Pelling, Sikkim, India, 16 June 2018, 2030 hours:
One of the great peculiarities of hotels in tourist destinations in India is that they have a standard menu that caters for the largest common palate. And that means one sees the same Butter Chicken and Veg Kadhai and Hakka Noodles and Yellow Dal Tadka all across the country. Ironically, the rich and diverse cuisine of the hundreds of cultures that make up India are rarely, if ever, represented on hotel menus. And tourists rarely venture to the local eateries where one could possible encounter these dishes. This is a gap that advancing hospitality models and technology has only widened.
A major part of the responsibility, of course, lies at the consumer (traveller’s) doorstep. Personally, I have always failed to understand why people travel far and wide if all they want to eat is the familiar, regular fare in a different destination. How exactly are we interacting with and understanding new cultures and peoples by eating Butter Chicken and Medu Wada everywhere we go?
And it was with this question in mind that I met Mr Arun Basnett of the Summit Newa Hotel in Pelling yesterday to find out how we could have some local fare on our plate. And he pronto offered to have his chef drum up an authentic local dinner, cooked with local ingredients in Nepali style (only one of the simple robust cooking styles of the region).
Chef Vishal Subba and Rojay Chhetri
And so, off went the Restaurant Captain, Rojay Chhetri and Chef Vishal Subba and their grocer to search and procure the required ingredients. Mr Arun is from Gangtok while Rojay and Vishal are from Darjeeling. And between the three of them, they had already described several dishes that sounded awesome and healthy. The challenge was to find the elusive vegetables such as the Chuche Karela, Green Pumpkin and Ninguroo.
Ninguroo is a saag (a green leafy plant) that grows wild among rocks at high altitudes. It is very tasty, and has medicinal value as well specially in alleviating joint and spinal aches and pains. But it has to be first found and then picked since it is not cultivated.
Chuche Karela is an indigenous Sikkimese vegetable that is like karela (bitter gourd) but that isn’t bitter and apparently a local delicacy.
Green Pumpkin is another favourite and the flower of the plant apparently makes a delicious curry.
After a good bit of effort and preparation, the Summit Newa team finally came up with a dinner menu cooked in Nepali style with local, organic ingredients:
Isskus Ko Munta
Massu Ka Jhol
Nepali-style cooking requires fresh ingredients and cooking medium is Mustard Oil
Isskus Ko Munta is an organic saag grown in the hills. It also has a spiny green-coloured fruit (locally called squash). Chef Vishal cooked the saag with potatoes (cut into thin strips), tempered with Paanch Phoron (traditional Five-Spice), garlic, sliced onion and tomatoes. Only salt and local turmeric by way of ground spices.
He cooked the Ninguroo saag in a similar dry preparation but with Jeera seeds instead of Paanch Phoron.
The Kaallo Daal is a Black-coloured small-grain pulse grown locally. It was cooked over a couple of hours with whole ginger and garlic – was served hot and thick
The non-vegetarian part of the dinner was Massu Ka Jhol, which is a simple and wholesome Chicken curry cooked Nepali food.
The Gorkhe Chatney served with the food is a kind of digestive accompaniment made with local raddish, mustard seeds and salt.
Issku Ko Munta, Ninguroo saag
How was dinner? It was the best meal of the trip so far. Simple, wholesome and no after-effects.
We are hoping the chef will be able to find elusive Chuche Karela and Green Pumpkin before we leave.