Wind-dried ibex and antique butter: the taste of Shangri-La

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The Independent Online

A new book is dishing up recipes from Shangri-La.

James Hilton's fictional Lost Horizon was said to be inspired by his trip to the Hunza Valley, an ancient Silk Route stop in Pakistan's remote Northern Territories, where many valley dwellers lived for 100 years or longer.

Diet was the key to their extraordinary longevity, and the basic recipes featured in the book may unlock the Hunza secrets.

Walled in by the Karakoram mountain range, with its glaciers and granite pinnacles, the Hunza people used to subsist on what they could grow or gather by themselves. It is wholesome fare: fresh-milled grains, nutty apricot kernels, home-pressed apricot oil, milk and honey, plus fresh orchard fruits and wild thyme, supplemented by the odd strip of wind-dried ibex or mutton.

But when a new highway catapulted them into the future in 1978, it brought potato chips, chilli sauce, refined sugar, cappuccinos and chocolate bars. Clogged arteries, ulcers and cancer soon followed. Most of the traditional valley dishes were relegated to wedding or funeral feasts.

Now an enthusiastic graduate student from Bath University's Department of International Development, Marta Luchsinger, has collected traditional Hunza recipes from dozens of village kitchens before they vanish from memory.

When she arrived in 2001, local women welcomed her with an elaborate banquet, spread out on a floorcloth the length of the room.

"It was extraordinary. I was dazzled by so many colours and new textures," Ms Luchsinger recalled. "I had never tasted anything like it. I knew immediately this was their unique art.

"It took many months to coax the women to reveal how they play with their flavours. Nothing had been measured precisely or written down. These women were so proud to have their efforts recognised."

Casual recipe-swapping sessions were inevitably postponed until toil in the terraced fields was complete and evening meals were simmering away.

Hunza women still spread berries to dry on rooftops and serve bruised wheat with chewy cheese, or buckwheat pancakes with buttermilk, but Ms Luchsinger wanted to sample all aspects of the cuisine that fuels their robust health. Her recipe notes are pragmatic: one can either knead dried apricots for two hours by hand until they dissolve into water for classic chhamus juice, or just soak them and whiz them in the blender.

At the lofty Baltit fort, a traditional harvest feast featuring flutes, drummers, shamans and spry geriatric line-dancers took place. The Mir of Hunza, the ceremonial ruler, wore cloth of gold and presided over the distribution of barley and sweets.

The first bite of food had a whiff of over-ripe camembert. "That must be the maltash, the 30-year-old Hunza butter. It's an acquired taste," said Ms Luchsinger. Wrapping butter in birch leaves before stashing it for years in deep storage brings out a distinctly rancid tang.

Matthieu Paley, a French photographer who helped document the cooking techniques, smacked his lips. "For most Frenchmen, this maltash tastes like an exquisite cheese," he said.

Drizzling sweet apricot oil on top, an almondy flavour, helps. So does gobbling handfuls of ripe black cherries and apricots, or downing a shot of "Hunza water" - the valley's potent mulberry wine.

"Cooking in Hunza" will be published in English this month and distributed by the Bath University Department of International Development and the Aga Khan Cultural Service/Pakistan