In this, the second part of our north-east foodie trail series, we bring to you food from the magnificent state of Sikkim.
The state of Sikkim sees throngs of visitors every year. While some make their way to the hustling bustling capital and catch glimpses of the hills, others proceed to visit the glimmering glaciers and the pristine high-altitude lakes such as Lake Gurudongmar. Sikkim shares the might of the third highest mountain in the world, Mount Kanchenjunga, and is bordered by, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. The demarcations of boundaries haven’t restricted the inter-territory influence of cooking methods and recipes which have permeated into the pantries of our Sikkimese brothers and sisters.
In the meadows of Sikkim, it isn’t difficult to find simple food that you may have eaten even back home unless you wander into the more remote areas. Although momos, thukpa and dal bhaat can be popularly found anywhere from cafes to kiosks, if you have an appetite for the traditional tastes the region has to offer which remain relatively unknown to our concrete cities, for the cuisine found only where the Teesta river effortlessly meanders, then look out to try these local gems:
I remember walking in the Pelling market, spotting this dish on display and asking the shopkeeper “gujiya?”. But I was highly mistaken! Nothing says a hearty old Indian tea time delight such as a deep-fried snack. In the streets of Sikkim, ditch your regular samosa and pakoda to gorge on some sha phaley.
This golden fried snack was traditionally prepared with beef but today its popularity has led to the presence of variants with chicken, mutton and even tofu. This Tibetan delicacy made its way to our country prior to the Sino-India war in the 60s, when merchants conducted trade via the Jelep La Pass. They would fill their tummy with this meat stuffing patty to energize for the day, a practice continued even today as folks bite into its deliciousness to take in the crunchy exterior as the juicy meat oozes out from within.
Gundruk and Sinki
When in the mountains, the best way to enjoy the mist, the slight chills and the landscapes surrounding you, is with a nice and warm broth. Gundruk is fermented vegetables with green leaves which could be of cauliflower, mustard, radish, turnip or a combination of these. Meanwhile, sinki includes radish roots pressed in bamboo shoots and is in fact, a dose of zest even had as a pickle.
Although gundruk and sinki can both be eaten independently, they come together to make a firecracker combination because of the richness of flavours. Interestingly, these flavours are just the result of simplicity over the stove which draws out the natural freshness from locally grown vegetables. Extra credit for the fact that they make a bowlful of nourishment. If sipping on hot soups interests you then other Sikkim cuisine soups are sishnu, made of nettle leaves and chhurpi, conceived from locally produced cheese. Spices, chillies and leafy ingredients have made this Nepalese origin dishes Sikkim’s own in their steam.
Kinema can be found in the ever so busy Gangtok, by the riverside of Kalimpong and even in the quaint little town of Lachung. Trust this dish to be prepared in just about every kitchen in Sikkim. From the Himalayan Limbuwan region comes the name “kinambaa” wherein “ki” denotes fermentation and “nambaa” denotes flavour.
Soya beans are boiled then fermented to make this pseudo meaty vegetarian dish. It is known for its pungent smell which reaches you before you even dip a spoon inside but the locals will correct you by telling you that it is the aroma because for them it is a bite-full of nostalgia too. Finely chopped onions and chillies with diced tomatoes are all fried in the tang of turmeric, subsequently the soya beans are added, thus, plating a unique taste. This high on antioxidants dish can be enjoyed best with steamed rice to complement its curry and treat you to an indigenous appetizing meal, appropriate for anytime of the day.
Did you know that the pretzel actually originated in this north-eastern state? Okay, okay, before the food historians come down heavily, I will retract that statement because of course the pretzel originated in none other than the land of the creators and curators of pastas, risottos and more, Italy.
However, a glance at Sikkim’s sael roti would remind you of a pretzel. Sael is similar to a doughnut made with rice flour, given a twist in shape and then deep fried. It has a subtly sweet tinge to it, but is typically preferred more with a curry such as the aforementioned kinema or a potato gravy. This one is for the foodies who enjoy exploring the different forms and tastes of breads because somehow across regions and cuisines, the world of breads is an endless one which may result in anything from a filling nibble to a dish to relish in a loaded meal. The sael roti is the companion to so many Sikkimese dishes that you are bound to have it sooner or later and then crave it more!
The Newars or Nepami community are the historical inhabitants of Kathmandu and it is from their kitchens that our palates came to be opportune enough to taste the phagshapa. Although the dish is believed to be of Tibetan origin, the Nepalese modulation is prevalent in Sikkim.
This dish is for the pork fanatics, like yours truly! This lip-smacking serving involves strips of pork being cooked in the meat’s fat itself along with dried chillies and radish. Its preparation concludes with the hint of a slight stew amassing at the bottom of your bowl, adding to the tenderness of the meat. The locals deem the phagshapa to be an enrichingly healthy meal because it comprises of vegetables and protein plus it is roasted with very little oil. That and the fact that you get to taste a mouth-wateringly tangy and spicy dish should be reason enough to make this your pick on the menu.
While boards and hoardings will proudly proclaim the availability of the standard known dishes, a true taste of a regional cuisine comes from letting your taste-buds experiment with the food that is cooked authentically in those very nooks and corners. With a range of options for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians, the succulence of Sikkim remains to be explored for you to savour in your memories of the state.