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!