Essential Eating in the Himalayas

Himalayan food is a diverse and unique cuisine which covers all ends of the Himalayan borders and our journey brings us to the Indian side and the idyllic Sikkim region of the Himalayas. An area where Indian food is prominent yet local Himalayan food presides. The local staple dishes in Sikkim are no different to elsewhere in the Himalayas where, as expected, you will find the favourites of China, like chow mein and spring rolls, or of India, with Curries and Samosas, but Himalayan food does bring its own unique food culture which is like a drooling mix of Chinese, Nepalese, Indian and Tibetan food favourites. Himalayan food is easily found at the restaurants of lower Himalayan settlements as well as the tin-roofed shacks dotted through the Himalayan ranges. Anyway, here are my top 10 Himalayan Food.

1. Dal Bhat (Lentil Soup)

Cooked lentil soup (Dal) served with steamed rice (Bhat). For many Dal is better known as an Indian side dish but in fact it is found at almost every table across South Asia; the Himalayas adopting Dal as their own local food staple. Dal Baht is cheap and simple but in honesty (or at least to me) it is a tad bland and boring. With added spices and dried chilli it does liven up a bit.

2. Momo (Dumplings)

Steamed flour dumplings stuffed with various fillings of veg (vegetarian) or meats (non-vegetarian). In the Himalayas Momos are found everywhere. They are the favoured snack of locals and the perfect fast food to go. Their popularity best shown by not only jumping the Tibet border to India but momos can now be easily found through every city of the subcontinent. With obvious Chinese influences momos are often compared to the popular Baoxi buns of China but to me they better resemble Gyoza dumplings of Japan. More so when stuffed with meat and shallow fried. Momos come served with a rich chilli sauce or dark soy and a side of hot broth.

3. Tea

Origins of tea in the Himalayas are often traced back to the 1800’s and the British commercial cultivation. Assam and Darjeeling world renowned for their tasty tea strains. However, rippled tea hills have been found on all sides of Himalayan borders since long before. Locals in the Himalayas sit day long sipping tea to keep warm in the high altitudes. In Nepal they boast their own Nepali Tea and in Tibet the national beverage is tea whisked with yak butter. In Sikkim we spent a night surrounded by the Temi Tea Gardens where local women pluck tea leaves from 7am – 4pm daily.

4. Yak Cheese (Himalayan Candy)

Yaks are synonymous with the Himalayas and at high altitudes, with scarce surroundings, they do come in handy. One of their uses is Hard Dried Yak Cheese known locally as Himalayan Candy. We first came across these rock-solid sweets hanging from roof rafters in a roadside shack. The whey was squeezed from the Yak milk before being strung and left to dry and harden. Don’t try to break them with your teeth; your teeth will likely break. Put them in your mouth and suck… for hours. Not overly appealing but interesting. A favourite with Himalayan nomads. For those new to Yaks; below is Fanfan riding one.

5. Paneer (Cottage Cheese)

Satisfying, filling and delicious. For me Paneer is the perfect meat substitute. With added curry and spices it is the one reason why vegetarianism is possible (but very unlikely). It is also a very simple cheese to make. Start with full fat cow milk, separate the curd from whey, wrap the curd in cloth and squeeze remaining moisture under heavy weight. We have paneer. Chop the block to bits and mix with curries and other tasty dishes. Paneer Momos?  A personal favourite is Mattar Paneer cooked with green peas and a top notch curry sauce.

6. Wai Wai (Instant Noodles)

As with the rest of the World there is no escaping the convenience of instant noodles. In the Himalayas, I do at least understand the local fixation. While the rest of the World slurp instant noodles out of laziness in the Himalayas they eat them out of necessity. Preserved foods like instant noodles are perfect for high altitudes and scarce ranges. Eaten with boiled water locals can keep fed and warm. The popular brands in the Himalayas are the ever popular Maggi noodles and the local brand Wai Wai from Nepal.

7. Thukpa (Noodle Soup)

Thukpa I like to think of as the posh version of instant noodles. A similar bowl only Thukpa brings fresh ingredients and happy additions of local meats. The noodles in Thukpa are generally egg noodles and they come served in a hot, spicy and tomatoey soup. Topped with meat of choice. Local variations of Thukpa are found throughout the Himalayas; for me the spicier the better. Thukpa originates from Tibet where the name translates from Tibetan as ‘noodles’.

8. Booze (Booze)

As always local liquors are my favourite part of research. With cheap, tax-free booze in Sikkim the opportunities are even more exciting. I start with the local Sikkim liquors which unfortunately were a little disappointing. Sikkim whiskys all with a repetitive and unappealing nose, palate and finish. Indian whiskys on the other hand were impressive. The two local favourites are ‘Signature’ and ‘Blenders Pride’ both rich malty and good for the long run. Another surprise favourite was the Honey Bee Premium Brandy from India. Top notch. Local liquors will likely change over borders.

9. Paratha (Flat Bread)

In the Himalayas, you are more likely to find flatbreads on the menu than rice dishes. Paratha being the local favourite. Paratha literally means ‘layers of cooked dough’ and this is exactly what it is. A tasty pan fried flat bread made from layers of unleavened wheat dough. While delicious on their own Paratha do come better stuffed; often with a layer of spiced potato in the centre (Aloo Paratha). While popular daylong they are most common found at breakfast served alongside condiments of curry or curd. Locals also known to dip them in tea (I didn’t try).

10. Dum Aloo (Potato Curry)

Dum Aloo is one of the must-have Himalayan foods. A dish perfect for the curry fiends. Originating in Himalayan Kashmir Dum Aloo has spread across the mountains to find every restaurant menu in the region (not so much the tin-roofed shacks). It is honestly one of the best foods I’ve come across. Fried golden brown potatoes, sautéed onions, cooked in a spice-infused tomato gravy.  It is the one reason why veganism seems possible (but very unlikely). If Dum Aloo is not on the menu an alternative Curry Aloo or Aloo Bhaji are next best.

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