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Rediscovering Indian Gorkha cuisine

The colonial British regime left behind a solid impact on local food.

Mahendra P Lama | New Delhi |

Food is a symbol of civilisation, and food habits are part of the cultural flow. Indian Gorkha foods have evolved over the centuries and decades with wider influences from Japanese, Chinese, Korean and other Asian countries. For instance, in the fermented food category sake (rakshi) and nato (kinema) from Japan and Xiáncài (like gundruk ko achar) of China have visible influences.

From the highlands of Tibet and Central Asia and the Far East, momo and gyoza (dumpling), thukpa (pho/noodles) and tsampa (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 (hard cheese) made their steady entry into the Indian Gorkha cuisine. 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 part of the Indian Gorkha cuisine. Laurence A Waddel, a famous traveller while recollecting his Sikkim sojourn, wrote in his book Among the Himalayas: “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 reedlike 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 the ox to the blood pudding of pork (rakti) to fried rice with dried fish soaked in fresh tomato sauce (bhuteko bhat ma sidrako achar) and sausage-ham-salamicheese with toasted bread, they all are now an inevitable constituent of Indian Gorkha food. In our childhood, whenever we were unwell, my great grandmother used to prepare 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. The evolution of Indian Gorkha food has been characterised by a four-way influence. Firstly, it was geography and community in the neighbourhood like the movement of people and exchange with adjoining countries and provinces.

Secondly, it was the political regime and dominant foreign cultures like during the British regime in places like Darjeeling and Shillong. Thirdly, by 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 has had a substantive role in shaping what we today call Gorkha cuisine.

There have been other positive ramifications. Many Indian Gorkhas were chefs, cooks and butlers in British households. So, a large number of families inherited the knowledge, skill and interest in food from their great grandparents 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), timur 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 northeast, 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 vinadaloo curry of west India and macher jhol and sukto of the east, the rich Indian Gorkha food is yet to enter both Indian and global markets. This is because there are no state and governmental agencies to promote the same, and also there are not many chefs and institutions around to popularise it.

This is where this exploratory venture to introduce The Royal Gorkha Cook Book by chef Shamson Tamang acquires significant importance. In the past, we have only localised global foods and liquor, such as hamburger, pizza, fried chicken and vodka and rum. You get the same Russian salad in Gangtok and the same Coke and Pepsi of the United States in Itanagar, Bijanbari, Ilam and Tashigang in the eastern Himalaya too. Globalisation has been unidirectional. Foods like Italy’s pasta, Brazilian black chocolates, Vietnamese coffee, Korean kimchi and Peshawar’s chappal kebabs have moved from global cities to Indian townships. Why Indian Gorkha food hasn’t reached Delhi, Chennai and other cities of the world is the question that needs to be asked. At the same time, how has tea produced by the same community in Darjeeling mesmerised the world for the last 160 years? Can Indian Gorkha food follow a route similar to tea to enter the global market? Only when it does so shall we be globalising locals. Then we shall have a two-way flow from Bhagshu, Dehradun, Hyderabad, Kalimpong, Namchi and Imphal to global cities like New York, Tokyo, Johannesburg and Sao Paulo. Chef Tamang and his team will thus be selling knowledge and skills along with Gorkha cuisine and the organic taste to the Indian and global community.

Unlike the hard power of Indian Gorkhas symbolised by the khukuri and unparallel bravery in various wars, their food will be the soft power representing their magnificently warm, distinct and rich culture. 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, a competitive spirit among Indian Gorkhas and their respective provinces in India.

(The Kathmandu Post/ANN)