We had a serene holiday recently in the hills of Sikkim. Gangtok to be precise. It was our first visit to the Himalayan state and we had planned to stay there for 4 days and be on the streets, eat local foods, watch birds and wild Orchids growing all around. Gangtok is a beautiful city, pretty flowers growing wild on the hills and wild orchids flowering on all the tall Pines and Birches. All tall trees are covered with green moss all year round supporting growth of Orchids, local people call these Orchids as Sonaphool or Akashphool as they see them growing very high on the trees. We were there in the first week of November and that was the time the town was dotted with pink Cherry blossom.
We were looking forward to having some local food but unfortunately most places where tourism is the main trade, the food available in restaurants and hotels is common north Indian butter chicken/makhni paneer/daal fry/naan variety. The burger and pizza outlets are there like any other place in India but we were not there to eat this stuff. Local food was on our mind and we tried every trick we knew to look out for places where we could get Sikkimese cuisine. It is highly influenced by Tibetan cuisine that suits the cold mountain climate very well. The local food was overwhelmingly good when we tasted in our hotel and then in a small eatery run by a family of four. Read on.
The first Sikkimese meal we had was in our own hotel room. This was Mintokling, a nice cozy hotel perched on the hills when you walk slightly down Bhanu road in Gangtok. A green serene place.
We spotted a few Sikkim special dishes on the menu and decided to have them one by one for our dinners everyday. The first day we ordered a chicken and vegetables Thukpa, A Phing with chicken (the beef version is called Phingsya or Fingsya) and a platter of chicken momos.
The momos were good as expected, with a nice warming clear soup that came with a garnish of fresh coriander greens. Very refreshing. The red chutney that looked fiery like we get in Delhi was not as hot as I expected. But good taste.
Thukpa was also very tasty, rich with Chicken broth and cooked vegetables, I would have liked a little lesser noodles in the soup. More vegetables and lesser noodles make my kinda soups. But in mountains you walk so much up and downhill and it's almost always cold so such carb heavy soups are good comfort food.
The most interesting dish was Phing which is a rice noodle dish that is cooked with meat. In this case the meat was coarse chicken mince. We later had this dish in Darjeeling as well and I sweet talked the cook there to part with the recipe. Cooked in my own kitchen and fell in love with it all over again. Here is Fingsya for you if you want to try the recipe.
We tasted everything Sikkimese that was on menu at Mintokling during our stay, we trusted on the taste and authenticity as the owners are Sikkimese themselves and live in the same premises. Ordered the Soucha, the stinging Nettle that grows wild in these areas. Here is the herb.
The soup made with this stinging nestle is called Soucha. Made using some local fresh paneer. It has a unique taste which can't be described easily as it doesn't match with anything I have eaten.
This is eaten with any bread or rice probably, but we liked to dip the Buckwheat pancake into it. This plain unsalted buckwheat pancake is called Khuri.
We also had this Fiddle head ferns stir fried in simple seasoning. I liked it because I love all greens. It was chopped roughly so the fiddles were not very noticeable, I finishes this whole plate all by myself as Arvind doesn't like greens much in his meals.
This local paneer which is probably a yak milk product as it tastes very different for buffalo or cow milk paneer. A simple onion, green chilly, ginger turmeric scramble with this local paneer was just beyond awesome. I am salivating as I type these words. Although I realise many of my friends and family here in my part of the world wouldn't like it as they would inadvertently compare it with our own paneer. To me this was real good stuff.
I didn't need anything with this meal of scrambled local paneer and the stir fried fiddle head fern.
I would tell you where we had the best momos in town while in Gangtok. I found this small tin roofed shop run by a lady where we noticed some monks eating. No tourists were attracted to this shop but it was just the kind of place we were looking for. A place where only locals are seen, is our way of finding out a true local flavor.
We asked what we can get, the lady said only momos and tea. We ordered a plate of momos first to see how it is. Polished off in a second and ordered the next plate. The green chutney was different from whatever we had had earlier and I asked this lady. she told it's just the Dallae Khorsani chilies and salt and the local cheese called Chhurpi.
Yummy it was. Look out for this lady if you visit Namgyal institute of Tibetology. This shop is just towards the right when you are coming from inside the institute, towards the parking lot. You turn right and see this shop on the left hand side.
We saw a local bakery which had many outlets on the M.G. Road only. Called 'Oven in the Mountains', this bakery had all the usual stuff that we get in our cities too, but it had all the local bakes as well. We tasted a local savory Calzone called Phalay, stuffed with chicken mince and fried (not baked). I am sure they bake or fry this Phalay with pork and beef mince as well for the locals. They wont serve that to tourists unless you ask for it. Here is a picture of the bakery, we bought the Phalay, and sat down on a bench in front of this, eating the fried chicken Phalay slowly.
It was basically like a stuffed poori.
We kept looking for places where we would see locals eating so we can get an idea of what is real Sikkimese food. We stopped a few locals walking on M.G. Road and asked them where we would get local food, they pointed us to the bakeries and Domino's pizza. It seems everyone these days loves eating fast food.
Later, we were surprised to find a very small eatery run by a woman and her family who feeds almost 100 people for lunch and inner both. This was what our cab driver directed us to. He was hesitant in telling us, asked us first if we eat all kinds of meat and then reluctantly told us where all the cab drivers and policemen eat. He told us how much it will cost and also told us we might not like the ambiance. He walked us to this small eatery as no one would be able to reach here without knowing the place. I was really cringed while entering this small room where the lady has laid out several low tables and benches, but the hesitant yet sparkling smile of the lady instantly made me comfortable.
She served food, first chicken curry and rice as they don't serve pork and beef unless you ask them. We had it quietly and then I asked if she had pork and beef as well. Her smile broadened and she asked us how we came to know about her place. We told her our cab driver directed us here and then she was comfortable. Clearly, she didn't get many tourists coming to her place.
The pork belly was cooked with Raiyyo saag (broad mustard greens) and was the most amazing curry I have had. The rice was plump round variety, we had very little rice and polished off all the meat. Real good food, served humbly and priced a princely about INR 200 for two with three types of meats served. There was some curry with the same Raiyyo saag and that was polished off by me.
This picture might lead you to this place if you wish.
There are these narrow uphill lanes/stairs on the M.G.Road and this is the place you have to find these stairs. Walking on the left side when you start from the tourist office on M.G. Road, you would cross the Bata showroom and then this hotel Golden Heights would be the landmark to this staircase lane.
Climb up and as you reach the end, a T point, turn left you will see a place which looks like an eatery seeing the utensils etc. There is a small narrow door toward right to this dining room.
Truly said, food takes you places you would never imagine. We would love to go back to Gangtok again, a friend recently visited all the same places we recommended and came back happy and contented He stayed at Mintokling too. The best thing at Mintokling was our room that had a window opening towards Kanchenjunga. A treat in the mornings. Will write more about that in another post soon. Stay tuned till then.