Sikkim is largely agrarian, but because of its mountainous terrain the agricultural produce cannot be produced in large quantities. But what it can’t do in quantity, Sikkim makes it up in quality. Sikkim was the winner of the prestigious Gold Prize at Global Future Policy Awards in 2018 for promoting agro-ecology through policies to make the beautiful state 100% organic.
Sikkim being a heavily forested place eats many wild vegetables and fruits. This vibrant display of wild vegetables and fruits can be seen on market days when the villagers bring them up for sale. They bring wild mushrooms, nettle leaves, spices, edible leaves, fern fiddle heads, tubers, bamboo shoots, fruits and fresh honey. Each season sees a different display up on the market stalls.
The traditional food is very simple and the use of spices is very limited. In Sikkim, rice is the staple food grain. Other grains like wheat, millet, buckwheat, and maize are also consumed in the form of pancake-roti.
Sikkim’s iconic vegetable must be the very fiery and aromatic cherry pepper, which is called dalley khorsani (that's 'round chili') in Nepali. Sikkim loves their dalley.
Each tribe in Sikkim has their own cuisine. Though many local foods are common across the different communities, there are cuisines that are synonymous to each tribe. Kinema or fermented soya beans, which smells like miso, is made by first boiling the soya beans and then fermenting them for a few days in fern leaves. Kinema is then sautéed with onions, tomato, and chillies to make either a curry or a soup.
Gundruk is another common fermented food item which is made from rayo saag (mustard family); the more sour the gundruk the better it is.
The fermentation is done by simply scalding the mature leaves of rayo saag and then immediately sealing it in a container and keeping it in a warm place for a few days. This gundruk is then sundried and preserved, later to be used to make a sour soup and a sour salad with fresh onions, tomatoes, chillies, and coriander.
Sisnu or nettle soup is another favourite. Young stinging nettle shoots, leaves, and flowers are plucked with bamboo tongs and cooked directly in boiling water. This is sometimes combined with potatoes or pulses. At least three species of stinging nettles are enjoyed here.
Dhendo, a broken maize cooked with coarse maize flour to the consistency of a cake, is best combined with nettle soup. This combination of dhendo and sisnu was the staple of the Nepalese community before rice from the plains was easily imported.
Churpi, a milk product, is loved by everyone as it is a light, versatile and delicious cottage cheese without fat. After churning out butter, the buttermilk is brought to a boil, which separates the water from the ‘solid not fat’ component; this SNF is then strained (the churpi) which is used to make salads, soups and chutneys.
Khapsey is made from refined all-purpose flour, it has beautiful designs and the golden Khapsey laid out looks more like decoration than food.
Some food items are synonymous with particular tribes. Zerro, made by the Bhutia community is made out of fine rice flour, which is made into a batter and fried, in flat layers of thin strings.
Wachipa, popular with the Rai community wachipa (wa-chicken, chipa-bitter), is an intriguing version of chicken fried rice with a special and main ingredient of burnt feathers. This burnt feather is called wachipa and hence the dish also goes by the same name.
Sel roti is a lightly sweet doughnut-style fried delicacy made during major festivals and events.
This is largely made by the Nepali community as a snack during weddings, festivals, and funerals.
Kwati is the contribution to Sikkim’s table from the Newari community. The Newari community is known for making a lot of jams and pickles but kwati is their special dish. It is made from nine types of sprouted pulses, boiled and seasoned with coriander; it’s a simple and nourishing dish.
Momo and thukpa or dumplings and noodles, are ubiquitous in all restaurants and food stalls in Sikkim but these are not traditional Sikkimese dishes. However, over the years the Sikkimese have wholeheartedly perfected and embraced these dishes.
Chai is a popular drink in India but it is normally sweet. In Sikkim, salty tea is an allpervasive hot beverage and very close to people’s hearts. It is a custom in Sikkim to offer tea to guests and guests from Sikkim are invariably served salty tea. Sugar is not a traditional component of food, that is why Sikkim doesn’t have a traditional culture of desserts and traditional sweets are unheard of. Not just tea, Sikkim also produces locally grown, organic coffee.
Dhungro, also known as chang, is a popular beer made from fermented millet and served in a tall bamboo container with a straw.
Rhododendron wine, you will find several street side stalls along the roads near Jaubari and Ravangla selling bottles of homemade rhododendron wine. In Jaubari, look out for the government-run stalls selling organic produce. They also sell wine.
If you like your brandy fiery, buy a bottle of the Fireball Special Brandy by Sikkim Distilleries. It comes packaged in a signature red and brown casing which in itself is a popular souvenir buy. Also try the Sikkim Musk Brandy, which has a taste of cardamom.