Pelling, Sikkim, India, June 2018:
It was the fourth evening of our stay in Pelling. I had a splitting headache and seemed to have picked up a nasty cold that could only get worse. I was wondering how I would get through dinner. The prospect of daal-chawal, aloo gobi, mixed vegetable, some chicken curry in this condition was daunting.
Digital Age life is pretty clear on all matters. Illness and ill health mean doctors and medication. Growing up – less than three decades ago – I rarely saw medicines. Illness was natural and what was natural was dealt with naturally, with food, rest, activity, and/or with traditional remedies which were also usually made from ingredients found in the kitchen.
I was thinking about all this when I bumped into Chef Milan in the restaurant. I had wandered in there to check if there was an interesting soup on the dinner buffet. Chef Milan Panchakoti is the Head Chef at the Hotel Summit Newa Regency in Pelling. I had seen him around but we had not interacted. Rojay Chhetri, the restaurant captain, gave me an overview of the buffet menu and then led me into the kitchen, “Chef has planned some special local food for you today, since you have an interest in our cuisine.”
I was excited. Thus far, we had already had Isskus Ko Munta and Isskus Curry – Isskus being a local plant that yielded edible green leaves, root and a fruit that made a delectable vegetable dish. Chef Milan is a soft-spoken man with a pleasant smile and as we talked, he offered me a cup of steaming hot chai. The chai would help keep the cold at bay for a little while and also ease the headache to some extent. I raised the cup to have a sip, and the aroma of crushed ginger wafted into my nostrils. I was elated and then ecstatic as the warm chai trickled onto my tongue and then smoothly flowed down my throat and gullet, the ginger working like a pain-reliever, its mild pungency prodding the surface and seeping into the muscles, immediately soothing the pain. I took a long breath and found myself alert.
“We finally found some good local Pumpkin,” Chef Milan said as he carved a big, fat slice out of the Red Pumpkin that sat smiling on his table. I had been expecting an exotic Green Pumpkin, but this looked like regular pumpkin like we get back home, except, of course, this was organically grown in fields in a nearby village. He was watching me intently as we spoke and while he worked, slicing and then chopping the Pumpkin into tidy cubes.
“We will make a local dish with the Pumpkin, in typical Nepali style of cooking,” he informed me.
It had taken me a while to figure out that ‘local’ food in Sikkim could mean one of several types of cuisine – depending on who is cooking – and that only a handful of really local dishes are likely to be found on restaurant menus. These dishes include Momo, Thukpa, and Aloo Dum (Nepali-style).
At this point in time, the primary cuisines in Sikkim seem to be Nepali, Tibetan, Indian-Chinese, and Sikkimese, with Sikkimese being a broad term to cover the cooking style of Lepcha people and other peoples who settled in Sikkim before the ethnic Nepali and ethnic Tibetans. (Eventually, by the time our two-week trip covering Gangtok, Pelling and Namchi came to is conclusion, we had eaten our share of Momos, Thukpa, as also Daal-Rice and staple Indian-Chinese fare including Chowmein, Fried Rice and Stir-fried Chicken and Vegetables).
But it was only after we came to Pelling that we got to taste a wide range of dishes from the ethnic-Nepali cuisine of Sikkim. This was largely thanks to Arun Basnet, the Manager of the Summit Newa, who spent an evening talking to us about the local cuisine and then assigning Rojay and Chef Milan to explore what ingredients could be found. From thereon, Chef Milan Panchakoti and his team including Chef Vishal Subba took us through a culinary journey that lasted four days.
Chef Milan has been around and has a good bit of experience. A native of Darjeeling, he has worked in hotels in Karnataka (Bengaluru), Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Sikkim, and also a short stint in the army, among other places. While he has knowledge about regular Indian, Indian-Chinese, Continental cuisine, his eyes light up when he talks about ethnic Nepali cuisine.
As he washed, cut, chopped and prepared for the Red Pumpkin dish, he provided an interesting overview to the Nepali style of cooking, standard ingredients, staple vegetables and meat, common and exotic preparations and also highlighted the therapeutic benefits of various ingredients, adding an anecdote or two as relevant.
My chai was done by now. He was watching me closely, and after his pre-preparation was done, he said, “The Pumpkin dish will take 15 minutes, so I will make it just before your family comes into the restaurant for dinner. Right now, I will make some Gundruk Soup for you. Have you heard of Gundruk?”
I hadn’t, so he explained. “Gundruk is Fermented Saag. It is used extensively in Nepali households.” He opened a big packet and unrolled it to reveal dried leaves, grey and very dark-green in colour – I peered in and it looked exotic and new and like huge tea-leaves. “Gundruk is made of different kinds of saag, such as Raddish leaves. Just like we eat fresh Raddish leaves as Mooli Saag, we also take all the excess Saag and make Gundruk for use in winter and other months. The fresh leaves are put in a closed container with water and then buried under soil to ferment. After fermentation, the leaves are taken out and then sun-dried and then stored.”
“Gundruk is used to make Soup and also eaten as a stir-fry dish. The recipe is very simple and uses the same basic ingredients that are used in most Nepali dishes – mustard oil, jeera, chopped ginger and garlic and onion and salt and water,” he explained while he went about making the Gundruk Soup. It was fascinating how the dried Raddish leaves came to life as the water bubbled, and the aroma of ginger, garlic and other ingredients wafted up, alleviating my condition. “Here, try some,” he said as he dished out a portion of hot Gundruk soup in a Soup Bowl.
I took it back to the room and tasted it. And then devoured it. It was pungent, tangy, and tasted wonderful. At the back of my mind, I thought that any hot soup would taste wonderful in my condition of cold and headache. But there was a surprise. Within 10 ten minutes of having the soup, I was wide awake and alert and hungry for dinner. Dinner that night was local Black Dal, Saag, a chicken curry and of course, Red Pumpkin in a semi-dry preparation with hot Rotis and some rice. That night, I slept within half an hour of dinner.
The next morning, I woke up fresh, energetic and the cold and headache were gone. Headache I can understand, but the cold that had been developing into something nastier, was gone. I met Chef Milan at breakfast, and he asked, “How are you feeling today? Is the cold gone? Did you get a good sleep?”
And that’s when I finally figured out why he made the Gundruk. I nodded and told him I was absolutely fine. “Gundruk is very good for the health and it helps when one has a cold or cough condition and also helps in managing digestive issues.”
Over the remaining three days, we had Sadheko Gundruk (the stir-fried preparation), Isskus Ko Munta and Isskus Curry again, Mashu Sadheko (a fantastically simple chicken starter, almost a salad that is tossed with sliced onions, tomatoes and fresh chilies and garlic and the like), and Mashu Kormi, which is a specialty Pradhan or Newari dish offered as a snack when relatives come home (it is a sort of dry, pan-fried chicken, served with Chidey or Flattened Rice, and a tangy Chutney and Salad).
We couldn’t have the Chuche Karela or the many other exciting local dishes that people in Sikkim eat. We didn’t try any of the ethnic Bhutia cuisine nor any of the local rice varieties. And we are happy about all that because those are all very good reasons for future trips. But we ate loads of organic carrots, and raddish, and Kheera (a type of cucumber). And we went to the market and purchased Gundruk and Local Beans to take back home, not to mention the pine cones and fallen tree-barks that we collected on walks.
It is amazing how easy it is to forget – and how easily one forgets – the connection between culture, food, good health and local traditions. But I guess that’s why we travel to distant places to learn about different cultures, and in the process, also rediscover our own connections.