Sikkim hangover is for real. Mental snapshots of the snaking Teesta river, the sneak peaks of the Khangchendzonga whenever the clouds feel benevolent towards you and the beatific faces of the people around you will haunt you for days. Bringing home some culinary souvenirs is my way of extending the memories of the most recent vacation for a few more weeks.

Market finds

If you love food, I’m assuming you love markets too. For me, a visit to any new city is incomplete without a visit to a market or shops where the locals buy their ingredients. Lal Bazaar, in the heart of Gangtok city, will give you a lesson on all the local food and leave you pleasantly surprised. This market, originally built in 1956—and now renovated to a three-storey building called the Khangchendzonga Shopping Plaza—is probably the cleanest marketplace I have seen in India. I remember asking the florist lady at the entrance of the market where I could get seeds for local vegetables and herbs to take back home. While I had no luck with seeds, there were other treasures to be discovered. Of special fascination to me was the cheese stall, which had the local cheese, churpi, in various stages— fresh, dried and aged.

The dried cubes were laid out on bamboo trays and others threaded into garlands. Churpi is eaten in different forms—from fresh soft cheese to hard aged cheese. The aged cheese is easy to transport back home and can be easily preserved for weeks. Nibble on it as a snack or grate it over salads.

There were also plenty of rice stalls, stocking on local varieties of rice plus Bhutanese red rice, black forbidden rice and lots more. Beaten rice as well as puffed rice of different kinds were labelled distinctly as to what rice variety they were made from. Beaten rice is quite popular for breakfast in these parts. Pick up a bag of short grained fragrant local rice to use in your cooking over the next few weeks.

The other food gifts you can score from the market are noodles in plain, spinach, egg varieties. These are ridiculously cheap, at around Rs30 for a pack of 375 grams or so. We also picked up some local buckwheat flour to make pancakes.

From the farm

I was served a wild orchid flower pickle at our homestay in west Sikkim. That is probably the most exotic pickle to ever hit my taste buds. While this is not bottled and sold commercially, you can buy a couple of bottles of the dale chilli and bamboo shoot pickle (Sikkim Supreme brand) that you should be able to find in any of the local shops in Gangtok.

The locals are adept at fermenting seasonal fruits (and flowers!) into wine. Sikkim is rhododendron country and this seasonal flower is made into jams, jellies and even wine. Our trip was in May, which means we didn’t get to spot any of these flowers, but we did get to taste some of the other unique wines. Azing’s Model Farm, near Rinchenpong monastery in west Sikkim, is over 250 steep steps down from the winding main road. We climbed down through a heavy drizzle and fog. This was a veritable man-made forest-farm down the hill side with a number of fruit frees, hanging bee hives, pumpkin creepers and duck pens.

Free-for-all fresh peaches were piled up in a bowl on a rickety plastic table as we neared the entrance to the farm. Mr Azing had a small wooden cabin-like counter to sell fruit wines he makes at the location. Kimbu wine, made from wild blackberries, had the right balance of tart to sweet, and we decided to get back a bottle. All products here are packed in recycled glass bottles, wrapped in newspaper and parcelled for you to carry back. The other thing to buy from here is local putka honey sourced from stingless bees. This honey has a more floral taste and higher water content than regular honey. A small bottle of around 200ml costs Rs2,000. It is said to have medicinal properties and is taken like a tonic— a spoonful a day. Needless to say, everything you buy from this farm is organic like the rest of the produce in Sikkim.

Spices and teas

Until my visit to Sikkim, I was unaware that it is the largest producer of black cardamom in the world. Apart from being the spice that most people furiously pick out from a biryani, it finds a place in the garam masala powder. Ayurveda holds this spice in high esteem, recognizing it for its many uses; it can be used as a mouth-freshener and also to treat motion sickness and nausea. Bring back small bags of this potent spice as gifts for family and friends and they will remember you over their next biryani meal.

Sikkim is famous for its organic tea from Temi Tea Garden—the sole tea estate in the state. You will find many specialty tea shops around the market areas. The knowledgeable shop owners will educate you about the varieties and will help you pick tea as per your requirement.

An organic tea from Sikkim. Photo: Nandita Iyer
An organic tea from Sikkim. Photo: Nandita Iyer

Buying loose from the tea sellers’ stocks is much more reasonable than buying them in branded packaging. Try some loose leaf green tea. You can also buy high-quality CTC for preparing masala chai.

Local tipple

Hit the local liquor shop (there are quite a few on the MG Road promenade in Gangtok) and secure a bottle or two of the spiced liqueurs, such as ginger and cardamom. While they make warming nightcaps on a chilly night, they are also perfect to sip on after a heavy Indian meal.

Local tipple. Photo: Nandita Iyer

You wont find these in any liquor stores outside of these parts. The cardamom liquor also promises to be an aphrodisiac! If you have whisky-loving family and friends, the Old Gold single malt from the Rangpo distillery, in a collectible khukhri- (Nepalese sword) shaped bottle, is a must buy.

A few shopping tips

Shop where the locals shop. Markets and local stores are the best.

Look up rules for carrying edible stuff back, especially if you are taking them outside of India. From Sikkim to any place inside India, there should not be any restrictions.

Liquids, pickles, liquors etc. will have to be wrapped well and put in the check-in baggage.

Fiddle head ferns stir fry; serves two to four

This recipe can also be made with any other greens.

One large bunch of fiddle head ferns.

One tablespoon groundnut oil.

Three to four dried red chillies.

Half-a-teaspoon mustard seeds.

Half-a-teaspoon salt to taste.

• Preparation:

Fiddle head ferns need thorough cleaning as there is usually a lot of soil clinging to them. Pull off the coiled heads and strip the delicate leaves. Wash three to four times in a large basin filled with water, allowing the mud to settle down at the bottom. Remove the ferns, refill the basin with clean water and repeat this two to three times until there is no more muddy deposit in the water.

Fiddle head ferns. Photo: Nandita Iyer
Fiddle head ferns. Photo: Nandita Iyer

Set a steamer basket over a pot of boiling water. Place the prepared greens in the steamer basket, covering it with a lid. Steam for five to six minutes. Using a pair of tongs, remove the steamed greens and keep aside.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Fry the mustard seeds until they start spluttering.

Break the dried red chillies into two to three pieces each and fry on moderate heat. Add the steamed greens to the pan, season with salt and toss well to combine with the spices.

Serve with rice and dal.

Ginger hot toddy; makes two

Just the nightcap for winter evenings.

One-and-a-half cups of apple juice (~350ml).

One star anise.

Two cinnamon sticks, three inches long.

Four to six cloves.

30ml dark rum (optional).

60ml ginger liqueur.

• Preparation:

Warm the apple juice with the whole spices on a low flame for five to six minutes in a small saucepan. Cover and allow the spices to steep for another 10 minutes. Pass this spiced apple juice through a sieve into a jug, reserving the cinnamon sticks for use as garnish/stirrer. If the juice has become cold, heat it once again before proceeding to make the cocktails. Stir in the rum (if using) and ginger liqueur, until combined well. Divide between two glasses, with a cinnamon stick in each glass.

Nandita Iyer blogs at SaffronTrail.com and is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian, out in December 2017.

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