Punchok Namgyal has been our cook for the last three weeks of work at the Druk Padma Karpo Institute. Namgyal was born in Kargil, just Northwest of Shey. At the age of 15 he moved to Leh, leaving his one brother to care for his parents. He visits once a year with his wife and two daughters. Cooking at the school for Namgyal began upon its opening. At the age of 62 he has more energy than one could imagine, dancing and singing across the kitchen as he cooks some of our most memorable meals.
Namgyal regularly cooks three meals a day for the resident kids of Druk Padma Karpo Institute, and enjoys every bit of it. Cooking has been something he has done all his life and has learned a variety of cuisines from his mother, such as Ladakhi, Tibetin, and Chinese. Culturally and traditionally, families in Ladakh are born into their occupation. During the last two weeks of work at the school, we were served a more "exotic" menu from what the school is used to (some would say "hallelujah"). Namgyal's days would begin as early as five `o clock in the morning. Breakfast was at 7:30am consisting of bread, butter and jam, butter tea and hot water. On occasion we would get eggs, that’s if we were good. Lunch was routinely some kind of stir-fry vegetables along with Dal, a Ladakhi barley dish. Dinner was always a surprise, momo’s (similar to potstickers), breadrull (similar to springrolls), and tokpa (soup) was an appetizing way to end the day. It has been a wonderful opportunity to experience Ladakhi cuisine and culture through Namgyal. The gathering of 29 of us three times a day to enjoy this cultural experience one way or another was a way to take a break and regroup, especially after working on five independent projects.
The campus' kitchen is very extravagant, compared to what the area is used to. Namgyal loves his kitchen. To the lower right of where Namgyal is boiling water in the image above is the dish washing sink. Originally, Arup Associates (Architect) designed the kitchen sinks to be placed similar to a western sink, waist height and near cabinetry. As a result, Namgyal and the women (his helpers) weren't using the designed sink, and found other “innovative”, or practical ways to practice how they would culturally wash dishes as well as do other things in a modernized kitchen. Arup had to redesign and install two sinks that were lower to the ground in order for the user to squat on their knees and wash dishes, exactly what they were more accustom to. There are no fixed appliances in this kitchen. The stoves are single burners, individually hooked up to separate propane tanks. The most familiar feature that we can associate with is the island situated right in the middle of the kitchen. The usual activities take place here, cutting vegetables, socializing, and drinking of tea (for us, wine). Directly above the kitchen island is a large skylight. Interestingly, this aspect is religiously common in Buddhist temples. The skylight sits directly above the altar or Buddha shedding a vibrant beam of light, and creating a focal point.
Another interesting observation in the kitchen is the use of the floor as a drain. The transport of large heavy hot pots to the nearest drain is a struggle for an average five-foot Ladakhi. Instead, they use the floor to drain rice, water, or left over pots of soup-based foods. They then take brooms and sweep the excess out a 1” diameter hole in the wall, which then drains to the outside irrigation. Plumbing is scarce, there are no septic tanks, instead they irrigate the greywater out to the street, creating a stinky smell. (potential sustainable system, minus the smell) The same goes for disposing of trash, it is collected in a pit right outside the kitchen and left to burn. Although these practices are foreign to what we are used to, it is a way of life for people in Ladakh and a means of living, given the available resources and knowledge at hand.
*Warning – The use of "us, we, I" refers to the group of 29 (+/- 1) students that have shared in thoughts and conversations related to the topic. Do not be disturbed, alarmed, nervous, or take otherwise.