Remember Kunga. Most tourists in Darjeeling make a beeline for Keventer’s and Glenary’s. Both are good, and we enjoyed them. But we would really love to go back to Kunga, even though their menu is limited. It was recommended to us by a lady at the Tibetan Museum, and we made a beeline there immediately after our visit to the railway station. There are seven tables, and they were all taken. One family was waiting outside. We were told that we would have a wait of fifteen minutes. The server gave us menus to choose from, and then recommended the momos. Pork momos sounded good. The Family asked about thukpa. The lady suggested a mixed thukpa. I tweaked the order to thenthuk, because I like the hand-pulled flat ribbon-like noodles.
The momos were ready soon after we sat down. “A large plate!” The Family exclaimed. It was not like the momos we’d eaten earlier; there was a bit of soup inside, along with the wonderful melt-in-your-mouth minced pork. The dalle chili sauce was wonderful. The Family made round eyes of surprise when she saw how much of the sauce I was ladling on to my momos. I had to order a lime juice to clear my palate. The sweet and sour home made lemonade was perfect. The thenthuk was equally flavourful. I could not make out what the seasoning involved, but I would gladly go back for more. I looked at The Family after we finished. Yes, we’d had a long walk. Another something would be good. The sliced pork with chili it was. That’s a fourth thing to go back for. Kunga is not going to close soon. There were still people waiting to enter when we finished and left.
By the time we checked into the hotel, its kitchen was closed. We’d had nothing to eat since a breakfast before sunrise. Fortunately Mall Road was a convenient hop away. If an early lunch is a brunch, then we were looking for a cross between afternoon’s tea and lunch: a tunch? I plonked myself down into the first open cafe I could see. It was a nice location: its open doors looking out on the sunny square called Chowrasta. What did they have? The young waiter suggested that a plate of momo would be quick. We ordered one. By the time it arrived we’d chosen our meals: a thukpa and sel roti. I don’t quite remember where I first had this; perhaps in Sikkim.
The pork momos were wonderful: steamed with a herb I didn’t recognize, wrapped in a nice soft covering. The red hot chili sauce that they served with it had a lovely flavour. The thukpa was very competent. The sel roti looked exactly as I remembered it: a mildly sweet fried doughnut, but served with a fiery hot pickled carrot and a mixed vegetable curry. What was the chili? It turned out to be dalle, the famous cherry chili of the Darjeeling hills. The Family decided that we had to take some back with us. People came and went, a pot of tea at one table, coffee at another, groups of other tourists also at tunch. It was a nice beginning to our holiday in the hills.
When you travel in India you realize its enormous and pleasing diversity even in as little as its food. And you also rediscover the horrifying steam roller of cheap tourism trying to flatten it out. Traveling in Ladakh, I sought out authentic local food among the mushrooming dhabas and cheap restaurants promising dal and paneer. I loved the authenticity of dal and paneer when travelling in Punjab, the subtlety of its home grown food. Here I was searching for the subtlety that traditional cooking brings to the food that grows in this wind-swept high desert, where the roof of the world slopes down to the edges of Central Asia. There is enough on offer, and every person I met was happy to help us discover it. Just as the dal and paneer available to tourists across the country is a pale watery imitation of that in Punjab, the thukpas and mok-moks made with care in this region are far superior to the cheap imitations you find in marketplaces across the country.
Nassir Khan, our driver for the day was a proud Ladakhi. When we said that we had hardly eaten any local food, he directed us to a restaurant next to the Alchi monastery. The Alchi Kitchen, as this place is called, is a single large room on the upper floor of a traditional house in the center of Alchi village. A pleasant blue-tinged light filtered in through glass covered skylights. Two balconies with tables stood behind other doors that were open to let in the bright light of a clear day 3100 meters above sea level. Thick mud walls were interrupted by carved wooden doors and windows. Mud covered rush made the warm inner layer of the roof which lay across aged wooden timber beams.
Nilza Wangmo showed us to a table next to the open kitchen. A President’s award, and a Vogue Woman of the Year plaque, both for 2020, sit on a discreet shelf in one corner. All the workers in the restaurant are women; she says men don’t cook in Ladakh. While this may be true, the men who had driven us since we arrived at the airport had been happy to talk about the local food and ingredients. So we already knew of khambir and chutagi, and the different roles of wheat and buckwheat in the kitchen. I looked at the bustle in the kitchen. Traditional cookware and flasks shared space with gas stoves and microwaves, coffee percolators and hand blenders. Traditional never has to mean primitive; modern does not mean mono-culture.
The job of cooking and serving was shared by all the women. By and large Nilza looked after the orders and payments, but she took her turn at the burners when one of the others had sallied out with plates and bowls of food. Then someone else would take over the accounts. We’d come in at the busiest time, when the monastery was closed for lunch. I had time to walk about and admire the place. I’d met the traditional cast iron oven of the heights. I’ve sat in houses warmed by its fire as soup and tea bubbles, and roti is baked on it. At night the fire is banked and warm the house. The copper pipe leads the gases away. I remember that the first time I slept in a house warmed by such an oven, I was worried about carbon monoxide. I survived. The kitchen utensils stacked on shelves behind the oven were ceremonial copper and bronze. But the kitchen used the more ordinary steel and cast iron vessels.
We’d been sipping glasses of the local apricot juice. This seems to be made by pulsing a bunch of the small local apricots in a blender before removing the unbroken kernel. The thick juice has become a great hit with locals and tourists. The kernels are dried and cracked open to get the nut. This house served a tea made from the nuts, but we were too full later to taste it. The first thing that arrived at our table was the stuffed khambir. This distinctly central Asian paratha, is traditionally made in a tandoor. Here we saw it being made on a tawa. The two halves are rolled separately and fired slightly before filling. Then the sides are pinched together and finished. Another adaptation was the addition of some yogurt before it was served. Food and language are history, and eating here brings to life the dry histories that connect China, India and South-east Asia, Central and West Asia, to Europe, and through the maritime routes of the Indian Ocean to Ethiopia and East Africa.
A segment of the silk route had passed over this plateau, and over it many varieties of cultural innovations had traveled between China and West Asia. Steamed food, noodles, gunpowder and paper had traveled west. Oven-baked food, alphabetic writing, and Abrahamic religions had traveled east. Our next dish was the most sensational thukpa I’d eaten (featured photo). Made with hand pulled noodles, julienned carrots and peppers (the extremely spicy local variety) in a deeply flavourful broth, some coriander leaves had been sprinkled on it just before serving.
In Raymond Chandler’s book, Playback, Philip Marlowe keeps returning to situations and people, and every time he does so, something has changed. The Family had objected to my order of the mok-mok (momo elsewhere); she’d held out for the chutagi (which had become ravioli by the time it reached Italy). But then she let Nilza convince her that the vegetarian mok-mok was worth trying out. It was subtly different from what we’d eaten before. In this land where half the people are Gelugpa Buddhist and the other half Islamic, the traditional steamed dumpling is filled with vegetables. Our appetites were low in this low oxygen environment, and three dishes shared between three people was enough. My spirit was willing to order a plate of chocolate-filled mok-mok, but my stomach quailed at the thought. We still had to walk uphill to our car. Four days after flying in to Leh, I was still going to find it tough after a meal.
Reading accounts of travel through Asia by Victorian and Edwardian writers, it would seem that they were planning trips through territories which no human had ever visited. They never took into account that food must be plentiful, because there were plenty of people living there. Of course, they were hamstrung by suppositions that they would not be able to eat the food that “natives” ate. When half the food of colonials in British India was Indian, and the spice trade was what had brought them there, this seems like a silly fear.
In actual fact there is seldom a lack of food. Ward says it well, “… since the geography books inform us with surprising unanimity that there are 400,000,000 Chinese there must be food somewhere in China.” Nevertheless he tells his readers to take along jam, Worcestershire sauce and a case of whisky. In the 21st century I think you’ll find these things even in the remotest islands of the Pacific. Whatever. I’m so glad I’m traveling again, and experiencing the romance of little roadside eateries. Chai at sunset, a plateful of steaming momo, fresh vegetables picked from the kitchen garden, a quick omelet, even a mood table with a view. I missed it.
One bite of the omelette that he had produced convinced me that the young man working away in the small kitchen was a master chef. The omelette was light and airy, creamy and fluffy. I had a strong desire to close my eyes as I savoured it. The ingredients were the usual Indian (I should say Nepali, because the cook was a Nepali speaking Indian) mix, chopped green chili and onion incorporated into the egg, but the fluffiness was one that I haven’t seen in any of the best breakfasts in India. Here in a little-regarded corner of the Himalayas, in a small restaurant in Lava Bazar, was the best omelette chef of the country!
The rest of the lunch was equally marvelous. Millennia of cultural exchange has made sure that the food of Nepal and India are not very different. So an inexperienced person like me cannot tell whether the simple but delicious food that was served to me was Bengali or Nepali. It was certainly served in the way that I know is Bengali or Odiya. A mound of rice on the plate, with a little green leafy vegetable as a starter. Then some dal (wonderfully light) and a mixed vegetable (again, light on the masala, and the freshness of the ingredients very evident). A plate of roasted papad was put on the table. Rice was topped up whenever you wanted. And finally the chicken arrived. Heavenly. You could just eat the potato which had been cooked into it, or even lick the gravy off your fingers, and be transported by the taste.
We went back the next day, of course, and the owner of the establishment had added a new experience for us. A plate of what looked like the puri of pani-puri. But when you bit into the crisp globe, you found that the thin shell was made of rice flour. A Nepali papad, I was told. It went down easy with a fiery paste of chili. Papad comes in so many different styles across the subcontinent that I’m still discovering new ones. Before leaving, I leaned across the counter to congratulate the cook. He smiled and asked me to come back. I will, and I hope the restaurant flourishes. I noticed the momos that he had made ready for the evening snack time. He saw me looking and pointed out one that he was proud of. “Rose,” he said and grinned. He was young, perhaps in his early or mid-twenties. I hope he is able to grow into his chosen profession. Because it is such a small establishment in a relatively unknown place, I’ll break a rule I set myself in this blog, and name the restaurant: it is called Sinchula. I may have the satisfaction of hearing from you about your experience there if you go, but nothing more.
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.
Our 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.
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.
Half 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.
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.
What 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.