Sikkimese Cuisine


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Entering: Sikkim state border

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.

Doma, an basement treasure on M.G. Marg

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.

Pork momos

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.

Thukpa

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.

Shaphalay: massive meat samosas!

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.

Pork chilli fry

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!

...and the total is: Rs.330!

Sikkimese delights

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.

Pork gyari, v1

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.

Pork phing: delish!

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!

Ting momo: bread-like, and great for dunking in soup

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.

Chhurpi on pickled vegetables

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.

Ningro: alpine fiddlehead ferns

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).

Sishnu: stinging nettles

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 🙂

Liquid diet

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: rice-based distilled alcoholic beverage

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.

Kodo ko Chaang in a tongba. The “straw” is called a pipsing.

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.

Local yeast tablet: at first, I thought these were pebbles!

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.

Cheers!

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6 thoughts on “Sikkimese Cuisine

  1. Pingback: Sikkimese Cuisine « Eating

  2. Lovely. Just got back from Sikkim and yes, chang is definitely interesting though I got scared of extra inebriation and didn’t have more than a few sips. Missed some of these but thanks for the info. Gives me a reason to go back.

  3. You seem to have tried everything. 🙂 as a local, i can’t seem to get over the fact that it is so HARD to explain that our taste buds are quite similar to everyone else’s in India. We use the same herbs and spices.And Chaang! don’t you just love how it fills you with warmth as soon as you take the first sip? As i stay and work away form home, i make it a point that i drink it atleast once when i go home for my vacation. Although, truth be told, the taste of Chaang that is prepared at home for personal consumption tends to taste better than the ones prepared solely for the purpose of selling! I hear they add something else other then the yeast to make them stronger (higher alcohol content). What they add, and even if the rumor is true or not, i cannot judge. And i specially liked the fact that you stocked yourself up with yeast. I think i’ll give it a try someday. 🙂

    Cheers! or as we say back home, “Thokkau Saila!”

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