As a landlocked state, Sikkim enjoys a buffet of shared culinary heritage, drawing influences from its neighbours Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and West Bengal. The contoured landscape and harsh climate play their part in shaping the local cuisine. Like the rest of the eastern Himalayas, the Sikkimese diet includes meats, wild greens, pickles, breads and fermented brews.
Although eateries selling momo and thukpa are popular, some of these lesser-known dishes exhibit the indigenous knowledge of the ethnic communities.
The morning mist enveloping the mountains outside could be the perfect excuse to eat phaley for breakfast. A hot naan-like bread that is common in the high altitudes, is best enjoyed with butter tea. The Tibetans also make a stuffed version with seasoned meat, typically pork and yak meat, called sha phaley or ‘meat breads’. A filling made of cabbage is equally popular. These delicious half-moon potstickers are a favourite during festivals and celebrations.
Churpi ko jhol
It’s called the hardest cheese in the world, and is the Himalayan cousin of cottage cheese. In peak winters, when vegetation is scarce, churpi serves as an excellent source of protein. It has two forms—soft and hard—the latter said to be prepared from the milk produced by chauri, a cross between a male yak and a female cow. Soft churpi has a characteristic grainy texture with a hint of sourness, and can be stored for a few days.
Churpi ko jhol is a soupy dish, where the paneer-like soft mass is sauteed with onions, tomatoes and garlic in butter, or with edible ferns.
Steamed breads are a breakfast staple in the region, as they keep the locals warm and full for a long day on the farms or at work. Tingmo or ting momo is a pillowy-white rolled bun that is traditionally made with all-purpose flour. The dough requires overnight fermentation, and once proofed the next morning, it is shaped like a woman’s hair bun. The most unique feature about this local bread is that when cooked, the layers open up like a flower. Tingmo tastes bland by itself, but makes for a wholesome morning meal when dunked in soupy potato or spiced pork curries.
When dusk sets in, locals rush back home, and settle down at the village bar to enjoy their favourite tipple chhaang. The alcoholic brew tastes close to warm wine, and is made by fermenting ragi or finger millets with an indigenous variety of rice yeast. The fermentation process could take several months, and involves strict supervision. Chhaang is considered to have healing properties, and is consumed boiling hot, from a bamboo tumbler called dhungro with the help of a wooden tube (that acts as a straw). Fermented beverages like chhaang keep the body warm in winter, and are associated with merrymaking across the Northeast.
Due to harsh weather conditions, a common sight in small family kitchens is that of drying food grains like rice and barley next to the hearth. Once dried, these are pounded into fine powder, and stored in airtight containers for several months. Tsampa is a glutinous meal, made of roasted barley, and eaten like a snack along with butter tea, or turned into a porridge with soft churpi, butter, sugar and hot water. On Losoong, the Sikkimese new year celebrated in December, tsampa is offered as ritual food for a prosperous harvest.
Crisp and chewy, these ring-shaped sweet breads are the highpoint of Dashain, the equivalent of Dussehra, and other joyous ceremonies celebrated by the Nepali Hindu community. The homemade treats are also offered to the bride’s family by the groom during weddings. Sel roti is prepared with a dosa-like batter that consists of rice flour, sugar, milk and ghee. It is then poured in hot oil (or ghee) using a funnel-like tool to form a circle, much like a pretzel. Many families use water instead of milk to prolong its shelf life.
Gundruk ko achar
Achar or pickles are a mainstay of Nepali cuisine, and fermented wild greens make for quick sides. When the harvest is surplus, leafy greens such as mustard and radish are used in various forms to prevent wastage. In olden times, the greens, locally called gundruk, were washed in boiling water, and then stored in an earthen vessel or under the ground for several days. The fermentation process yielded an acerbic taste and aroma to the gundruk perfect to make pickles. Once it is ready to be consumed, it is mixed with chopped onions and chillies to make gundruk ko achar.
The purpose of preserving any meat is not just to increase its shelf life, but also enhance the flavour. Choila is a Nepali favourite, and is a fiery salad-like dish prepared with either aged buff meat, or chargrilled chicken and mutton. The succulent chunks of meat are just tossed with onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, chillies and fresh coriander along with mustard oil and spices. Locals usually eat choila with pounded rice, but it can also be enjoyed as an appetiser.
WHERE TO EAT
1. The restaurant Nimtho in Gangtok offers an excellent spread featuring the local foods of Sikkim. The choila, sel roti and sha phaley are highly recommended.
2. For chhaang, Dolma’s Bar and Restaurant in Lachung, North Sikkim is a must. Trust owner Zangmu Bhutia to take you through the entire experience.
3. To get a taste of traditional favourites like tsampa and churpi ko jhol, homestays across the state promise the best.
Feast from the East is a series that celebrates the culinary heritage of eastern and north-eastern India. Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.
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