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Rediscovering Indian Gorkha Cuisine

Sunday, Jan 12, 2020 13:45 [IST]

Last Update: Sunday, Jan 12, 2020 08:11 [IST]

Rediscovering Indian Gorkha Cuisine

MAHENDRA P LAMA
Food is a symbol of civilization and food habit is a part of cultural flow. Some foods are attractively delicious and tasty and for some other foods one has to reactivate the taste buds to enjoy, assimilate and relish. There are foods for different occasions and ceremonies, months and seasons and morning and evening and also geography and community specific. The Gorkha/Nepali foods have all the ingredients and taste of foods that are available in many segments of the global world. We have ‘khaja’ (snacks), ‘mitho-masino’ (casual eating), ‘bhatiyar’ (elaborate and varied servings) and drinks (chiya, dahi-mahi, jaar and rakshi).
Indian Gorkha foods have evolved over the centuries and decades with wider influences from the Japanese/Chinese/Korean and other South East Asian countries . For instance in the fermented food category ‘saake’ (rakshi) and ‘nato’ (kinema)  from Japan and pinyin: Xiáncài (like gundruk ko achar) of China have visible influences.  From the highlands of Tibet and Central Asia and Far East, the momos  and gyozas (dumpling/dimsums), thukpas (pho/noodles) and Tshampa (barley flour) arrived and from nearby Bhutan ‘Fakshapa’ (pork with green vegetables);  from Nepal all varieties of  dal, nuts and grains and  spices  and from Sikkim churpi (yak cheese) made their steady entry into the Indian Gorkha cuisine.
Except Sikkim, in most of the provinces of  Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, North East, West Bengal, South India, the  Gorkhas wherever they are located in India have a long tradition of  ‘Rakshi Parnu’  (alcohol brewing) mostly in ‘gaddikhan’  and also individual households. The popular Tongba (locally brewed drink) is now a part of  Indian Gorkha cuisine.  Laurence A Waddel, a famous traveler while recollecting his Sikkim sojourn, wrote in his book “Among the Himalayas” (1899) : “ After our three hours’ walk we were not sorry to find on entering the house, that Achoom, who had preceded us with the commissariat, had ready waiting for us a hot lunch, to which we did full justice.  For drink we had a large bamboo jugful of the refreshing beer, that the Lepchas brew from a millet seed called Murwa. The fermented grain is put into a jug formed by cutting off a joint of the giant bamboo and this jug is then filled up with hot water. The liquor is imbibed by sipping it up through a thin reed like straw.  It tastes like weak whiskey-toddy or rum-punch with a pleasant acidity, and it is milder than the mildest English beer.” 
The colonial British regime left behind a solid impact on local food. From the roasted tongue and tail soup of ox to blood pudding of pork (rakti) to fried rice with dry fish soaked in fresh tomato sauce (bhuteko bhat ma sidrako achar) and sausage-ham-salami-cheese with toasted bread, they all are now an inevitable constituents of Indian Gorkha food.  In our child hood, whenever we were unwell our great grandmother prepared a special dish called ‘fis-fash’  with great interest. Other cultures also have their own versions like jook (Korea), congee ( China and Japan) and  Khichadi (India).  It was a rice porridge boiled with chicken, ginger and  onions. She asked us to eat this for quick recovery and as it was easy to digest. Later, our grandparents and parents inherited this ‘fis-fash’ culture. Once I was in Chittagong hill tracts in Bangladesh and found some people talking about “fis-fash”. Amazing ! I told them we also eat the same in Darjeeling. An old military man sitting next to us intervened to say it was actually feast-fast, a dish prepared for quick eating purpose mainly by the British soldiers.
Evolution of Indian Gorkha food has been characterized by four way influence. First it was geography and community in the neighborhood like the movement of people and exchange with the adjoining countries and the provinces as mentioned above. Secondly, it was the political regime and dominant foreign culture like during the British regime in places like Darjeeling and Shillong. Thirdly, by the internal dynamics of various castes  including Kami, Damai, Sarki, Gurung, Rai, Limbu, Bahun, Newar, Tamang, Magar, Chettri, Thami, Sherpa and Yolmo within the Gorkha community. All these castes have rich sub-cultures of their own that relate to costumes, ceremonies, food and music. Each of them have had substantive role in shaping what we today call Gorkha cuisine. There have been other positive ramifications. Many of the Indian Gorkhas were chefs, cooks and butlers in the British households. So a large number of families inherited the knowledge, skill and interest about food from their great grand parents and parents. It is therefore, common to find Indian Gorkha chefs in restaurants and hotels across many countries and cities.
And finally, nature and natural endowments have determined some of the core course of Indian Gorkha food.  For instance, simal tarul (tapioca), Ishkush (squash), kodo (buckwheat),  timuur and philunge (spices), tori ko tel (mustard oil)  in Sikkim and Darjeeling;  ‘nadi-kholako macha’ (river fish) and banana and bamboo produces  in Assam and the North East ; wheat and chickpeas based ‘babru-madra-dham’ of Himachal Pradesh and imli (tamarind) based ‘sambar’ and ‘rasam’ of  South India have had definite reflections and manifestations in Indian Gorkha food from different regions.
Unlike the ‘Curry and Naan’ of  North India, ‘Dosa and Idli’ of South India, ‘Pao Bhaji’,  ‘Khari Sing’ and ‘Binadaloo curry’ of West India and ‘Macher Jhol’ and ‘Sukto’ of the East, the rich Indian Gorkha food is yet to enter both the Indian and the global markets. This is both because, there are no state and governmental agencies to promote the same and also there are not many chefs and institutions around to popularize it. 
This is where this exploratory venture to introduce “The Royal Gorkha Cook Book” (2019) by Chef Shamson Tamang acquires significant importance. In the past, we have only localised the global foods like hamburger, pizza, fried chicken and Vodka and Maliboo. You get the same Russian salad in Gangtok also and the Coke and Pepsi of USA in Itanagar, Bijanbari, Ilam and Tashigang of  the Eastern  Himalayas also. The globalization has been one way and just unidirectional. Foods like Italy’s Pasta-Lasagne, Brazilian black chocolates, Vietnamese coffee, Korean Kimchi and Peshawar’s Chappal Kebabs have moved from the global cities to Indian townships. Why Indian Gorkha food has not reached Delhi, Chennai and other cities of the world are the questions to be asked  ?  At the same time how tea produced by the same community in Darjeeling has mesmerized the world for last 160 years. Can the Indian Gorkha food follow the tea-route to enter the global market ? Only when it does so, we shall be globalising the locals. Then we shall have two way flow from Bhagshu-Dehradun-Hyderabad-Kalimpong- Namchi and Imphal to the global cities in New York, Tokyo, Johannesburg and Sao Paulo. We shall have to commercialize the Indian Gorkha foods to remain in the brand competitions.
Chef  Tamang and his team will thus be selling knowledge and skills along with the Gorkha cuisine and the organic taste to the Indian and global community. Unlike the ‘hard power’ of the Indian Gorkhas symbolized by Khukuri and unparallel bravery in various wars,  their food will be the ‘soft power’ representing the magnificently warm, distinct and rich culture of theirs. ‘Darjeeling’ restaurant in  Kerala’s Varkala beach and ‘Saino’ restaurant at Kamiya-cho in Tokyo are now popular joints. This will in turn bring technology, new knowledge, employment, income, recognition and more seriously competitive spirit among the Indian Gorkhas and their respective provinces in India.
(Courtesy : Kathmandu Post)

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi