The traditional food of Baltistan includes a number of unique dishes that I have never had anywhere else.
We flew into Skardu, Gilgit-Baltistan, a magically beautiful place that exists as an Autonomous region incorporated into the boundaries of Pakistan. It was an honor to visit during my trip to Pakistan.
The highlight of my time in Skardu, was being invited to a local family home where they cooked 14 traditional Balti dishes.
I’m going to share this amazing food with you in this post.
“Hospitality is Our Culture” – Balti Saying
In this article, I am going to be focusing mainly on the traditional food of Baltistan. I would like to say though, that when combined with the extreme hospitality of the people here, the entire travel experience was one of the most heart-warming of my life.
During our trip to Baltistan, we were hosted at the beautiful Serena Shigar Fort Hotel, about a thirty minute drive from Skardu. In the evening we drove back to Skardu to a local family home, where they had been cooking for the entire day and anticipating our arrival.
When we arrived to their home, we were greeted with tea and extreme hospitality and welcome.
I’m not going to mention all 14 Balti dishes in this article, but I will highlight the standout dishes. I also encourage you to watch the video from the day we ate this meal here (YouTube link).
Balay – traditional soup
Being a cold mountainous region, there are few things more warming and satisfying when it’s cold outside, than soup. And soup in Baltistan in not a watery affair, but rather the balay as it’s known, is thick and hearty and eats almost like a gravy.
Along with the goat meat broth that formed the flavor and base, there were hearty gummy textured noodles and smalls bits of meat mixed within. It was a great way to begin our traditional Baltistan food meal in Skardu.
Prapu (wheat noodles and walnut paste)
Prapu is a noodle dish thickened with almonds that have been ground to a powder. The noodles are hand-made using wheat flour, then boiled until soft. When ready, they are covered in a thick paste which includes ground walnuts and pressed apricot oil, and the whole pot is then seasoned with local herbs.
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The seasoning includes locally grown high-plateau herbs, several of which I’ve never seen anywhere else. Recipes are very hard to find, but I could definitely taste fenugreek seeds, and there may also be potato in the thick sauce as well.
Most of the dishes here are made entirely from local ingredients, many parts of the recipe made from scratch by the families. You can immediately see that Balti cuisine is unique, very different from food in Pakistan’s low-land and river-basin areas.
Note: Dish names on a menu may be spelled differently (ie. Prapoo, Prabu, Plapoo). Also, thank you to the Rareseeds website for helping me with names of the spices and seasonings used in Balti Cuisine.
Gyal (buckwheat cakes)
There are many different versions of Gyal (or Giyal), but all of them use a local species of Red or Brown buckwheat as the main ingredient.
These were one of my favorite foods during the time spent in Baltistan, and I love the heartiness in the simple combination of wheat cakes covered in apricot oil. Gyal has a delicious smoky flavor from being cooked on a flat iron plate, usually over a wood-burning stove or fire.
Some Gyal are covered with honey, we had one with a gorgeously sweet smelling apricot jam, and in the town of Gilgit we also had a version filled with a thick spread of walnut and almond paste.
Marzan (buckwheat with apricot oil)
Soaking in water before being milled, the wheat grains take about two weeks before they are ready to be ground. This gives the flour a sweeter taste, and this is a great food to have in the middle of winter when the weather is extremely cold outside.
This is a rare dish that will usually be eaten on special occasions, as the wheat is prepared in such a specific and timely way.
A bowl of pure apricot oil is served on a small mound of Marzan, gooey, but slightly dry wheat dough. The consistency of the wheat is very similar to how it looks, almost like dumpling or cookie dough.
Marzan is very simple, yet filling and satisfying, almost like a cold-weather version of this amazing meal in Ethiopia. This dish provides a lot of energy to people who traditionally work outdoors year-round in the mountain environments of Baltistan.
Animals that produce milk are very important to the Balti people, and so they are usually raised for their milk and not eaten as an every day food.
As with many parts of the world where people live in more self-reliant environments, the cooking and preparing of an entire animal is one of the ways of highest respect to welcome a guest into one’s home.
The goat was boiled with a few small vegetables like onions and carrots, but with very minimal spice and seasoning. It was served still on the bone, and self service to slice off a chunk. The meat is tender from being boiled, but it also has a wonderful goat-meat muscle toughness. You know immediately through the flavor that this was a home-raised animal, and not from a meat farm.
Eating the entire goat like this was indeed a special occasion, and each hearty bite of goat meat was valuable and enjoyed to the fullest.
Potato stew with goat
Considered to be one of the most inaccessible and remote areas in the entire world, Gilgit-Baltistan has only recently had road access even to its own country and capital (roads built in 1978).
This has allowed many traditional practices to continue until today, food as well as culture, and a stew like this is one is eaten regularly now, but not a traditional Balti dish.
This is a curry in that the ingredients are fried to make a heavily spiced sauce before adding water, but then it is served as a very thick stew. It is full of large chunks of goat meat, potatoes, and a seasoning blend much more spicy than what we saw in more traditional food of Baltistan.
In the curry you can taste the masala spices including cumin, black pepper, turmeric powder, and dried ginger, yet the spices are often milder than in other parts of Pakistan, like in Punjab.
One of the backbones of Balti cuisine is actually a drink. This is not your average tea however, and it is much more than simply preparing green or black leaves in hot water.
This tea contains salt, butter, milk, and is made with pre-brewed green tea leaves. It is served with a side of fresh ground wheat flour, and a small dish of pure apricot oil which you add to personal taste.
Mix in a spoon each of the brown flour and the golden apricot oil, and enjoy a warming and thick mixture of some of the richest liquid imaginable. In some places it is traditional even for several cups of butter tea to be an entire breakfast, and solid food would not be eaten until one has already begun work for the day.
Across this entire mountain region from Tibet to Bhutan, butter tea is enjoyed and it’s so well-loved by these mountain dwelling peoples that you can’t possibly visit without having at least a few cups together.
Home-Cooking in Gilgit-Baltistan
It was wonderful to eat in the family’s own home, in the traditional style where the family and guests gather together to share a meal. This creates a very cosy environment, a place where everyone involved can share the meal, and it was a wonderful chance to just sit and talk together after dinner.
The people of Baltistan are truly wonderful, and a highlight of the trip was sharing these food experiences with some of the most friendly and hospitable people I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
We were very honored to be welcomed with such an abundance of food from this family in Skardu and to have a chance to learn about traditional Baltistan food.
Sharing tea after the meal, laughing together, and enjoying the delicious home-cooked food, this time spent with the Balti people in Skardu is an experience I will never forget.