Traditional Sikkim Food & Beverages
Sikkim had been the place of the Lepchas who were the original residents of the state. However since 1600s there has been continuous migration of the people from neighboring countries like Nepal and Tibet who had several communities within themselves. So over time the cuisine and food in Sikkim has become a fusion of various cultures and communities
and is influenced by Bhutias (from Tibet who are mostly Buddhists) and Nepalese (from Nepal who are mostly Hindus) apart from Lepchas.
Being a multi-ethnic mix, every community in Sikkim has their own cooking style and use ingredients of their own. While several restaurants and eateries in Gangtok offer authentic Sikkimese food of several types, it is best to experience them in a home stay where a family prepares for you. If you are visiting Gangtok in December then check out the dates for Gangtok Food Festival which provides an excellent means to savor various local traditional food of Sikkim.
Rice has remained the main staple food all across Sikkim and it is taken with variety of vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian dishes along with varied types of pickles.
Starters & Soups
An item which is very common in north-eastern states of India is the Momos although many believe that Sikkim has been the origin of all Tibetan food in India including Momos. This is a platter of steamed dumplings made of flour (curled at the edges) and filled with vegetables or meat and served with a thick red sauce (quite hot and spicy, but tastes excellent). You can also ask for fried momos. Vegetable momos are usually prepared with fillings of cabbage and onion and ingredients like onion, ginger, garlic, coriander etc. Cheese momos are also very popular in Sikkim.
In non-vegetarian momos the filling comprises of mainly ground chicken, mutton, pork or even beef although beef momos are served only by few eateries these days. Momos are usually taken as starters or even snacks. Although very popular all across Sikkim, some of the best eateries where you can try momos in Gangtok includes the Roll House
(literally a hole in the wall where locals go) and Taste of Tibet
... both located at MG Marg in the town center. Go through Gangtok Restaurants
to know more about these eateries and several others.
Another ubiquitous dish all across Sikkim and very popular with tourists is Thukpa (also known as Thenthuk)... it's a Tibetan style noodle soup, very tasty as well as healthy. This too comes in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian formats. In Non-vegetarian thukpa usually chicken or pork is used.
Many types of vegetables are added along with noodles such as carrots, bell peppers, spinach, cauliflower, celery etc. Although it is an entree dish, one serving would be enough as a meal for many. You can get thukpas almost at every restaurant in Gangtok and rest of Sikkim.
There are several other exotic varieties of soup in Sikkim. Gundruk Soup is prepared by fermenting leaves of spinach, radish, mustard and cauliflower and later sun dried. Although mainly a vegetarian dish, sometimes the Sikkimese would mix minced meat to it. Traditionally Gundruk is prepared on an earthen pot. Sinki Soup is another fermented product of radish tap roots which are chopped and stuffed inside a bamboo along with vegetables and mud, and kept in it for a month for bacterial action... and after a month you get a magic out of it. Sinki and Gundruk are also used to make pickles. It's best to experience Gundruk and Sinki in villages of Sikkim.
During the springtime, the edible wild ferns are put into great use to prepare excellent dishes. One such dish is Ningro Churpi... tendrils of wild ferns (Ningro) are sautéed with cottage cheese (Churpi). It is usually taken with rice or bread. The delicious Sishnu ko Jhol is prepared out of nettle leaves mixing it with minced meat (some times beef). Again these dishes are best experienced in villages. And if you happen to be in a Village of Sikkim between October to December, you can try out Barhey... a unique dish which is prepared from Orchid flowers and is rarely found in restaurants. It tastes a little sour but once you adapt to the taste... it's awesome!
Bread & Snacks
All communities in Sikkim have their own unique breads which they use in their festivals and special occasions. One of the most popular breads among Nepalese is the Syal Roti... a circular bread prepared on a pan and made out of rice flour, butter, milk, sugar and spices. There is a story among village children that Syals (foxes) loved this roti (bread) and they stole these from the kitchens at nights and hence such a name for the bread.
Breads that are popular among the Bhutias (Tibetans) are the Chyadung Byasu (made out of maize), Zheroe (made out of rice powder) and Khabzeys (flour based). You can often find Bhutias taking these breads at home along with Solja (butter tea).
If you like fried bread items, you can close your eyes and go for Sha Phaleys... this is a Tibetan preparation where bread is stuffed with meat (usually beef or mutton along with cabbage), made into a semicircular shape with fashioned edges, then either deep fried or pan fried... heavenly! Like momos, these too are served with a red sauce. Today you get many variations... instead of meat, Sha Phaley is also prepared with vegetarian fillings including cheese or even tofu. Plenty of restaurants in Gangtok offer Sha Phaleys, however for best vegetarian Sha Phaley, go to Roll House on MG Marg.
There are also breads that are popular among all communities in Sikkim... for example Phapar ki Roti is a pancake type of bread made out of buck wheat batter, Kodo ko Roti which is prepared from finger millet batter, Dhiro made from millet porridge and butter are few of those. Usually different kinds of pickles are served with these breads.
Rai is a large community within the Nepalese in Sikkim. Wachia is a very popular dish among Rai's and made out of rice and flavored chicken. They also mix burnt feathers of chicken in it. It's not quite readily available in the restaurants. If you want to experience it, visit the Sakewa Festival held in May in Gangtok.
Another great Nepali dish very common at homes is Pakku - mutton curry. It's ideal to have it with Syal Roti (Nepali breads I described earlier). And probably the best Bhutia dish (usually made at Bhutia homes) is Phing - glass noodle soup prepared with either pork, beef or mushroom. A great indigenous meaty dish of the Bhutias is Gyari - it could be either pork or beef. The beef gyari is usually a simple curry but when prepared with tender bamboo shoots it's simply out of the world. On the other hand pork gyari is best when barbecued.
If you plan to eat out at a tribal eatery (mainly of Lepchas) and like to indulge on the well-known locally brewed beer 'Dansberg', then you must order Beef or Pork Chilly Fry. The dish has an exotic taste as it's combined with cherry pepper. Another favorite tribal dish is Ghima which is basically sausages prepared with pork or beef along with rice or wheat powders and spices.
If you plan to visit Lachung or Lachen in North Sikkim, ask your hotel for Yak Meat... you will hardly get it anywhere else in Sikkim during the usual time. They are preserved to be had throughout the year. However during Losar Festival you can certainly get an opportunity to taste this rare dish in and around Gangtok.
The section on meat based dishes won't be complete unless I mention another dish which is popular throughout Sikkim irrespective of communities - The Phagshapa. It's usually prepared with pork and lots of radish and made into a curry (more like a thick broth) without any oil. One of the best places to try this is at Golden Dragon Restaurant at MG Road.
Here are several other places that serve authentic Sikkimese cuisine in Gangtok including Nepali and Bhutia food:
The restaurant at the hotel Netuk House on Tibet Road
Doma Hotel on MG Marg
The eatery Cafe Culture on Secretariat Road
Pickles & Condiments
You won't find a single Sikkimese person who doesn't like pickles and hence there are large varieties of innovative pickles available in Sikkim. One of the most popular among them is Dalle Pickle ... it's made of heart shaped red chilies that are kept dipped in preservatives ... these chilies are supposed to be the hottest ones on earth!! However the best part is its wonderful fresh aroma. Cherry Pepper is made out of Dalle. You can get them in bottles and they go very well with breads or rice.
Other local pickles include Vatamas ko Achar (achar or pickle made with unfermented soybeans), Gundruk ko Achar (pickle made with Gundruk), Churpi ko Achar (made with cottage cheese), Mesu Pickle (made with fermented bamboo shoots), Shimi ko Achar (made with string beans) and another very popular one is Silam ko Achar (made using Silam seeds). The Newari community among the Nepalese are known to make all sorts of these local pickles.
One of the best places to buy pickles in Sikkim is the Sikkim Food Preservation Factory that makes all kinds of pickles. Their factory outlet is outside the factory near Gangtok on NH-10 (at Singtam). They make pure organic food including jams & juices of various types.
Beverages & Local Brews
If you visit a villager's house in Sikkim on a hot summer day, they would usually greet you with a glass of Mohi which is butter milk and excellent to cool your body. They also take it along with vegetarian meals. It's sourly in taste but very refreshing. Dahi i.e. curd on the other hand is thicker and is usually taken with meals. Sometimes they would mix grated cucumber, potatoes or onions to it to make it tastier.
Temi Tea Garden is the only tea garden in Sikkim but produces some of the finest varieties of organic tea leaves. However Temi Tea ready-made liquors are also available in bottles which you can directly buy and sip in the tea. They come in different flavors such as ginger, cardamom and even paan (betel) flavor. You can buy small bottles of these tea liquors from the shops.
Fireball Special Brandy is a fruit based alcoholic drink which is available in most liquor shops in Gangtok and can serve as a great buy too.
However when it comes to Sikkim's own traditional drink then Chaang is the one that has become almost an integral part of many villages homes, and it has significant ritual importance with the tribes in Sikkim. Although Chaang is also made by fermenting rice, maize etc, the type of Chaang which is most popular across Sikkim is the one prepared by fermenting millet. Tablets of yeast are mixed with boiled millets to make such a beer like brew (but mind it... it's much more potent).
Chaang is usually served in a bamboo container (known as Tongba) with a saucer placed below it. Little warm water is added to it. You need to sip it using a bamboo pipe (known as Pipsing). It helps keep the body warm in cold conditions. Although often had with meals, Chaang is also consumed like any other drink and then it's usually accompanied by snacks such as beef fry, cutlets etc. You won't easily get Chaang in Gangtok unless you go to a village homestay. However the hotel Bamboo Retreat located in Rumtek (45 minutes from Gangtok town) has a restaurant that serves authentic Lepcha cuisine and they also serve Chaang for tourist to experience the local brew.