Beauty and the beer: the landscape and local brew of Sikkim

Sikkim, up in the northeast of India, is a mountainous paradise of subtropical forests and high alpine woods, home also to Mount Kanchenjunga (located on the border with Nepal), the third highest peak in the world.

After our green mango chana masala snack at the Peshoke view point on the way to Darjeeling, Dad and I spent a few days at the divine Glenburn Tea Estate (much more about this gem of a place to come). We then headed further up the winding roads of the Himalayan foothills to Yangsum Heritage Farm in Rinchenpong, West Sikkim. Delhi friends had recommended the farm to us as one of their favourite, most beautiful places in India.

Run by Thendup Tashi and his family, Yangsum is an organic farm located in forests of bamboo, pine, Himalayan alder, chestnut, magnolia, cherry and rhododendron, to name a few. They grow everything from cardamom to avocados, including oranges, bananas, pears, apricots, and mangoes. Cultivated agriculture yields maize, paddy, millet, potatoes, ginger, turmeric, sweet potatoes and more. The original farmhouse, which the family still lives in, was built in the 1830s, while accommodation is in charming, newer wooden chalets or a cosy cottage.

Cottage and chalets

Accommodation at Yangsum is in a lovely old cottage with elevated viewing deck or in newer wood-panelled chalets.

Farmhouse

This stone and wood farmhouse has the dining hall below and spacious, wood-panelled sleeping quarters above.

Dining hall

The dining hall with its intricately carved, heavy wood furniture and plush cushions is a peaceful place to eat meals.

Yangsum photo wall

A wall in the old farmhouse, which was built in the 1830s, with pictures of the Tashi family through the generations.

Old photo at Taj Mahal

Thendup Tashi’s father, in traditional Sikkimese garb, sits on a bench in front of the Taj Mahal in an old photo.

Yangsum view

The view from Yangsum. We were there in monsoon season, but in clear weather it would surely be breathtaking.

Yangsum wild strawberries

Beautiful flowers poke out of the grass and from the undergrowth, which often includes wild strawberries.

Nibbling goat

Livestock, including these sweet goats nibbling on freshly gathered grass and herbs, are raised at the farm.

Cat not liking the rain

The family cat pokes her head out the front door to see if the rain had stopped. Nope, it hadn’t.

Being monsoon season, it rained for most of the three days we were in Sikkim. I wasn’t bothered, as anything was a relief from the brutal heat of Delhi, but Dad was a bit disgruntled: “It’s like being back in Wales,” he muttered on the second day, “except for the leeches!”

Leeches, although harmless, are quite revolting, and they were out in droves in Sikkim. We plucked many a cool, wriggling body from between our toes and sucking onto ankles and the backs of our knees. Happily, there are more appealing animals about, too, like goats, cows, pigs, birds, and even black bears, red pandas, snow leopards, and clouded leopards (although probably none left in the wild).

One of the many things they make at the farm (I’ll write more about the Sikkimese dishes cooked up in the lovely old kitchen in my next post) is chang beer, a traditional drink made from cooked and fermented homegrown millet. Thendup kindly brought out his top-of-the-range tipple – chang he had made for his sister’s wedding – for me to sample. It’s a strange taste, a bit like beer mixed with wholegrain mustard and a shot of vodka, but surprisingly easy to drink. It’s traditionally served in giant bamboo cups and drunk through fat straws. The fermented millet is put inside the cup, which is topped up with boiling water. Once you have drunk all the liquid, more hot water is added. It can go on for hours.

Pots and pans

Rows of pots, pans and serving dishes line the walls and shelves of the cutlery room in the kitchen at the farm.

Chang beer

Thendup brought out his finest brew of chang for me to sample, served traditionally in giant bamboo cups with straws.

Here’s a video of Thendup describing how to make chang from cooked millet in his farmhouse kitchen:

 

 

Postcard from Darjeeling: classic chana masala with a twist

Victoria Queen of Cuisine green mango chana masala

A sal-leaf plate of green mango chana masala overlooking the confluence of the Teesta and Rangeet Rivers.

My father and I are now travelling through the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal and Sikkim in the north-east of India. Our first stop was Darjeeling, so we had a long train ride from Delhi to New Jalpaiguri, followed by a three-hour car journey on winding roads through the sal and teak-covered hills. On the drive, we stopped at a viewpoint, and I struck up a conversation with a young man at one of the stalls making that classic Indian street snack – chana masala (chick peas in spices). But compared to the masala-heavy Punjabi style that I am used to in Delhi, or the coconut-laden South Indian version I have tried on my travels, his rendition had a fun, local twist: green mangoes cut into small pieces and added raw to the mix.

Hemant the stall cook put together a small portion for me to try, served up on a plate made from sal leaves. As he had assured me, the green mango was a wonderful addition. The steamed chick peas had a lovely nuttiness not overpowered by the masala, the tomatoes were full of fresh flavour, the raw onions gave a nice kick, and the mango added a sharp, refreshing hit.

small unripe mangoes

Small, unripe, locally grown mangoes are what gives this version of chana masala its delicious sour kick.

green mango chunks

chopping onions stall

Hemant the stall chef expertly cuts the green mango and onion into small, neat chunks with a giant chopper.

steamed chick peas Darjeeling

Hemant steams his chick peas in a large pot on a gas stove. The cardboard box protects the flame from any wind.

Hemant also serves potato masala topped with chopped raw onion and crunched up fried noodles, plus gorgeously fresh cucumber slices sprinkled with masala spices. His stall is at the Peshoke view point (also known as Lover’s Meet View Point), which overlooks the confluence of the Rivers Teesta and Rangeet on the Ghoom-Kalimpong road. A perfect stop for a tasty snack and a grand vista.

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Victoria Queen of Cuisine potato masala Darjeeling

Potato masala view point

Hemant also serves potato chunks turned red from masala spices and chilli powder, topped with crunchy noodles.

Peshoke view point

Hemant’s stall at Peshoke viewpoint, also known as Lover’s Meet, offers great views of the surrounding green hills.

Not your average dhaba: simple stall offers roadside feast

I’m just back to Delhi after a two-week road trip through Madhya Pradesh (MP) state, the wild heart of India. Because of the weather – reaching a baking 43 degrees Celsius – and my travel companion, Liza, who rides a scooter, not a motorcycle, in her hometown of London, we decided to go by air-conditioned car. But I did miss Queen Victoria, especially on the quiet, curving country roads of eastern MP. It was on my ride from India Bike Week in Goa back to Delhi last year, when I rode Queen Victoria through the western side of MP, that I first fell in love with this part of India: a vast zone of heat and dust where the soul expands to the far horizons.

This latest trip confirmed everything I already felt, and more: from the exquisite beauty of the Buddhist site of Sanchi dating from 243BC, to the erotic carvings at Khajuraho, and the 10,000-year-old cave paintings at Bhimbetka, to the giant naked Jain statues carved into the cliff faces at Gwalior, never mind seeing tigers in the wild at Kanha, it was treasure after treasure, wonder after wonder.

It was near one of our favourite sites – the impressive Bir Singh Palace (circa 1620), one of few Indian buildings that the architect of British New Delhi, Edwin Lutyens, admitted to admiring – that we had an exceptionally good meal in MP. A few kilometres north of Datia, on the road to Gwalior, there exists one of the finest examples of a dhaba (a roadside restaurant) that I have ever eaten at. Dhabas are by nature simple, but the staff here made an extra effort to rise above the remote location and tiny income (our bill for four dishes, chapatis and soft drinks came to about Ru250 – US$4/ GBP2.50) to cook with care, present dishes with flair, and serve with presence.

Madhya Pradesh dhaba

The dhaba, on the Gwalior road just north of Datia in Madhya Pradesh, central India, is simple but neat and clean.

Indian waiter at dhaba

Our friendly waiter served us with a flourish, taking care to check the temperature of our soft drinks was to our liking.

Madhya Pradesh dhaba interior

Liza and our driver, Mr Singh, wait for lunch to be served while sheltering from the 40-degree heat in the relative cool.

Indian dhaba, Datia, Madhya Pradesh

A small television rests among tubs of sweets, bottles of water and containers of oil below a Ganesh calendar.

As with most dhabas, only vegetarian dishes were available, and we ordered what was fresh that day: salad, dal, eggplant masala, and tomato masala, plus chapatis freshly baked in the tandoor oven. The tomato masala was the stand-out: the tomato chunks were still nicely firm, it was light on the harmoniously balanced spices, and it was topped with a sprinkling of fresh coriander, giving it a lift. The eggplant masala was also enjoyable, although I’ve been spoiled in Delhi by the Punjabi style of cooking eggplant, in a dish called baingan bharta, which exaggerates the wonderful smokey flavours of the brinjal. This dish did not quite compare, but was still deliciously aromatic and silky.

tomato-masala-cooking

The chef expertly cooks up tomatoes grown in Madhya Pradesh’s rich soils along with subtle masala spices.

Chapati chef at dhaba

chapati chef with tandoor oven

chapati chef with tandoor oven

The chapati chef pats the dough to the correct thickness, puts it on a pad and quickly puts his hand into the tandoor, sticking the dough to the wall of the oven. When it is cooked, he removes the chapati with a long, hooked metal rod.

We finished our meal with a papaya bought earlier at a village market. MP has rich soil and is one of the country’s major agricultural regions; fresh fruit and vegetables here are usually excellent as they don’t have to travel far on India’s sometimes-faulty cold chains.

Good, fresh food, beautiful landscapes, a succession of jaw-dropping man-made monuments, and tigers – Madhya Pradesh is not a bad patch of planet earth.

Indian salad at dhaba

Our attractively presented salad of cucumber, tomato, onions, coriander, lime juice and dark purple-red carrot sticks.

Liza samples the finest dish: tomato masala, attractively presented and sprinkled with coriander.

Liza samples the finest dish: tomato masala, with its harmonious blend of spices and sprinkling of fresh coriander.

Dal brinjal masala

Eggplant masala, dal, roti

Our Indian salad, eggplant masala, dal and chapatis, plus the tomato masala and soft drinks, came to about Ru250.

Classic US brand Indian Motorcycle opens first showroom

Beloved American brand Indian Motorcycle has opened its first showroom in India, located in Gurgaon, near Delhi, in a large building across the road from the Harley-Davidson dealership. I was invited to the opening party on Wednesday night and was impressed: stylishly rugged wooden floors, floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto the street, and plenty of space for the bikes and racks of accessories.

I was less impressed with the girls gyrating among the machines in between acts of the live band: the ladies were clearly selected more for their hot pants than their dance moves. But the man-heavy crowd was happy, and the bar served an acceptable range of beverages while waiters swooped around with tasty nibbles on trays, so I was happy.

Bennett Morgan, COO of Polaris, the US-based parent company, opened the shop along with Pankaj Dubey of Polaris India, and Sandeep Bansil, who owns the dealership. I’ve interviewed Mr Dubey before, for an article for the BBC, which is yet to go online – I’ll put a link up when it does. Mr Dubey has big hopes for sales in India, and, while the top of the three models is priced at around US$53,000 in India, making it an exceptionally expensive two-wheeler, India’s luxury motorcycle market is booming. Harley-Davidson is reporting double digit growth in sales every year since it opened its first showroom in 2010. As of the end of 2013, there are 4,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles on India’s roads. At the party, I was told that three Indian Motorcycle bikes have so far been sold – which is not bad considering the price and India’s potholes.

My name’s on the list for any test rides that might be coming up; I’d love to see how these big, heavy, low-sitting cruisers handle dense traffic and a bumpy surface. But either way, they sure are beautiful.

Indian Motorcycles launch Gurgaon

(L to R) Sandeep Bansil, who owns the dealership, Bennett Morgan, COO of Polaris, and Pankaj Dubey of Polaris India

Indian Motorcycles launch Gurgaon

Mr Dubey with a suitably coy smile in his role as pillion rider, while Mr Morgan revs up at the lead.

Welsh road warrior to conquer globe solo on motorbike

Steph Jeavons, a biker from my homeland of North Wales, recently set off on a solo round-the-world journey on the back of her Honda CRF 250L. She set off from Ace Cafe, London, on March 23, and is now is heading out from Belgrade. She aims to circumnavigate the globe, visiting at least 42 countries on six continents, within two years, avoiding all motorways and main roads and living mainly in her two-man tent, carrying everything she needs with her on her bike.

Steph Jeavons solo world motorbike trip

Steph Jeavons of Colwyn Bay in North Wales, UK, is riding her 250cc Honda solo through 42 countries.

Steph might just become the first Brit to include all seven continents on her solo circumnavigation, if she makes it to Antarctica. She says this has only ever been achieved by four other people in the world, as far as she is aware. Steph’s budget for the entire trip is tiny, allowing herself just £5 a day for food.

“I’ll have to be creative in all aspects of this journey to make the money stretch,” says Steph. “I’m relying on the kindness of strangers to give me the odd night in a comfy bed with a warm shower, and a nice meal if I’m lucky.”

She expects to reach Asia around the middle of May, starting with Iran, going through Pakistan, and reaching the Indian border around the middle of June. She’ll then go through Nepal, Thailand, and Laos, then through East Timor, catching a boat to Australia in December.

Steph Jeavons solo motorbike ride Morocco

Steph Jeavons solo motorbike ride Morocco

Steph on an earlier trip through Morocco. She is now in Serbia, heading east, likely to reach Iran by mid-May.

She says she’s been offered so much help on the India section of the trip that she is not sure where she will end up.

“I was originally nervous of riding in India on my own due to my lack of knowledge of the place and fear of the traffic. However, I’m now very exited to get there, although I know it will be during the hottest time of the year,” says Steph. “I may take a ride out in to the Himalayas with a Sikh friend of mine who lives a lot of the time out there or I may do a small loop that has been put together by a tour company based in Gurgaon.”

But she does have reservations: “Despite having a lot of support in India, I’ll still have to deal with quite chaotic roads and I’m going to have to learn quickly to ensure  and my bike and I make it through safely. I believe I will draw a lot of attention, too, and the crowds do worry me slightly. However, I’m sure that my nerves will be short lived, and, as with any country, you soon settle in and start really enjoying the place. I know India has a lot to offer and I’m very much looking forward to seeing it for myself.”

Iran and Pakistan have their own issues for female travellers.

“I’ll have to ensure that when I take my helmet off, I keep my hair covered. This will be interesting! I’ll also have a military escort through part of Pakistan which will require me to move whenever they do and stop as often as they need to. I’m not looking forward to this bit; I hope the rest of Pakistan will make up for it as I believe it to be a beautiful country.”

Road quality should not be too much of an issue for her as her motorcycle is capable of on- and off-road action, and it’s light enough for her to be able to manoeuver it out of any tight situations. “I’m very much looking forward to the dirt tracks,” she says.

Bon voyage and good luck, Steph! Track her adventures on her blog, One Steph Beyond.

Steph Jeavons solo world motorcycle trip

Steph’s 250cc Honda CRF 250L is built for on- and off-road action, although she will be weighed down by her gear.

A taste of old Hong Kong: typhoon shelter crab

It was one of those beautiful moments when people who don’t speak the same language  somehow make themselves understood. I had jumped into the taxi already late for dinner only to realise I didn’t have the address of the restaurant I was going to, nor had any of my friends’ telephone numbers in my new phone. The driver could barely speak English, and I had forgotten my very limited Cantonese. But the restaurant, called Under Bridge Spicy Crab in English, is quite famous, and I had a vague idea of the location as I had eaten there before, about six years ago, so I had hope.

“Causeway Bay, Wan Chai … in the middle,” I told him, with hand gestures. “Restaurant, khanna … oh, hold on, that’s Hindi … yum cha … typhoon shelter crab … under a bridge. Bridge, bridge, you know bridge?”

He shook his head and looked confused. I had run out of ideas. Then he excitedly lifted his arms and swung them back and forth in giant pincer motions.

“Yes, crab, crab,” I said, happily mimicking him. We both laughed. He kept chuckling and making pincer motions all the way to the restaurant.

It was the perfect start to an evening I had been looking forward to for months. Before I left Hong Kong three years ago to move to Delhi, every few weeks or so seven other food writers and I would meet for lunch or dinner – either at someone’s home if they felt like cooking or out at a restaurant. These events invariably involved spectacular food plus excessive sampling of fine liquors, often soju supplied by a certain Korean among us, who thereby nicely fit the stereotype of her nation being big drinkers.

For my Hong Kong return visit, Reggie (also a former editor of the South China Morning Post’s  Good Eating magazine) suggested going to Under Bridge Spicy Crab not for the alcohol (the wine list is basic so we brought our own) but because its speciality is typhoon shelter crab – a taste of old Hong Kong. It’s made of crabs cracked into pieces and cooked in a hot wok with garlic, chilli, black beans and scallion (spring onion). The dish originated when boat-dwelling fishermen would cook the crabs they had not managed to sell that day on their sampans as they docked in the typhoon shelters overnight.

“I can remember sailing up to the junks after a day out with my dad on his boat, and climbing onboard for a dinner of typhoon shelter crab,” says Steph, as we discussed the food about to come.

“Yes, I also remember that,” says Reggie. “Caught that day, cooked up in minutes right in front of you on the boat, for just a few dollars to the fisherman and his wife – what a great old Hong Kong experience. Unfortunately, you can only find this dish in restaurants now.”

Under Bridge Spicy Crab had its beginnings as a dai pai dong (street-side restaurant) almost 25 years ago, but as the government clamped down on street stalls, the owners moved the operation indoors. Now there are four branches in Hong Kong and plans for expansion.

The crabs are bought from local markets each dawn, meaning it’s almost as fresh as in the old days, and the recipe has remained virtually unchanged over the decades. Diners can specify how spicy they like their crab to be – we went for mild and medium, and I thought the latter was ideal as it had a soft burn while not overpowering the rich, creamy flavour of the crab, the fresh notes of the spring onion, and the perfume of the garlic. The crab was cooked to perfection – succulent and melting in the mouth.

Along with some other other seafood dishes, noodles, rice and some vegetables, it was a great meal. The only thing missing was dessert, there being only fresh watermelon slices on the menu. It was very affordable, coming to HK$250 each including corkage for the wines we brought.

Under Bridge Spicy Crab | G/F-3/F, Ascot Mansion, 421-425 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong | Tel: (852) 2893 1289 / 2834 6818

Typhoon Shelter Crab at Under Bridge Spicy Crab, Hong Kong

Reggie (right) discusses the menu with the waiter while Garry focuses on more important things – drinking wine.

Typhoon Shelter Crab at Under Bridge Spicy Crab, Hong Kong

The crab arrives in all its glory. It’s been cooked briefly in a very hot wok with chilli, scallions, onion and black bean.

Typhoon Shelter Crab, Hong Kong

The crab takes some effort to eat. The shell, especially the tough claws, needs to be snapped with a nut cracker.

Typhoon Shelter Crab, Hong Kong

We paired the crab with a robust Chilean pinot noir, chosen specifically by Reggie to complement spicy food.

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Another classic Cantonese dish – prawns in salted egg yolk. The prawns were nicely bouncy and the flavours rich.

Typhoon Shelter Crab, Hong Kong

To balance the seafood, we ordered stir-fried vegetables (celery and mushroom) and some refreshing pea shoots.

Typhoon Shelter Crab, Hong Kong

From left: Garry, Reggie, Nan-Hie, Steph, yours truly, and Elle. Two of the usual crew unfortunately could not join us.

Typhoon Shelter Crab, Hong Kong

The restaurant has large tables for sharing and attracts a varied crowd, from families to hungry late-night drinkers.

Typhon Shelter Crab, Hong Kong

The restaurant exterior features cute glowing crabs – who needs the English name with those big pincers on display.

Chai gallery: Tea with Raju and a vintage Lambretta

Yesterday I joined my friend Bobbee Singh, who owns customising outfit Old Delhi Motorcycles, for a cup of chai with Raju, who runs his own mechanic workshop in Khanna Market, South Delhi. I have taken Queen Victoria for work at Raju’s many times, but had not realised how knowledgeable he is about old scooters. Bobbee is restoring a 1959 Lambretta, and found a few engine issues, which Raju is now sorting out. So we enjoyed a cup of tea while I checked out the progress on this lovely old machine. Can’t wait to see the finished product!

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