Around Shillong

The thing I usually enjoy about traveling is talking to people who see the world differently and seeing the world they have built around themselves. I was a little apprehensive about traveling with my clan of cousins and nieces: would we be sitting somewhere chatting all the time? That’s a lovely way to spend time, but then why not go to nice beach resort and stay there? To my surprise, traveling with the clan turned out to be very interesting. I was surrounded by chatter and Instagram at all times. But also, everyone was happy to take in the kinds of things others wanted to do. This meant that the number of things we could each do was smaller than what each of us might have wanted to do on our own. What we gained was that we did things we wouldn’t have done otherwise. So here is my view of Shillong; please add a soundtrack of constant ribbing and laughter, and conversations about what to do next.

I love these little local restaurants of Shillong. The food you get is simple: rice and meat, ja and doh. The Family is not into tiny roadside eateries. Niece Moja was on a keto diet and refusing all rice, but Niece Mbili was game for anything, including jadoh. I’d tried jadoh snam (jadoh cooked in blood) on my previous trip to Meghalaya, but this time around I didn’t get to try it again. These small restaurants are clean, very crowded at lunch time, and invariably serve jadoh. We passed the place you see in the photo above at a time when service hadn’t started. Momos are a big draw too, but to my experience it is treated as a snack and you need to go to different places to get them. Usually a cart piled with steamers will be waiting at the exact spot where the urge for a momo or two comes over you. What a coincidence!

This century old building, now turned into a hotel was the most distinctive Assam style house that I saw. This beautiful style uses some brick and mortar, but also a lot of wood and always has corrugated metal roofs. The chimney sticking out of the roofline in this connects to an old fireplace. Hotels have switched to electrical heating these days, fortunately, but a century ago a blazing fire would have kept you warm in a draughty place like this.

In the evenings these little restaurants in Shillong attract their regular clientele. They seem very special to this part of the country: serving up a small selection of food, mainly momos, and tea, they fill a social niche which cafes do elsewhere. We noticed groups of young people gathering at these places quite often. I liked the look of this place as we passed: bright colours, a mural on the wall, seating along the sides, the kitchen right behind the counter.

Shillong peak was inaccessible on the one day we could actually make up our mind to go there. Not a problem for us. We stopped for chai at a roadside restaurant and found a good view. This must be well-known, because a large friendly signboard told us that we were standing at Lumpdeng View Point. Shillong looked warm and welcoming in the late morning sunlight. From here we could see that the Assam style houses have not given up the good fight against the concrete monsters. Perhaps the monsters will win in the end, but perhaps heritage conservation movements will kick in to preserve some neighbourhoods before that cancerous growth kills the town.

Food in the Himalayas

newgoutamOur flight landed in Bagdogra just before noon. We collected our baggage and left immediately. Lunch was in a typical nondescript highway restaurant near the Sevoke bridge. The eatery had a large menu (photo alongside), but often in small places like this, where two cooks fill all the orders, everything could taste the same. This particular place distinguished itself with its nice crisp rotis.

The genre of food does not change as you travel up in the hills. As a result, the food you eat in the eastern Himalayas usually tastes generic, and does not leave an impression. Even when you have climbed 4 Kms above sea level, you will often be handed a very similar menu unless you constantly remember to ask about the local food. Even then you are likely to get bowls of noodle soup and plates of momo (see photo below). At lunch this was our fate too.

momos

Steamed momo is now pan-Indian in the same way as chicken lollipop, gobi Manchurian and masala dosa. Up in the mountains momo accompanied every lunch which we had. They mostly came with a bowl of extremely strong chili paste. We found this in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bhutan, and Sikkim; I wonder where it originated. [An article in Eurozine claims that momo comes from Mongolia: “It is possible to anecdotally define the borders of the Great Steppe’s influence by the places where people eat pierogi, a dish which comes from Central Asia.”] We found an interesting variation in a little eatery outside Ravangla where the momo was accompanied by a small bowl of hot soup. This was the first time I had this combination, and I liked it.

bhutanesemenuHalf a year ago, while travelling in Arunachal Pradesh we discovered thenthuk. This is a soup usually made with handmade broad flat wheat noodles. The soup comes with vegetables, and chicken, pork or eggs, according to your taste. We have now learnt to avoid the ubiquitous bowl of Maggi noodle soup and ask for thenthuk instead. We had this on three days: each time in a different place. In Yuksom we tasted a soup with many different vegetables and thin hand made noodles. In Sombari Bazar we had one with eggs dropped into it. In Ravangla I had a smoked chicken with wonderful broad noodles almost like sheets of Lasagna. All the menus we saw attribute thenthuk to Bhutan. In the cold climate of the Himalayas, it makes sense to have lots of soup; not only to warm, but also to hydrate.

On a cold and drizzly afternoon in Yuksom we found a wonderful warm drink called chhang goh. This seems to have methi (fenugreek seeds) and rai (mustard seeds) fried in ghee, and mixed with pulp of fruits and chhang (rice wine). The Family and I shared a tall glass of this drink and agreed that we could have more.

hotelassampas

One afternoon as we drove into a town called Sombari Bazar, we were lucky to notice a small eatery called Hotel Assampas. As we waited for our momos and thenthuk to arrive, resigned to looking at the chief minister’s face, we found a stream of housewives and schoolgirls troop in to eat momos. If this was a favourite with the locals, then we realized we had chosen well. The food was genuinely good. The counter was full of packed dry foods. Apparently they are snacks to accompany tea in the mornings. The packets were family sized, and we decided not to buy them. Now we regret it. On our next trip we will try them out.

I was prepared with a list of things to eat. Niguru with chhurpi turned out to be fiddlehead fern with local cheese; we’d eaten this earlier in Bhutan. We liked the gundruk, mustard greens with tomato and onion. I looked for sael roti but could not find it. It is probably similar to a paratha. The phagshapha is a stew of pork and radish with dried chilis thrown in as garnish. I couldn’t find it in the places we went to. Neither could I find shaphale, which is bread stuffed with chicken or pork. We had a superb spinach clear soup with eggs. Another local soup is made from nettles; but we did not find it. Maybe this is not the correct season for it. I had phing mushroom: wonderful glass noodles with mushroom. The first mouthful was very flavourful, but when the chilis hit my tongue I could not taste anything else for a while. With these few things I think we barely scratched the surface of the local cuisines: Bhutia, Lepcha and Nepali.

kindofshopWhat we drank most of the time was tea. West Sikkim grows cardamom, and this is used liberally in the masala tea. The Family loves masala tea; she loved both the cardamom flavour and the version with ginger. I prefer my tea black, and was happy that little roadside stalls served up Darjeeling. We were too tired in the evenings to go out to the Kind of Shop that the sign alongside is about. We stuck to the bar in our hotel. It served a couple of Sikkimese beers: Dansberg and Hit, both produced by Yuksom breweries. We tried the Dansberg, which turned out to be a fairly bland lager. When in Sikkim Chhang is clearly the way to Goh.

Monpa food

Some of the food that the Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh eat is pretty well known in the plains, but others are completely unknown. Momos are found across the Himalayas, and I’m no longer sure where they originated. Traditional Monpa cooking used barley to make the covering, and the filling could be yak, pork or vegetables. I think I’ve never eaten this variety; every momo I ate on this trip was made with maida.

Similarly, variants of the thukpa are found across the Himalayas. The one I ate in Dirang was clearly “cleaned up” for tourists: the meat was chicken instead of pork, but it had a variety of local herbs and definitely had yak cheese. When I asked the cook about the herbs, he just said they are local. I could not even get the local names of the herbs from him.

thenthuk

In Tawang I came across the thenthuk. The meat was chicken, and it seems to be like a thukpa in spirit, but uses broad noodles. These look like the hand-pulled noodles I ate in Bejing. When I asked about it, I ran up against the Monpa unwillingness to talk about food with “outsiders”. I asked whether the noodles are hand made, and I got a nod in answer. When I asked whether they are hand made in the kitchen of the restaurant, I was told that it was not. That’s about all the information I got. Again, I could not get the names of the herbs from the cook. When I asked abut the difference between a thukpa and a thenthuk all I was told is that the latter hs broad noodles. If you are Mon, can you please leave an explanation in the comments? I assure you it will be highly appreciated.

zan

I asked about zan and chhurra in the hotel in Tawang which we stayed in, and my questions were greeted with delight. How did I know about these? I said that I’d read it on the net. They were surprised. The cook said that zan is not made very often these days, people prefer rice. There was general consensus that zan tastes really good. I was told that they would try to get someone to make these two things for me. I got a vessel full of steaming hot, bready, zan: by far too much for me. I liked the taste, but it was heavy, and I could not eat too much (that’s the dark bread-like thing on the plate). The chhurra was clearly something special: it was like a very cheesy stew full of local herbs. I loved it (disclosure: I love ripe cheeses). This was an amazing meal: simple, in that it was just two things, but so complex in taste. Yet again I could not get a description of how these things are made and what the ingredients are.

Arunachal Pradesh is a biodiversity hot spot. Markets are full of diverse fruits and vegetables. I’m sure that the little that I ate is just the tip of a culinary iceberg. Inside India there are cuisines which are still hidden away from most of us!

An evening in Shillong

Meghalaya is famous for nature: the rainiest valleys in the world, numerous waterfalls, large tracts of forests. They are the reason that tourists go to this state. But the capital, Shillong, is also an interesting place, especially after sundown. A sense of humour is just one feather in its cap. The shop in the photo above made us all crack a smile. The strange juxtaposition of a tailor’s shop with one selling smoked hams is something that you should be prepared for in this town.

ssong

Music is a constant in the north-eastern states. Cafes and restaurants often have live music, and quite a few of the singers are talented. This duo here played classic acoustic rock extremely well. They seem to have a regular gig on at the Shillong Cafe. I wonder how long they will do this before they move on to some thing else. It’s a happy thing that in other parts of the country little places are slowly beginning to support live performances; but still too few for a country of over a billion. Take a close look at the photos behind the musicians. Football is the other great passion in this area. The combination of football and music recurs at the other end of the country, in Goa.

smomo

Momos are a staple roadside meal, not just in Shillong but all over the north-east and the eastern Himalayas. The bland steamed momos are served with a slap of terrifically spicy chili sauce on the side. I can’t deal with the chilis, but a few of these momos can keep me going between lunch and dinner. Shillong had something about motorbike helmets. People would do all kinds of things while wearing them. I even saw someone parking a car with a bike helmet on.

smarket

A night market is a must so far to the east. The uniform time across the country means that it is already dark by 5 in the evening, while many people are just about to leave from work. Night markets have great atmosphere: while it is dark and rainy outside, the inside is warm and bustling. There’s a variety of vegetables and fruits on display, sacks bulge with fish, and there are the tiny red killer chilis on every counter.

The town winds down by about 9 PM. After that there are only a couple of late night restaurants open. The traffic comes to a halt, and the city slowly darkens as shops turn off their lights. A couple of hours later the roads are empty except for a occassional bike, or a car full of late night partiers. In spite of appearances, late nights can be busy in Shillong.