Most people are drawn to Sikkim for its cloud-shrouded hilltops, snow-clad peaks, and punishing yet fulfilling trekking opportunities. Me? All I could think of was the fact that I would be able to embark on yet another exciting food adventure.
Sikkim is India’s second-smallest (Goa is the smallest) and least populated state. That said, it also represents a confluence of diverse peoples and cultures. It is home to the indigenous Lepcha tribe, thought to be Sikkim’s original inhabitants; the Bhutias who migrated from Tibet in the 14th century; and the more recent migrant Nepalese (now almost 80% of the populace). Sikkimese cuisine is a reflection of this diversity.
Tibetan fare: superlicious!
Momos and thukpa (gya thuk in Sikkimese) are ubiquitous. Although I wanted to skip the Tibetan stuff and explore more traditional delicacies, Mr. Small and Vacuum Cleaner decreed otherwise. I’m so glad they insisted – the “been there, done that” expression was wiped off my face the instant the first morsel of momo made contact with my taste buds.
At Doma Restaurant, a tiny, unpretentious basement restaurant on Gangtok’s M.G .Marg, we ordered the pork as well as the beef versions; both were outstanding. The menfolk preferred the beef version – they felt it was smokier and had a greater depth of flavor.
As for me, I couldn’t get over the fact that there was so much actual minced meat (as opposed to minced onion) in these momos – beef or pork, each delectable morsel was bursting with honest-to-goodness MEAT! Heaven.
The thukpa served alongside was a vividly flavored broth, rich with tantalizingly familiar aromas that I couldn’t quite pin down. Thukpa is a thin, meat-based stock, spiced and simmered for hours. It is usually served over egg noodles, but Doma serves it without. Given the amount of food we consumed, I was glad that this was so; there was no way we could have finished everything if we’d had to cope with noodles as well.
We also ordered pork shaphalay – a deep-fried, meat-stuffed savory akin to an over-sized samosa. The shaphalay were delicately spiced – and also very, very filling due to their size and the fact that they are deep-fried. Having tried shaphalay several times, I can say that if the crust isn’t done just right, it doesn’t matter how tasty the filling is – you will be disappointed. They have to be eaten fresh from the kitchen, or the crust gets soggy and chewy.
Doma’s chilli beef and chilli pork renditions were good, too. The lightly seasoned meat was deep-fried, then sprinkled with scallions and crushed Dallae chillis (more on these local firecrackers later in the post).
The best part of the meal, however was yet to come: the bill. Check it out!
Although the Tibetan food was really, really good, I was keen to sample some traditional Sikkimese dishes. For no real reason, I had the idea that Sikkimese food would be unlike anything I had tasted before, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Contrary to popular perception, there’s nothing remotely “Chinese” about Sikkimese cuisine. They use many of the same ingredients as we do (onion, ginger, garlic, turmeric, cumin, chillies, mustard seeds); however, the cuisine seems to call for a lighter touch than that required to master the bold, loud flavors of other regional Indian cuisines.
To my delight, I discovered that the people of Sikkim eat copious quantities of pork and beef, with rice as a staple. Pork gyari (literally translated as “steak”) is one of the more popular curry-style dishes. We tasted several versions of gyari – each was different, yet all had the same smoky undertone of barbecued pork. One particularly delicious gyari was cooked with tender bamboo shoots. The flavors and textures offset one another perfectly.
Phing (the ‘g’ is silent) is less easy to find on restaurant menus. You can only sample it in Sikkimese homes. This dish consists of a glass-noodle soup that contains mushrooms, meat (usually pork or beef), and the locally grown cherry peppers, a.k.a. the fearsome dallae khursani chillies. These chillies, often eaten as an unadorned accompaniment, are very red, very round, and very, very HOT! I bought a bottle of pickled dallaes for my kitchen – they add a nice, smoky flavor, but use with caution!
We also tried sautéed wild fiddlehead ferns (bot. Diplazium Esculentum, if you want to try and grow them); stinging nettles (bot. Urtica Dioica) cooked in rice conjee; bamboo shoots cooked in a variety of ways; steamed white-flour dumplings (known as ‘ting momo’) with soup; and “chhurpi”, a locally made cheese.
We all loved the chhurpi, which comes in two varieties, hard and soft. The soft chhurpi looks like feta, but tastes like a very mild blue cheese. It’s made by boiling buttermilk and hanging the resultant white mass in muslin until the whey has drained. I especially enjoyed chhurpi sprinkled over vinegar-pickled cucumber and carrot strips.
Chhurpi is also cooked with ningro, the aforementioned fiddleheads. The ferns are tender and crunchy, and taste like spinach-flavored asparagus (okay, I know that’s a clumsy description, but it’s the best I can do).
The just-wilted stinging nettles, known locally as sishnu, impart a slightly nutty flavor to the starchy conjee, and add a whole new dimension to simple dal and rice. Anticipating the question, here’s the answer: no, they don’t sting your tongue 🙂
Much as we loved the food of Sikkim, I have to say that we also developed a warm fondness for its liquor – two of which deserve special mention.
Raksi, a home made alcoholic liquor distilled from rice (no, not rice wine), has a very mild flavor – and gives you an anything-but-mild kick. Raksi isn’t easily available, but those dedicated to finding local liquors wherever they go should have no problem sourcing it.
Everyone seems to have heard of chaang, a locally brewed beer. Most don’t know that there are several varieties, depending on the grain used to make it. The spouse and I loved kodo ko chaang, a beer derived from finger millet (a.k.a. raagi) fermented with a local yeast. The fermented grain is served in a bamboo cup called a tongba, and hot water is added. Ten minutes later: yowza! Potent stuff that warms you from head to toe.
On visiting the local market (tucked away behind the “tourist” market), we found tablets of the yeast being sold in different sizes. Needless to say, we bought lots, and the raagi is fermenting as I write.