It’s my pet theory that you can never really have explored a new destination till you’ve seen its market. It was with that in mind that I set off to the floor above the local taxi stand in Gangtok. Extreme pressure on real estate and not much in the way of flat land means that Gangtok is bursting at the seams with strange bed-fellows: the loan-disbursing department of the state government shares space with a popular restaurant; an up-market curio store does double duty as a cyber café and every cigarette stall does a roaring trade in car mirror danglers.
So it was no surprise that the shared taxi stand (as distinct from the outstation taxi terminus) shared space with the city’s vegetable market. And what a treasure trove it was! The flaming scarlet cherry-like objects were the tear-inducing cherry peppers, one of the hottest chillies of the region, though next to the bhut jholokia of Nagaland, they paled in comparison. Dallae khursani as the fiery devils are called, are only sold and consumed fresh – never dried. If you don’t think you’ll be able to make it to the market again soon, you can buy dallae chutney, available from a vast plastic vat in multiples of 100 grams.
There are mushrooms on sale too, that look like enoki mushrooms but are not, vegetables that resemble asparagus spears but are not, ferns, nettles, dried and fresh yak cheese, bamboo shoots and fermented soya beans and an intriguing vegetable that the vegetable seller assures me is “sweet karela”.
There are three varieties of tiny dried fish, though God knows that Sikkim is far off from any sea, loads of common vegetables like gourds, okra and tomatoes, even spices like cumin, coriander seeds and panchphoran in deference to the tourists, many of who are from West Bengal.
The strangest thing is that in spite of a thriving local cuisine, all you get in restaurants (besides shahi paneer and mutton korma) are momos and thukpa. Had I not button-holed a near stranger and begged him with tears in my eyes to host me for a Sikkimese dinner, I would never have stumbled upon the delicacy of sliced, steamed bamboo shoot with crumbled chhurpi, the locally made paneer. Cooked minimally with not a grain of any spice, it was accompanied by thick slices of steamed pork, sisnu – a subtly flavoured soup of nettle leaves and an intriguing vegetable dish made of mustard and other leaves, collectively called gundruk and only eaten fermented. If gundruk was surprisingly close to Korean kimchi, kinema or fermented soy beans is very similar to a popular Japanese cold starter.
There’s a curious reluctance on the part of hoteliers and restaurateurs to serve tourists the food of the state: it seems almost like a conspiracy to keep it a well-guarded secret and to unleash one culinary cliché after another on visitors. You cannot even call Sikkimese food bland: not with fresh dallae khursani and the pounded version to eat with your rice.