The Mountain Walker Diaries: Isskus Curry in Pelling

Pelling, Sikkim, India, 17 June 2018, 2030 hours:

The Chuche Karela and Green Pumpkin continue to elude us; but for the second consecutive evening, we had a local Sikkimese dish on our dinner plate.

So while yesterday we had Isskus Ko Munta, this evening we had the Isskus itself. I often forget how closely language, cuisine and culture are intertwined. Like, yesterday Isskus Ko Munta was an exciting name for a leafy vegetable that also has a fruit; and today I finally understood that the ‘Isskus’ was the fruit and that Isskus Ko Munta meant the ‘Leaf of the Isskus’. And this Isskus is one versatile and very useful plant because come January we can also have Isskus Ko Jaura, which is ‘Root of the Isskus’.

Most of the staff at the Summit Newa in Pelling are from Darjeeling or Gangtok and all of them have a lot of information to share about local vegetables and the Isskus gets them all particularly excited. The leaf and the root and the fruit (cooked as a vegetable preparation) have great health benefits, not to mention are delicious to the local palate.

With all this information and build-up, I was happy to be back in the kitchen to see the light-green Isskus being peeled and cut into longish dices. By the way, this is one neat and tidy kitchen, well organised and orderly.

Ginger and garlic were chopped, as was an onion and a tomato. Mustard oil was heated in a medium-sized round Kadhai and in went some Jeera seeds and then the ginger and garlic and the aroma was already heathy. After a bit, the onions jumped in and were stirred around, and then all of this was joined by tomatoes. After a while longer, a ladle of hot water was added and the entire jamboree was stirred around.

Soon it was time for the diced chunks of Isskus to be added to the Kadhai, and a while later salt, turmeric and a dash of ground chilly powder completed the procession of ingredients. Another ladle of hot water, simmering under a lid, and 10 minutes later, Isskus Curry was ladled out into a serving dish and garnished with sprigs of local coriander- and off it went to the dinner table!

Served with Jeera Rice, the fresh Isskus Curry is a delight. The Curry itself is mild with a lot of flavour, the Isskus is soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside. It tastes a bit like Louki (Bottle Gourd or Doodhi) and one can also make Isskus as a dry preparation. There was Rohu Fish Curry on the dinner buffet as well and it rounded up my meal rather well.

Coming to think of it, I don’t recall seeing even Louki on any hotel menu. I wonder why specially since it is pretty much a staple in North, East, West and South India. The only region (and dish) that I can recall (easily) Bottle Gourd being part of a standard menu is the Sambar. I guess the perception is that why would guests pay for Louki. Well, probably for the same reason why guests would pay for potato or paneer or chicken – good clean, healthy, wholesome food.

(Psst: By the way, this evening the Isskus Ko Munta prepared with potatoes made it to the Buffet dinner, which is awesome in my opinion).

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