Thursday, 7 February 2019

Cuisine of the Lepchas in Dzongu



A Lepcha meal- okra stir fry, greens peas cooked with their pods, onion leaves cooked with their flowers and fermented spinach soup called gundruk. 
While in Lingthem village in Dzongu where I travelled to meet the Shamans, I had the opportunity to sample a variety of dishes unique to Lepcha culture. Lepcha food is characterised by the use of fermented items like vegetables, fruit and cheese. Lepchas are mainly meat eaters but since I am a vegetarian I could sample only a limited number of Lepcha dishes. It’s simple and full of flavor and devoid of spices that mainland India uses.



Fermented soft cheese called churpi.
The Lepchas were formerly hunters and gatherers, sustaining mainly on forest produce and cultivating just a few vegetables. They followed a ‘Slash and burn’ method of agriculture which means that whenever a tribe moved from one place to another in the forest, they would burn down a patch that they needed for agriculture and settle there and practice farming for a period of about three years. Then they would move again, thus allowing that part of the forest to rejuvenate. It was only in the 1900’s that they started owning land and practising long term agriculture. And it was not until a few decades ago that the Lepchas who were isolated started trading with people from outside. I asked my host if they never traded with people outside, how did they get salt for cooking? He said that the hunters-gatherers would follow the musk deer which would go and lick salt deposits beneath rocks in certain spots and get their salt from the same place. This is ‘living with Nature’ in the truest sense!


You may like my post on 'Secret Life of the Shamans in Dzongu'.
Freshly harvested potatoes.

Fresh green peas. 

Onion flowers which is a delicacy.

Fresh ginger.

At my Lingthem homestay, food was fresh from the farm to the table. The host grew several vegetables such as spinach, potatoes, cabbage, nettle fern, etc. Most days I accompanied her to the farm and we sowed ginger, made the bed for potatoes, harvested potatoes, plucked nettle fern, and cleared the weed around cardamom plants.
Cardamom cultivation was introduced in Dzongu in the early 1930's and towards the end of the century, Sikkim turned out to be a major exporter of cardamom. 

You may like my blog post on Himachali/Pahadi cuisine.
That's me clearing weeds around the cardamom plant. 

Fresh cardamom buds which will mature into pods.

In the traditional Lepcha kitchen, the stove is a stone tripod and wood is used as fuel. In the three homes I visited I saw corn cobs hanging over the hearth and meat tied in cloth, hung to be dried. 
Traditional Lepcha kitchen.

Corn cobs hanging above the hearth.
These are some of the dishes I ate.
The evening I arrived I was treated to ‘masyum ko dal’ (ricebean dal), nettle fern with churpi, and potato stir fry. All the dishes were full of flavor and light on the stomach.
‘Masyum ko dal’ (ricebean dal), nettle fern with churpi, and potato stir fry.
My first breakfast was buckwheat pancakes called ‘Khuri’ which are stuffed with either meat of vegetables. Mine was stuffed with potatoes and cabbage served with soft ‘churpi’ (yak cheese) mixed with ‘lopsi’ (hog plum) pickle made with ‘dalle’ (one of the hottest chillies).
Buckwheat pancakes called ‘Khuri’ stuffed with potatoes and cabbage served with soft ‘churpi’ mixed with ‘lopsi’ pickle.


Lopsi or hog plum pickle.

Pickled chillies called dalle.
The next meal for lunch was stir fried green peas along with their pods, onion stir fried with the leaves and flowers, okra subji, fermented spinach soup called ‘gundruk’ and hot rice.  
Stir fried green peas along with their skin, onion stir fried with the leaves and flowers, okra subji, fermented spinach soup called ‘gundruk’ and hot rice.
 You may also like my blog post of Kumaoni cuisine
Fermented and dried spinach called 'gundruk'.
An item in the next meal was really unique. Nettle fern cooked with ‘churpi’, cauliflower subji, ‘lopsi’ pickle and masoor dal with rice. The nettle fern and churpi combination was a winner.
Nettle fern.

Nettle fern cooked with ‘churpi’, cauliflower subji, ‘lopsi’ pickle and masoor dal with rice.
Now, who hasn’t heard of thukpa. This one that I ate and slurped away was a medley of noodles, vegetables and onions garnished with coriander leaves. Simple, so flavorful and filling.
Thukpa.
Another Thukpa I had on this trip was in Gangtok in a restaurant called Nimtho on the MG road. The portion size was quite huge and I struggled to finish it. I quite loved the different flavours. 
Thukpa at Nimtho
One of the meals was fusion food- potato pancakes taught to the host by a German guest and nettle fern and stinging nettle soup with buckwheat dumplings.
Potato pancakes and nettle fern and stinging nettle soup with buckwheat dumplings.

Stinging nettle called bichhoo in Hindi. Contact of the skin with the leaves causes irritation so we plucked these with tongs. 
Another fermented dish was ‘kinema’ which is fermented soyabeans. My host asked me to smell it first since it’s an acquired taste and smell, she warned. It was strong and pungent but I said I would like to taste. I actually loved it despite the strong aroma. This I had with spinach saag, dal and rice.
Kinema, spinach saag and daal. 
One cannot return from Sikkim without having tasted the ubiquitous momo. My host taught me how to shape the momos into different patterns. Each pattern is for a different stuffing in the momo. For example, a circular shape would mean it’s filled with meat, an elongated shape is filled with fish, so on and so forth. It was pretty interesting to shape the dough into various shapes and I learnt well, my host said. We had it with tomato dip made with a little bit of lopsi pickle.

Momos ready to be devoured. 
One day I went for a long walk with he host, Premit Lepcha, and we found a tree laden with these fruit. She asked a man working nearby to pluck the fruit for us and he brought a long stick to shake the fruit off the trees. He also got some salt from a neighbouring home. The fruit was sour-sweet but it was delightful eating it fresh. 

Premit was a genius in the kitchen and thanks to her enthusiasm I could sample such a variety. 
The Lepcha homestay from the farm. 

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3 comments:

  1. Wow amazing write up and thank you very much for choosing my Lepcha Homestay and exlore in such
    Thank

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  2. My mouth is watering after seeing these dishes. I like corn very much especially when they are baked and lemon and salt is applied on these corn. Can't wait to see your Himachali Cuisine post.

    Shalender@Lahaul Spiti Packages

    ReplyDelete


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