Say cheese

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It had almost become my morning ritual. I would walk up the stairs at Daragaon village retreat to see if the Kanchenjunga—the world’s third-highest peak—had dropped its misty cloak. Seeing the clouds intact, I would trundle down past the cow shed with a heavy heart and inevitably meet someone from the house bringing up tea.

I was in Darap, 30 minutes from Pelling in West Sikkim. In the state wedged between Nepal and Bhutan, Darap is one of the centers for rural tourism. Just a week before, friends had boasted seeing Kanchenjunga from their window. Three days in, I was having no such luck. The unseasonal rains had thrown my plans. Talk with my hosts, Shiva and Radha Gurung, revolved around the weather—until breakfast arrived.

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Daragaon village retreat

I still remember the millet pancakes Radha whipped up. There was no honey or maple syrup. Instead, we scooped up some chhurpi, the way one might scoop up yogurt with paratha (stuffed flatbread). This lesser-known cheese is found in Sikkim, Nepal, and other Himalayan regions. As buttermilk heats, it splits into curds. When it’s simmered further, it becomes a mass of solid cheese. The aging process then creates two different kinds of chhurpi. Traditionally made of yak milk, the hard, bite-sized kind is pressed and dried, sometimes over smoke. Commonly found along trekking routes, it’s hard to chew and can last for months. The other kind is soft and crumbly, a staple served with all kinds of meals in Sikkim state.

Radha makes the latter from cow milk, grinding it with homegrown tomatoes and dalle chillies, an extremely spicy variety found in the state. The final product is almost like chili mayonnaise. In fact, it was the kick of the chillies against the sweetness of the pancakes that made it hard for me to resist them. Before, I had never been smitten with pancakes—let alone ones made from millet.

Millet is a favorite local staple. For the evening, there is freshly brewed chhaang or tongba (millet beer) served in bamboo containers with a straw-like tube. Mornings, especially ones after festivals like Dusshera and Diwali, are about dunking zhero (a deep-fried wheat snack) in milk. Both the festivals are celebrated on a large scale in Sikkim, with schools shutting for days. My visit was just after Dusshera, which meant the Gurung kids were at home, happily having zhero. (I tried this too, but preferred the pancakes.)

As far as activities go, this quaint little village offers a bit of everything. There’s birding to do, walks to the Limbooni waterfall, local football matches and through cardamom fields. The ruins of a former capital Rabdentse and a couple of monasteries, including one of the oldest Sangacholing, are close by. But more importantly, there’s that window into Sikkimese food and way of life. Over a month in Sikkim, I tasted many versions of chhurpi. In Yuksam, the base for Dzongri and Goecha la treks, it was more crumbly, like paneer mixed with capsicum. But it is the memory of Radha’s version that I brought home with me.

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Rabdentse ruins

Daragaon village retreat is a homestay in Darap. The Wanderer’s Trail doesn’t believe in paid reviews. Recommendations stem from own experience. 

An edited version of this story was published in Roads and Kingdoms

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