When I returned from my trip to the Himalayas…
No, not the Himalayas. I just wanted to see how it looked in print. I do sound more holy.
Anyway, when I returned from my trip to Sikkim and West Bengal, the weather was only the second thing people asked me about.
“How was the food?” That was the first question. And I had to take a moment to think. In all those five days, I had never thought much about the food. And then I realised, we didn’t eat much at all.
We travelled instead.
We had breakfast and dinner at the hotels we stayed at. But lunch was often a no-affair.
But from what I saw, West Bengal was abundant in chapatis and naans. They are both flatbreads made from whole wheat flour and self-raising flour. As for the sides, all I could see (and care for) was chicken. It’s the most popular dish that warms you up from within. Apart from that, we saw plenty of lentils. Known as dhal, the protein-rich yellow goodness is always a feast — for the eyes as well.
We stayed two nights each in Gangtok and Darjeeling, and both hotels served the normal stuff we eat at home. Though I have to give a special mention to bread, butter, and jam. Oh, and cereal. That was a part of our breakfast on all of the four days we spent there. It’s yet another one of those things that the westerners left us, that we couldn’t outgrow.
But they also served something to remind us of home. At least until we put it in our mouths. The green gram gravy. One of my favourites. The creamy green grams, mixed with sharp garlic, translucent onions, and indivisible spice — I was all ready devour when my friend exclaimed, “It’s sweet!”
In one heart-stopping moment, the balloon within me deflated. People there add sugar to some of their gravies, and I was unaware.
And then there was poha. Another familiar item. It’s dried and flattened rice grains, which is soaked in water, drained, and cooked in oil with onions, chilies, curry leaves, and a few spices. It wasn’t sugary, and that was a relief.
A local favourite, I hear, is the ladies finger, also called okra. Locals call it bhindi, and fry it with onions, tomatoes, and spice to make a semi gravy. Bhindi masala, they call the dish.
And then (trust me I’ve been dying to write about this ever since I started this post), momos.
I have a friend, who’s from Tibet. Who introduced me to momos in the best possible way: She made beef and chicken momos for all our friends. It was the first time I tried the traditional Nepali dumpling.
So when I heard we’d be going to Darjeeling (which is not far from the Tibet and Nepal border areas) I could only think of momos, and my friend. I pledged to myself I’d eat nothing but momos.
But you know how pledges go, I had to settle for sweet buffets instead.
Nevertheless, I tried momos thrice during the trip. The first in a small place called the “Cafe 14 Thousand.” Why the name, I have no idea. We had to climb about 300 meters of a snow-capped hill in Nathu La pass. And this “cafe” sits halfway through the climb. It was more of a shack, and since we were a few of the early climbers, it had plenty of breathing space. They served coffee and momos.
When I saw the little dumplings stuffed in a glass bottle, for an instant, I became the monster staring at the cookie jar. And I’m not ashamed. We bought one plate, which had about seven to ten momos. I took one look at them, and another of my inner balloons deflated. They were so tiny, with far less stuffing than what’s acceptable. My momo-friend would have disapproved — I did.
I had forgotten on important thing: Though momos were a local favourite, Nathu La pass was a tourist destination. Over one thousand vehicles cross the pass every day, including Sundays. Everything there is commercial. My fried made momos because she wanted to show us why she loved them so much. These sellers make momos because it’s their business.
But the chutney, or the sauce, was superb. It was spicy enough to de-numb my teeth and send some electric heat to by fogged brain.
I did another momo-tasting in a small restaurant in Darjeeling. These momos were bigger than the ones in Cafe 14 Thousand. As for the chutney, it was again a spice-fest, so nothing to complain.
So about the food in Darjeeling, you get familiar food, in unfamiliar flavours. But it sure is worth a try. After all, what’s life without some variety?
As for the most important thing in all of Darjeeling — the tea — I’ll have to write a separate blog post.