War & Peace, and pizza

Almost every house in Dharamkot doubles up as an eatery. Their signature dish? The wood oven pizza. (Photo: Nishtha Gautam) Photograph:( WION )

WION New Delhi, India Sep 23, 2016, 10.26 AM (IST) Nishtha Gautam

Hungry trekkers headed to Triund, a popular hiking destination in the mountainous Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, have an unusual combination to be grateful to each time they savour a slice of hot pizza -- the insurgency in Kashmir, the Nobel peace prize given to the Dalai Lama, and a Frenchman.

Pandit Kishan Chand Sharma opened one of the first wood oven pizzerias in the state in Dharamkot, a small village near the Dalai Lama's residence in McLeod Ganj, and named it Family Pizzaria.

In 1997, Sharma was building a wood oven to bake bread in to cater to the growing number of western tourists in the region owing to the turbulence in Kashmir in the early nineties. (Each time there is a flare-up in Jammu and Kashmir, tourists divert their attention to Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Additionally, the 1989 Nobel to the Dalai Lama renewed the West's interest in Buddhism and brought the region into the spotlight.) A Frenchman called Phillip asked him to bake pizzas instead.

The semi-literate Sharma had not even heard of the dish. Phillip not only taught Sharma's son, Hansraj, how to bake pizzas but he also got them their first few customers.

And then word spread.

Today, almost every house in Dharamkot doubles up as an eatery catering to Indian and foreign tourists and serving international cuisine. Sharma, however, rues that most signages claiming wood oven pizzas are misleading. He takes pride in sticking to the traditional way of making pizzas.

Post the 1991 economic reforms, India got a taste of globalisation and soon after, pizza on a mass scale. Multinational players like Pizza Hut, Domino's, and Pizza Corner opened their outlets in India in 1996. Predictably, however, they were targeting big Indian cities with sizeable populations of expats and globetrotting Indians.

Away from the metropolitan glitz, the opening of Sharma's "pizzaria" in 1997 in an obscure hill village tells the tale of backpacking subculture. 

Marryam Reshii, veteran food critic, says, “Backpacking tourists have had a great influence in Indian small towns. My yardstick for knowing whether a town sees foreign tourism is the fruit lassi. If local dhabas sell fruit lassi, yes. If not, no! All the eateries overlooking the Pushkar lake have one thing in common- fruit lassi. Interestingly, the locals have not taken too kindly to this touristy blend of yogurt and fruits.” She adds, “Pizza is an interesting thing. Roberta Angelone served authentic pizzas in her Il Forno every summer in Manali and spent her winters in Italy. Her son, Marco, now custom builds wood-fired pizza ovens for restaurants across the country.”

Varanasi, a traditional backpacking favourite, got its first pizzeria in the early nineties when a bunch of Italian students coaxed Gopal Krishna Shukla to start baking wood-fired pizzas for their musical jams on Assi ghat. Varanasi has a picnic-by-the-river culture. Local inhabitants and university students savour their "litti chokha" sitting by the Ganga. Shukla's Vatika Pizzeria has added pizza to their picnic basket.

Sangeeta Khanna, a Varanasi-born Delhi-based food blogger, says, “Vatika opened in a locality frequented by tourists and students alike. In my student years, we found it difficult to regularly eat there because of their comparatively expensive menu. But the place was thronged by foreigners.” Khanna shared her bread and muffin recipes with Shukla and they are a big favourite.

Since it was impossible to get mozzarella in Varanasi in the early nineties, Shukla travelled to Nepal to source his cheese. His apple pie relies on apple from Kashmir and Himachal unlike the fast mushrooming German bakeries which claim to use imported apples.

Pizzas in Dharamkot are prepared the traditional Naples way but the ingredients are sourced locally. The cheese topping used by Sharma in his pizzeria is a mix of industrially-produced mozzarella and cheddar, and home-made parmesan. This "glocal" approach to food is what food industry experts hail as one of the most viable and sustainable business models.

Food is an important manifestation of growing cultural transactions. It talks to us in peace and in conflict. Reshii quips how Vatika in Varanasi is like a mini United Nations. “It is fun to guess people's nationalities there. Eating pure vegetarian pizzas in an ancient Hindu town, an Israeli Jew happily shares a table with a German Muslim.”