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The Culinary Treasures of Sikkim

The erstwhile Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim became part of the Indian Union in 1975. As part of the Eastern Himalayas, the hilly terrain of Sikkim rises from the tropical jungles at the foothills and ascends to high alpine valleys and lofty peaks. Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world is located at the Singalila range which forms a boundary between Nepal and Sikkim. This mountain state is bounded by Tibet on the north, Bhutan on the east and south and Nepal on the west. This particular location of Sikkim has given the state a multicultural and multi-ethnic character. The main ethnic groups in the Sikkim hills are the Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalis and accordingly the cuisine of Sikkim is representative of these communities. Over time communities from the mainland have migrated to Sikkim and have brought with them their special foods to the hills. The food culture in the Eastern Himalayas of Sikkim has evolved over a period of time based on environmental, social and cultural factors and certain dishes have transcended cultural and territorial borders and have come to be embraced by all communities in Sikkim. These include dishes like the patlesishnu or souchya (nettle soup), thukpa (wheat noodle soup) and titeningro (fiddlehead fern curry with churpi or cottage cheese).


The stunning landscape of Sikkim


Terraced rice fields

Due to the unique location of Sikkim wide variations in altitudes are recorded over short distances. This accounts for significant variations in climatic conditions from the sub-tropical heat of the valleys in the south to extreme cold in the north. Most of the inhabited tracts of Sikkim enjoy temperate climate. These geographical factors influence food habits and the cuisines of Sikkim in a predominant manner from the type of crops which are cultivated to the kinds of dishes prepared. Sikkim has a mainly agrarian economy and being a small state it has utilized its hilly terrain to produce crops like rice, maize, millet, wheat, buckwheat, barley, oranges, cardamom, ginger and tea. Rice cultivation is practiced through terraced farming in the lower valleys where irrigation is possible and the climate is warm and humid.

Rice is one of the important food crops of Sikkim which is reflected in the Tibetan name of the state, Denzong which means “land of rice.” A popular preparation made from rice is the sel roti. This round sweet bread is a Nepali dish which is traditionally made during festivals like Dashain and Tihar. It is made of rice flour which is mixed with other ingredients like water, milk, gheu or clarified butter, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, fennel and sugar. A semi-solid paste is prepared by mixing these ingredients and then the paste is dropped in round circles in hot cooking oil or gheu and deep fried till they turn brown. Bamboo sticks are used to turn the sel rotis in the hot oil. The rings are made by hand and based on the proficiency of the maker a sel roti can have more than one ring. Stacks of sel rotis are made during festivals for gifting to family, friends and neighbours. This festive dish can now be found in the menu of most restaurants and eateries in Sikkim in less elaborate form as light snacks. These everyday sel rotis are usually served with alu dum (potato dish) and tea.


Sel Roti


Yaks are an essential part of sustenance for the people of the region

In the upper reaches of North Sikkim the Lachen and Lachung valleys are located at elevations of 2,750 metres and 2,900 metres respectively. At such high altitudes and inclement weather, the herdsmen are dependent on the yak. The yak is an important part of sustenance for the people living in these terrains. Yak cheese or churpi and yak meat are mainstays of the people there and are widely used in preparing their food.. The biting cold and low temperatures of these places warrants the development of a specific cuisine heavy in broths, soups, dumplings (meats and cheese), and other hearty food dishes which provide warmth and are good for metabolism. Most of these dishes reflect their Tibetan roots and the Tibetan influence on Sikkimese cuisine is deeply marked. Steaming hot noodle soups like the thukpa, thenthuk and soups like gya kho have been capturing the culinary imagination and taste buds on a global level. These delicious and filling dishes are nutritious and well-balanced meals.



Besides these, there is one dish which has truly broken barriers of culture, language and imagination to overtake the street food market in India, the momo. The richness and diversity of Sikkimese cuisine is intimately tied to its history of migrations and settlement of peoples, cultures and ways of life over time. These cultural voyages have brought with them distinct food cultures which have only enriched the culinary landscape of Sikkim.

The momo is a traditional dish which is made during formal occasions in a Tibetan household. The momo-making operation is a very laborious one indeed and requires a team approach. It is a difficult task for an individual to undertake single-handedly. In this way the momo is quite a social dish in that it takes a family to make and a village to consume. A prime example of such valuable culinary journey is the momo. The original Tibetan momo which made a long journey from this mountainous citadel to other climes and lands in South Asia, is made of a filling of yak meat and onion wrapped inside a dough. The momo was brought to Sikkim by the Bhutias sometime in the fourteenth century when they settled down there. They forged relations with the native population and established a bond of blood brotherhood with the Lepchas and the Limbus. Momo soon travelled from the Bhutia kitchens to the other communities. The communities welcomed the momos into their hearth and heart and the journey of the momo began in Sikkim.


An elderly woman preparing momos



There are so many interesting and unique facets of Sikkimese cuisine and one such feature is the innovative use of local flora and vegetation. The stinging nettles are a ubiquitous feature of this Himalayan state. These grow abundantly at elevations of 1,200 metres to 3,000 metres and are mostly avoided due to the stinging spikes covering the nettle leaves. The nettle or sishnu as it is locally called is carefully plucked from the many of the sishnu ko jhyang or nettle clumps found around the state. The sishnu is washed and then boiled in water along with some cooking oil, garlic, ginger, salt and pepper. This concoction is brought to a boil and then vigorously whisked till the sishnu is well blended. This sishnu ko jhol or nettle soup is served hot and sometimes churpi or preserved soft cheese is added for extra flavour and taste. The other flavourful dishes made from indigenous vegetation include the titeningro (fiddlehead fern curry with churpi), kodo ko roti (millet bread), phapar ko roti (buckwheat bread), tama ko sabji (fermented bamboo shoot dish) among others. The other unique feature of Sikkimese cuisine is the prevalence of fermented foods. The long winters and difficult terrain have resulted in the emergence of certain food technologies like fermentation.

Some among the more than 48 documented ethnic fermented foods of Sikkim which are also widely consumed in Darjeeling and Nepal include the gundruk, sinki, and kinema (fermented soya bean). Gundruk is prepared by fermenting mustard, radish and cauliflower leaves after the harvest months of October and November. After the fermentation process the gundruk is dried in the sun. This dry gundruk is then used to make gundruk ko jhol or gundruk soup. Sinki is prepared in the same manner as gundruk, the only difference being the use of radish tap roots instead of leafy vegetables. Both gundruk and sinki are cooked with tomato, onion, ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, turmeric, fenugreek and mustard seeds, salt and green chillies.




Kodo ko Roti

The cuisine of Sikkim deploys simple locally available ingredients and straight-forward cooking techniques. There are however certain distinctive traditional techniques which have persisted till today. The Lepchas, the original inhabitants of Sikkim have a rich knowledge of indigenous flora and fauna and accordingly their culinary culture is intimately connected to the environment and landscape. The ponguzom and suzom are two traditional dishes of the Lepchas. These dishes are prepared using ingenious techniques. The ponguzom is cooked in a bamboo stem. The raw food like rice, vegetable or fish is first placed inside a green bamboo stem with salt. The open ends are covered with green leaves and tied down with strings. The bamboo stem is roasted over open fire and it is turned continuously till it turns brown. The bamboo stem is then taken off the fire and cut open to release the baked food inside.

The suzom is the traditional meat-based dish of the Lepchas and the meat is prepared in a pit, under the earth. The pit is around 2 feet deep and flat stones are placed at the bottom. The stones are covered with banana leaves and the chopped meat is placed on top of the leaves. The meat is then covered with fire burnt hot stones and then this arrangement is covered with leaves and the pit is then filled with earth. The meat is left to bake for a day and then it is recovered from the pit.

Alcoholic beverages are an integral part of Sikkimese cuisine. The tongba or millet beer is a refreshing drink enjoyed in Sikkim, eastern Nepal and Darjeeling. The beverage is the traditional drink of the Limbu community of Nepal. The drink is prepared during festivals and important events and is offered to guests as a mark of respect. Tongba is made with whole grain millet in a bamboo vessel which gives the name to the beverage. Here the millet is cooked and fermented with the addition of the yeast or khesung. ChhangRaksi is a strong distilled alcoholic drink made from millet or rice and is widely produced and consumed in Sikkim. Jaanr is a mild alcoholic drink prepared from a wide range of cereals like rice, millet, maize, wheat and barley.



Sikkimese cuisine is varied, extensive, inventive yet simple and unpretentious. Care is taken to procure fresh goods and prepare dishes which enhance the distinctive flavours of the produce. Sikkim is the only state in the country which assures top quality produce to its people. It is truly Nye-ma-el or “heaven” when it comes to food.