While travelling, people increasingly want to connect to a destination, and immerse themselves in the sense of the place through surroundings, culture and food. As a result, hotels and resorts have been increasingly showcasing local ingredients and indigenous cuisine giving travellers an opportunity to connect to the land, and to a destination’s culture. In our series exploring post-COVID-19 travel (and the move towards slow tourism), we spoke to Husna-Tara Prakash, owner of Glenburn Tea Estate, which is located on the rolling hills of Darjeeling, about the local foods one can savour at the award-winning boutique stay.
Glenburn Tea Estate has a long legacy of working with our local community, and celebrating their culture and traditions. Our boutique hotel comprising two tea planter bungalows with a total of only eight rooms, has always had a very close relationship with the 4,000-odd residents who live in the eight villages within our 1,600-acre tea estate. Our 55-strong staff (of drivers, housekeepers, gardeners, bearers, cooks and guides) all hail from these local villages, and they have been able to bring a very high standard of service and cuisine to guests visiting Glenburn from all around the globe for almost two decades now.
Our celebration of our local community rests largely on their traditions and heritage related to their Nepali ancestry and the culture of tea that is now part of our DNA. Our workers at Glenburn are third and fourth generation members of the estate. Their forefathers came across from neighbouring Nepal to work on the tea estates in Darjeeling when the British planted them out in the mid-19th century. Their jobs are guaranteed across generations. If a worker dies, his job is given to a member of his family.
I had the pleasure of meeting one family from within our staff body recently, where his grandparents said they remembered their parents talking about how they planted the first tea bushes at Glenburn! Four generations of this family were sitting with me enjoying cups of Glenburn tea in their village house.
Today, they are very much a part of India, but celebrate and cherish their Nepali heritage. Many of our meals are inspired by their techniques for preparation, as well as their recipes and ingredients. For instance, the main dishes in our signature Nepali meal at Glenburn is a pork curry, served along with rice, black dal, aloo achaar, mustard spinach and sauteed squash.
I remember visiting a local market 20 years ago when we first set up the hotel and discovering pumpkin flowers, fern fronds, churpi (a form of yak’s cheese), and wild watercress (known locally as sim rye). Watercress is such a delicacy in England, that it was amusing to find it growing wild on the estate!
One of the most popular dishes at tea time is our signature tea leaf pakoras, made from fresh green 'two and a bud' leaves picked off the bushes before they are made into tea (in the drinking form). We also use the pumpkin flowers stuffed with churpi cheese to make a delicious pakora, and nasturtium flowers from the garden are often used in our signature house salad.
We grow as much as we can within the estate and in our own vegetable and herb garden. Our carbon footprint is quite small when it comes to sourcing food because we shop as local as we can, and we are lucky to have an abundance of fruit trees and local vegetables grown within the villages. Livestock is also common in the immediate locality so we can source free-range pork and chicken when we need it. Our strawberries are said to be the sweetest that people have ever tasted. We make mulberry jam, orange and pomelo marmalade as well as other fruit preserves whenever the season allows us to.
Fiddlehead fern, and a few varieties of mushrooms such as spring orange peel fungi, common puffball, white and grey oyster mushrooms can be foraged locally after the monsoon and are also grown and sold commercially in a nearby village.
There are some of the local varieties of food that are slowly losing their popularity and we hope to bring some of these into our menu. For instance, dhedo, made from ground buckwheat, millet or even corn meal, used to be a typical farmer’s staple diet. The grain is added to boiling water in a 3:1 ratio, while stirring vigorously until certain stiffness is achieved. Ghee, garlic and salt can be added, as can chopped mutton or churpi. It is eaten in small balls with one’s fingers, then dipped in lentils or gundruk (fermented leafy green vegetables) and swallowed at one go, without chewing. Similarly, bhaatmas is dried black soya bean which is roasted or pan fried, and mixed with corn to create a healthy snack. This has sadly lost its popularity to packet-food culture. Lal pathar is a stone-hard sweet made from cooking local gur (unpolished jaggery), mixed with millet/wheatflour, and moulded into round balls. This traditional sweet is enjoyed by children and also eaten after meals. Maiu is a local form of buttermilk which is also losing its popularity and we hope to experiment with it more this coming season.