Fooding in Sikkim: Homestays Win, Hands Down

All those long ascents and chilly, shivery nights left me with a major calorie deficit.  Most of the time, I battled it with the usual one-two punches that had served me so well for the previous three months in the northeast: samosas and chai, rice and lentils, curry and flatbreads, sweets and more sweets.  Nothing too special, but “better than a stick in the eye,” as my old man would say.   Still, I was hoping for something a little more exotic in Sikkim, what with its hybrid Nepali/Tibetan culture, its remote mountain villages, and its all-organic reputation.  The restaurants and hotels I visited did offer a few dishes not to be found elsewhere in the northeast, but it was the homestays where I struck gold.  Or should I say “struck milk?”   You’ll see what I mean in a minute, but first, a small sampling from the restaurants and hotels.

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After a long, chilly, rainy ride, nothing does a body good like a hot bowl of soup.  “Thukpa” noodles, usually formed out of fresh-made dough, are the most common offering and can be found in just about any restaurant whatsoever.   For whatever reason, I find noodle soup highly unsatisfying and prefer instead to go with the “Thenthuk,” which is made from the same dough as Thukpa but chopped into flakes rather than cut into strings. Strange how this simple shape change  makes the dish seem so much more substantial.

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“Gyalthuk,” again the same dough but hand-pressed into tiny macaroni conch shapes.  Takes hours, not recommended.

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Not pictured: plain old momos, which have become old hat by now.  Definitely pictured: variations on the theme.  Here are some giant fried momos (“Falay”), reminiscent of calzone but, being stuffed mostly with cabbage and onions, a little lacking in the tomato and cheese category.  Good thing there’s tomato soup on the menu, topped with “Chulpi,” a local cheese a little something like Feta.

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The “Ting Momo,” sometimes also called a “C-Momo.”  Who cares about the etymology when the thing is the size of a Big Mac?

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Good old Chris the Shaky, good old Pure Veg Special Thali, hold the rice, double the flatbreads, thanks very much.  $1.50 or so well spent.

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After a particularly hard day, nothing beats stumbling upon a $1.50 dormitory across the street from a restaurant full of trekkers and trekker fare.  Local beer, far superior to the stuff in the plains, and a spicy tomato sandwich.  As appetizers, of course.

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For the entre, an “enchilada.”  I can’t remember what it was stuffed with, but I do recall the whole thing being about a foot long and deep fried.

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I stopped at a little “Pure Veg Hotel” and asked the auntie if they had anything other than rice and potatoes.  She said no, but a nearby uncle said he thought they could figure something out.  Two minutes later, this landed in front of me.  Big split chickpeas, green bean curry, local chayote squash and pumpkin, whole chickpea salad, rice, lentils, pickled mango.

So, that’s the end of restaurant food, which didn’t really have much variety to it.  Probably because the restaurants want to serve safe-bet dishes already well-matched to the tastes of tourists, both domestic and international.  I myself, while often (…daily) indulging in street food, fried noodles, and other unrefined fare, also enjoy an occasional challenge to the palate and all the learning opportunities it provides.    To that end, I searched out a few homestays where I could get a taste of real countryside life.  Behold,

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If you can’t remember what it is or tell by looking, that means it’s exotic, right?  This was dinner at Sanu’s Homestay in Tashiding.  I think it’s sliced mushrooms gathered from the nearby forest and some other veg fry.  Probably eggplants.  Served with rice, lentils, and a small side salad.

While in the kitchen chatting with Sanu cook while she cooked, some sort of rough green orb dangling from a tree just outside the window caught my eye.  Avocados!  Here in Sikkim?  No way!  Sanu’s sister was married to a Swiss dude and brought some pits back with her one year.  Now it’s a tree two and a half stories tall, ready to dump luscious buttery goodness onto a village of Tibetans who won’t know how to appreciate it.  Too bad I won’t be around to teach them.

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Home cookin’ from Jashoda (my couchsurfing host in Gangtok)’s mama: paneer, mushrooms, split chickpeas, okra, beans, papad, chapati, rice, and dessert after.

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Grub from the Buddhist Buffet at Pemayantse Monastery on the day of the masked dance festival.  9 o’clock is sautéed fern stems sprinkled with salty, sour Chulpi cheese.  Noon is spicy julienned potatoes.  Eaten on my first plate (this was the second) but not pictured here were bamboo shoots in a minced nettle broth.  Center is rice and a local variety of red lentils.  Last but not least, 3 o’clock is what one monk called “cheese cooked in butter.”

Sonam’s Kitchen / Homestay, Darjeeling

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On our first morning in Darjeeling, we headed over to Sonam’s for the legendary hash browns.  We liked them so much that we decided to move into Sonam’s homestay just up the road so that we could be sure of having them for breakfast each morning for the next ten days.

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Turns out that nothing wins over a Nepali Auntie’s heart like authentic appreciation of her cooking.  Within a few days, Chris and I had made the transition from customer to guest to nephew.  We still paid for our breakfasts, but Sonam began to cook off-menu treats for us at dinner time, asking us to appraise them.  I felt a little bad when all I could say was, “everything is so awesome.”

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Thick, toasty Tibetan Breads, a welcome change after months of rice and flatbreads.

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Bamboo shoots with sesame sprinkles.

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Mashed potatoes with fried veg

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Some sort of local sprout.  Fern or nettle maybe?

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With a little olive oil baste, even simple fair like this turns divine.  It had been so long since my last OO dose that it took me about ten seconds of wracking my brains for memories of a past life before I could identify the taste.

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Hitaishi Homestay, Martam, Sikkim

Auntie said “come as a guest, leave as a friend.”  She forgot to mention the part about gaining a kilogram per day in between.

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By the time I made it to their house, I was soaked through both with sweat and rain from the on again off again showers that are such a prominent feature of Sikkim in September.  I wouldn’t have been insulted if Auntie and Uncle had insisted I shower twice before letting my body come into contact with anything in their house.  Instead, Auntie draped a Nepal shawl of honor around my neck, blessed me by smearing some pink rice on my forehead, and sat me down to a hot cup of chai made from organic tea (garden 150km away) and local, organic milk (cow 150m away).

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Along with the tea they served me “Zero,” a kind of thin-stranded stale funnel cake made out of rice dough.  It was a little unpleasant to eat on its own, but when they instructed me to crumble it up and dunk it into a bowl of sweetened whole milk, I saw the light.

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Zero and Chai became a regular feature of my days there at the homestay.  It’s quick to cook and composed exclusively of fat and carbs, quickly sending me into a state of sleepy satisfaction and making me useless in the garden.

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I have never tasted milk like this in my life.  Maybe it’s the way they always serve it warm and with a heaping spoon of sugar inside?  Unlike the blue-capped, 2% I grew up on, the taste of which I remember now as something like watered down Elmer’s, this stuff tasted more like melted vanilla ice cream, so rich that even the thought of knocking back more than one glass made me feel opulent and selfish.

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Even the richest households out there in the countryside in Sikkim don’t use refrigerators.  For the few foods that can’t be stored indefinitely like potatoes or on the vines like tomatoes and squash, their ancestors, much like our own, developed low-tech (but still ingenious) preservation methods.  One that I really wish they hadn’t invented?  Ghee.  It’s sometimes referred to as “clarified butter” but has a completely different and, it must be said, totally nasty taste which I can’t even find the words to describe.  The locals swear by it, though, and would probably be repulsed by the western butter that even I, an aspiring vegan, hold so dear.  Not only do they use Ghee for frying, deep-frying, and basting flatbreads; they also drop lumps of it onto a platefuls of caramelized rice.  Lush and opulent like the milk, but this one was a little hard for me to choke down.

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A glass of fresh milk and another instance of milk-preservation technology, i.e. cheese.  I wasn’t fortunate enough to see how it was made, but I’m pretty sure the cheese here doesn’t have any taste- or color-altering bacteria added to it, so it comes out bland and a little sour.  They remedy this by cooking it (like in the dish from the monastery) or by sprinkling sugar over it as shown.

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“Kheer,” the king of dairy dishes.  It’s rice boiled in sweetened milk rather than water, with cardamom (straight from the garden, of course) added in for seasoning.  When eaten as breakfast, it’s served alongside vegetables.  When eaten as dessert, more nuts and dried fruits are tossed in.

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A dish unlike anything else I’d ever tried.  Rice, ground into flour, then sprinkled with water and formed into little kernels.  They stem the kernels for a few minutes, then fry them in oil or ghee, and add sugar and minty medicinal herbs in the process.  It was a little bit like edible spearmint, but in a good way.

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A quick lunch between rounds of working in the potato and garlic patches.  Instant noodles with scrambled eggs (tasty but easily the low point of the homestay) and a bowl of local-style salad.  The latter was one of those rare dishes that I think I’ll actually reproduce at home someday – simple to make (even on the road) but with a perfect combination of fat and salt from the cheese, cool and crisp texture from the radishes, a bit of bite from the onion, and the cilantro for aftertaste.  Splendid.

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This one was from the first night, when I hadn’t yet had sufficient time to charm Auntie and Uncle by planting stuff in their garden and giving speeches at nearby schools.  Thus, the meal wasn’t as ornate as later ones – bread, lentils, greens, potatoes, and a little salsa.

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It wouldn’t be a proper homestay without at least one evening dedicated to making momos together.  Cheap ones in town are usually stuffed with undercooked cabbage and not much else, but on the farm we had a lot more to choose from; we went with squash and squash leaves, with sides of soup (leftover water from steaming with some herbs mixed in) and tomato-Chulpi chutney.

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Left to right: mashed pumpkin, fried something, pickled peas, fried spinach, and maybe bamboo or potatoes.

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Pumpkin, buttermilk (actually, the liquid left over after making ghee), squash and leaves, mini bitter gourd, tomato chutney, fresh curd.

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“Chang,” a milky-looking local brew made by a somewhat strange process.  First, you boil rice, corn, millet or another grain.  Drain out the water and place the solids in a plastic bag for a few days to ferment.  Up in your attic underneath grandpa’s old sheepskin seems to be the preferred location.  When you’re ready for a drink, dig out the bag, take out a handful of the solids, add water, and squeeze everything through a fine sieve.  Voila!

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Bottom left is “Gundruk,” a slightly funky soup made with beans and dried lettuce; I guess it’s good for the winter when all you’ve got to eat is whatever you were able to keep from the autumn’s harvest.  Just above it are deep-fried eggs and potatoes.  Next come the chapati, the tea, and the previously mentioned radish salad, and finally a bit of lightly fried cheese chunks.  Now seems like a good time to mention that I was paying $1.33 per meal.

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After a few days, Auntie must have been able to smell that I was going through fried-stuff withdrawal.  These sweetened rice flour donuts certainly did the trick.  Surrounded by pickled peas, my beloved salad, potato and cabbage fry, lentil soup, and soupy pumpkin mash.

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That’s about it.  Another month well-lived.

Thanks to my new Aunties, Sonam and Gauri, for all the excellent food.

Thanks to the cows for their milk, and to the calves for not minding too much.  Hopefully.

Thanks to the food for fueling, regenerating, and becoming this little body of mine.

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2 Responses to Fooding in Sikkim: Homestays Win, Hands Down

  1. myra says:

    Keep meaning to mention when traveling and prices are so low for some things it is easy to think something is so expensive when really it is not that expensive in the long run like that 150 to go into a country sounds like a lot when paying 1.50 for a whole meal but to come back sometime in the future would be much more expensive than to take advantage of what is available especially when you are in a remote area difficult to return to and if the funds are used to maintain what you see well worth the expense. We found this to be true even in italy since at first of 5 trips so many things were free we did not go into those with entrance fee but I wish we had when we were there and we have started seeing all that interests us as best we can.

  2. Harish says:

    Mouth watering pics and the descriptions only increasing the misery of a tied down traveller.