grilled or curried (Rs.350-400). Make sure you save room for some warm waffles with maple syrup and hot fudge sauce (Rs.200)!
Though, Johnson’s is an old favourite, my loyalty only lasted till I bit into one delicious morsel after another at the newly opened La Plage Manali. Hands down the best meal in Manali. It is on an isolated patch on the club house road, which means dining in their beautiful garden with uninterrupted views of the mountains is an extra treat. The inside is essentially a house with one huge room, high ceilings, quirky brik-a-brac and mismatched furniture that only adds to the charm. They have a beautiful garden which is perfect for lunch or dinner. The Chicken Liver Pate with Onion Jam (Rs.250), the house Smoked Trout (Rs.280), the Pumpkin Ravioli (Rs.280), Goat cheese puffs (Rs.300) - all absolutely mouth-watering. The pièce de résistance however was the Trout w/ Toasted almonds (Rs.350), beautifully grilled with crispy brown skin, tender flaky flesh - a complete winner! Don’t forget to sweeten your mouth with some warm melting Baby Chocolate Cake (Rs.220).
|La Plage |
A trip to the hills wouldn’t be complete without a steaming bowl of momos and soup. For your Tibetan and Chinese fix head to the famous Chopsticks on Mall Road . They do a nice crispy trout here too - chinjabi style with garlic sauce. Apart from the usual Tibetan Chinese fare , their muesli for breakfast is a wholesome start to the day.
For an evening cup of coffee try Dylan’s Roasted and Toasted, which not only does a variety of coffees from French Press to Turkish but also the most divine chocolate chip cookies. Make sure you insist on a fresh baked one because all that oozing chocolate is really where the magic is. For a more sophisticated and a less hippie vibe try the Open Hand Cafe where they they have a variety of good quality coffee too.
And sometimes you need a little something to warm you up on a crisp night. Lazy dog is your log cabin in the woods, bettered by a fire place, an alfresco by the river and oh yes a “proper bar”! Despite being in old Manali the Lazy Dog attracts discerning mix of travellers and families. Try the warm collision salad (Rs. 230), with a glass of wine (Rs.230) of course. For a younger vibe, and perhaps less kid friendly - the lively Hangout is a walk further up the slope.
|Lazy Dog - Warm Collision Salad Veg|
Another cute little place for some peace and chai, if you are in Old Manali is Bee's Knees. Again, you aren't going here for the food but just some no-frills down time, amidst the apple trees.
I mentioned there being two main parts to Manali, but call it a suburban overspill, my favourite foodie adventures extend outside Manali, in its quieter more tranquil surroundings that have so much to offer.
A 10 minute drive from Manali is Vashisht.
Here you can find some of the best Korean food in the country tucked away on a path to the left of the temples, known as A1. Michele and his Korean wife run this humble little spot. While Michele plays the entertaining host, his wife cooks up a traditional storm in the kitchen. Definitely try the Pork, which is cooked on a hot plate on your table. Its a very generous portion of surprisingly good quality pork, vegetables to mix in, and a bunch of small snacks on the side in true Korean fashion. The red rice veggie sushi we tried was quite tasty too. Do step out on to their balcony for a truly breath taking view of the valley!
|A1 - Don't miss the beautifully pink pork ready to hit the hot plate!|
Once you are done with lunch here, head for dinner on your way out of Vashisht to Rose Garden Cafe. A romantic spot, quite obviously in a garden, complete with wooden benches and candle light. Owners Namita and Shiva are the most gracious hosts. Keshav’s Italian mother is around a lot to supervise the kitchen, and it’s her recipes you find scattered across the menu. Ingredients are organically sourced as much as possible, and they keep returning to Italy to stock up on other goodies. Their wood fire oven guarantees some delicious pizzas, do try their Salami Pizza and Pizza Vegetariana (Rs.200-300). They even do some wonderful home-made pastas (Rs.250-350) and Grills (Rs.400-500). Their Chocolate Salami dessert made of chocolate biscuits and nuts will bring out the child in you.
|Rose Garden Cafe|
Another little jewel sits near by. As you turn towards Vashisht on the road leading to Rohtang and about 1.5km before Bhang - is the point to recharge your belly, on your way to higher planes. Phuntsok Garden Cafe, run by a husband and wife duo that whip out some delicious food - chicken/mushroom Roestis, Momos, Thupka and I think they even make their own noodles! Go in the day because they tend to run out by the evening.
If you are thinking of a trek or picnic in the nearby forests stop at The Seo Bakers on the Club House road. Their burgers(Rs. 25-35), and banana caramel cake(Rs.35) would make the perfect packed lunch.
On the way towards Naggar, sits The Fat Plate. Only a year old, this family run gem allows you to dine in a lush garden with views of rivers, and peaks. Chef Anubhav Gorung may just be 25 years old but his Roast Leg of Lamb (Rs.350), Grilled Trout with Watermelon Salsa (325) or Purda Biryani(Rs.250-350) show years beyond that. Anubhav and his parents believe in growing their own vegetables and herbs, and what they cannot, they procure from local farmers to ensure sustainability and an unmistakeable freshness (try the home-grown Fresh Garden Salad Rs. 175). Mamma Gorung - Madhu- also makes her own jams and pickles. 08826174197
|Fat Plate - Photo provided by management|
Try and time your trip to include a Sunday brunch at Martin’s. A family run place that is surrounded my nothing but a flowering garden, apple orchards and mountains. Martin opens out his house every Sunday, where you can enjoy some good fashioned grub and booze, until the clouds roll in to remind you of the time. Their special Grilled Chicken (Rs.500 half chicken) is perfectly juicy with crispy well-seasoned skin, must be ordered a day or two in advance. Some other things to try - their Smoked Trout (Rs.300), and Salami Pizza. Be sure to book your slice of delicious Apple Strudel at the beginning of your meal before it runs out!
Head to Jana Falls for a little adventure and don’t bother packing a tiffin. For here Mani Ram’s serves a unique vegetarian lunch with all sorts of local delicacies such as ferns, morels (feb-march) and other mushrooms (monsoon) and veggies indigenous to the area.
Half way there in Haripur is Rainbow Trout Farm, where they do trout farming but more importantly have a restaurant where you can have your fill of some fresh delicious trout cooked in any way imaginable from panfried to tandoori.
Another little gem sits on the way to Jana farms known as Himalyan Dairy, a small unexpected gourmet shop run by Naresh Mahant in the little village Jagat Sukh. Since this isn’t on the usual tourist radar it would be wise to call ahead (+919816053607) and set an appointment to visit. The main purpose of this store/workshop is cheese - they make their own Asiago which is well worth the buy as is their Scarmoza. You can also get your hands on other gourmet delights such as miso paste and Greek olives!
Word on the street is a new organic store and cafe is opening end May, in Prini Nulla, on Naggar road, that goes by the name of Manali Organics. The husband and wife team will be selling all sorts of locally produced and sourced goods such as coffees, jams, breads, etc. 096 87 678025
While you are up there do try and pick up some organic honey. There are a couple of stores selling it on Mall Road in New Manali - the Himalyan Store and Honey Nut. However, on the way to Naggar, there are a few bee keepers along the road, selling honey straight from the source.
Of course, Himachal is home to a lot of delicious fruit; from plums to apples; fresh almonds to juicy peaches. I wouldn't leave, without a few boxes of these saccharine treats, if I were you. My favourite out of these, was a local fruit whose name seems to be under some ambiguity - 'Chinni' something. From the apricot family, but small, greeny-yellow (as seen in the picture below on the left), and ferociously sweet. HPMC makes a very popular apple juice, that many don't leave the state without either.
If luxury is where you would like to rest your head amidst, then Baikunth Magnolia Resort it is. Though Circuit House road on the way to old Manali, does tend to get a bit congested in peak season, you only need to enter to leave the chaos behind. The 10 rooms are spacious and exquisitely furnished. And it only gets better with your own private balcony overlooking immaculately green lawns and snowy peaks in the distance. They have various packages depending on how many meals you want to include ranging from Rs. 5720 to Rs. 9620.
|Baikunth - Photos provided by management|
If your pockets are sewed a little tight, head over to the top of old Manali and there you will find the back-packer favourite Drifter’s Inn. The rooms are basic but clean and they all come with attached bathrooms. Available in 3 categories, Standard (Rs.880), Family (Rs. 1600) and Superior (Rs. 1300) . The best part about Drifter’s is its cosy cafe that serves the kind of hearty, no-fuss food, you would crave on a cold Manali night.
|Drifter's Inn - Photos provided by management|
If you want to step outside the standard format of accommodation but still do it on a budget, head to Manali Tree Cottages. But book early to get the one tree cottage available (Rs.3000). Though the room is a little basic, it is spacious with all glass windows, giving you a 360 degree view. And don’t forget to feed the squirrels at your window a little something from time to time. +91-98160-78765
|Manali Tree Cottages - Photos provided by management|
Somewhere between Kullu and Manali lies Neeralaya. Imagine being surrounded by forest and orchards on two sides and the mighty Beas on the other. Think of traditional stone cottages, furbished with modern elegance. Think of lazy verandahs in the day and roaring bonfires at night. If you are not already sold, think of delicious home cooked food, with produce from their gardens, and freshly caught trout from the river. Neeralaya is also a great place to try some local Himachali food, all you have to do is ask. Peak season cottages range from Rs. 9450 to Rs. 16,150. (+91 9625065125)
|Neeralaya - Photos provided by management|
*Adapted from my Manali article that first appeared in BBC Good Food Magazine. All pictures are taken by me (if not credit is given under them)*