Ankita Mahabir learns the intricacies of Sikkimese cuisine at Yangsum Farm, a heritage homestay up in the mountains of West Sikkim.
The promise of breathtaking views of the Kanchendzonga is what first drew me to Yangsum Farm. But in the end, it was the reputation of serving wholesome, home-cooked meals that sealed the deal. Despite growing up in the North-East and spending time in Sikkim previously, I wasn’t entirely familiar with its cuisine. As is typical, the unknown often gets branded with that which is most familiar. In the case of Sikkimese cuisine, its culinary brand ambassador is the ubiquitous (but hardly representative) momos. This time, we hoped to immerse ourselves deeply in local food, and that’s how we found Tashi Thendup and his team in Yangsum.
A month and several treacherous roads later, we found ourselves on the outskirts of the town of Rinchenpong, West Sikkim. Yangsum is lush and forested. To arrive at this heritage farmhouse, dating back to 1833, guests must drive through creaking bamboo groves, to be greeted at the gate by fragrant bushes of cardamom. Here, tradition meets tradition — there is no TV or WiFi. In Yangsum, nature beckons and answer its call, we must. Tashi Thendup is one of the most gracious hosts I’ve met. He is committed to his guests, to his farm, to his family’s heritage and most importantly, to the environment — he refuses to build rooms if it means cutting down even a single tree.
Where my basic botany failed, Thendup’s proved most helpful. The farm grows all manner of vegetables, from spinach, squash, carrot and cauliflower to broccoli and beans. During our time there, Thendup was trying to organise a government-subsidised purchase of a plough. Hiring labour and equipment every season is expensive, and keeping the labourers well-hydrated with the local chang beer, even more so. Owning a plough would ensure the work is done faster and in-house.
Yangsum Farm grows only enough produce for its guests and staff, but it is still a lot of work. Seasonal crops like ginger, cardamom, buckwheat and maize make an appearance. Tall maize plants flourished all over the farm. Vegetables served at Yangsum are sourced either from the farm, or locally, and the food cooked is based on recipes that have been handed down within the family. Every dish is comforting and wholesome; health benefits are an added bonus.
A lot of the food in Sikkim is fermented because it lasts through the cold winter months and keeps the body warm. Fermented spinach soup and stinging nettle soup (locally know as socha) were the highlights of our first day in Yangsum. The stinging nettle is great for digestion and keeping blood pressure under control. The cuisine also includes several different varieties of ferns. At the farm, they regularly serve fresh fiddlehead fern foraged by the staff from surrounding jungles. A more familiar ingredient that turns up on our plates frequently is bamboo shoot. Widely used in Sikkim, it pairs perfectly with cheese and meat. Once again, the shoots are foraged from bamboo plants surrounding the property. The recipes are simple and ingredients play the starring role. Only the smallest amounts of ginger, onion, garlic and tomato are added, cooked with barely any oil.
One of the most exotic things that Thendup shows us is an edible orchid flower called nakima. Making an appearance only during the months of September and October, it is an expensive vegetable to source. Back in the day, nakima would grow in the wild. It still does, but now, it is also farmed by entrepreneurial locals. Thendup’s favourite ingredient is fresh homemade cottage cheese. As a child, his mother cooked freshly made paneer in butter and the flavours, even today, trigger a visceral memory from his childhood. Culinary traditions are fragile but tangible links to the past.
When we mention to Thendup that we are eager to sample chang, a chain of messages ripple through Rinchenpong. The local brewers in the village are contacted, following which, a person from the homestay is sent to assess quality. Only then is it sourced. It is served in big wooden mugs at the perfect temperature.
It tastes almost juice-like but is not overwhelmingly sweet. Chang is essentially fermented millet which goes through an elaborate process: First, the millet is washed, just like you would wash rice, and then cooked. After this, the millet is spread out on a bamboo mat. Once it’s completely cool, the yeast (extracted from the root of a local plant) is mixed in. The millet and the yeast are mixed thoroughly and placed in a basked layered with banana leaves. The banana leaves are used to cover the millet to ensure no air or light goes in. A stone is placed on top and finally, a blanket to ensure the chang stays cosy.
In the summer months, a fragrance starts to emanate from the chang within a day. Once this happens, the fermented millet is moved into a container, covered with a blanket once again, and forgotten about for a month. Depending on who you go to, the quality of chang can vary greatly. With Thendup’s dedicated sourcing and sampling method, we had zero complaints. Warm water is poured over fermented millet, which one keeps topping up as needed. One round of millets can be topped up about 4 or 5 times depending on how strong (or weak) you prefer your chang. The mugs come with bamboo straws that allows the liquid to pass but stops the grains. The Sikkimese evidently give chang consumption serious thought.
When we were not in a chang-induced stupor, we hiked everywhere. We visited the monasteries nearby (one of the oldest Sikkimese monasteries is in Richenpong), explored local markets, ambled past ancient ruins hidden in forests and took in the stunning views from the surrounding mountain ridges.
While writing this piece, I reconnected with Thendup. It seems that the plough has arrived, his farming costs have considerably lowered, and the machine is doing most of the work, leaving him more time to devote to the kitchen and the meals. I’m still smiling at the thought of that.
During our stay, the Kachendzonga refused to reveal itself, but we’d had enough revelations regardless. Through each day’s adventures, what we looked forward to most was the meal waiting for us when we returned. ‘Farm to table’ is quite the trend nowadays, with every restaurant and chef waxing eloquent about the concept. In Yangum Farms, though, it is simply a way of life.
A Digital Media Nut and a Travel Writer, Ankita holds good food in high regard. You can see more of her writing here.
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