For my husband and I, the year is one long countdown to that magical moment, some time between October and December, when we leave Kolkata for Kalimpong, our home in the hills. From the glass panes in front of the house on a gentle hillside, we can see the entire snow-clad Kanchenjunga range. Towering above the other peaks is the majestic “Five Treasures of the Great Snows”—the name by which Kanchenjunga is revered by the original inhabitants of this region, the Lepchas.
We crave this month-long break: the lazy golden hours sitting out in the garden, the long walks on which we regain our “hill legs”, evenings in soft lamp-lit indoors looking out into inky darkness to the faraway lights of town, the incredible meals produced by Dolma, our feisty Sherpa housekeeper, using the lightest of touches to transform local ingredients into gourmet dishes. The pleasures of being far from the madding crowd are immense. But twice a week, we break our peaceful routine for the excitement of the biweekly market or haat.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, Kalimpong’s sleepy main street is choked with crowds and cars, many bearing number plates from distant Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan. People gather to buy the seasonal produce and meats brought down from the tiny basti (village) farms, along with the area’s numerous artisanal products—cheese, pickles, butter, noodles. Everything is fresh and most things are organic.
Our first haat is always a bit of an event. Dolma accompanies us so that she can stock the larder with all the greens, grains, and foodstuff that we’ve missed for a whole year. That inaugural haat marks the first “chhaang and momo” night of our stay. It’s a deliciously long evening that begins with Dolma ceremoniously placing the thumba, or bamboo container, filled with warm, ambrosial millet beer in front of us, followed by a round of pork-stuffed steamed dumplings, the wrappers so thin you can actually glimpse the moist mince inside. Through the course of the evening, she will keep topping up the chhaang and replenishing the momos till we reach a state of impossibly sweet satiation. It’s essential to stock up on supplies for this, especially since it’s our tradition to order this meal not just for ourselves but for Dolma’s entire family. By the end of the evening, over a hundred momos will have been eaten and several litres of chhaang drunk.
Haat mornings have a unique rhythm. There is no dawdling over early-morning coffee, no luxury of a long breakfast, no wasting time in the garden with the dogs. Dolma is transformed into a Marine sergeant, hurrying us through breakfast and baths. She wants to have her pick of the best items and be back soon to prepare the evening feast. She is dressed for a morning in town: bright lungi, neatly-pressed shirt, and a dash of red lipstick. She sets the pace at a brisk trot, and has only the briefest of greetings to spare for the many who hail her. Once in town, we begin running into local residents—old friends en route to the haat themselves, who we are meeting for the first time this trip. But Dolma stands with such ill-concealed impatience that we cut short our exchanges with promises to drop in soon.
As we step off the main road to take the broad flights of steps down to the marketplace, we join the throng and are swallowed into a vortex of colours and sounds. Even after 20 years, Dolma has no faith in my judgement in buying fresh produce and hovers protectively, afraid that I’ll be cheated. On this first haat of our holiday, we’re more than content to let her make the choices while we simply take in all those fascinating items that are spilling out of baskets, spread out on woven mats, plumping out of leaf packets.
There are big bunches of watercress freshly picked at daybreak from stream shallows, ready to be served with lunchtime soup. Nettles still studded with tiny white blossoms will be transformed by Dolma into a warming nutritious broth in the evenings. Dried greens of various vegetables will be added to stews to provide depth and leafy goodness. Posies of ningro, the local fiddle-headed fern, will be combined with cottage cheese and slivered garlic to make a divine stir-fry. The pale white bi, resembling miniature eggplants, have a taste that’s all their own. The pretty lavender-hued edible orchid nakema is the main ingredient for a crunchy, bitter-toned side dish. We buy a generous amount of this local soft cheese with its distinctive sharp odour and strong taste, for it will be enjoyed in a variety of ways: crumbled in salad, mixed with herbs from the garden and spread on toast, or used as the base for ema dashi (Bhutanese cheese-and-red-chilli stew). The fire-engine red dollo khorsa niare small, round chillies whose fragrant heat is essential for hill-cooking. Hessian sacks bulging with various kinds of mushroom have travelled down that morning from the mistclad mountainsides of Lava and Alagarah. We make our purchases from Kanchi didi, a dignified old lady wearing the traditional Nepali half-sari and shirt.
Nearby, the pungent scent emanating from piles of mysterious leaf packages trussed up with string make their contents apparent: kinema, or fermented bean paste. While Dolma makes her selection of this miso-like sludge, the sassy young woman who runs the stall gives us a helping of delicious fampi to snack on. These gelatinous squares covered in a splatter of hot red sauce are made with the liquid residue left over from the preparation of phing, or glass noodles.
Then there’s chhurpi to be bought from the wizened old lady from Lava. We buy a generous amount of this local soft cheese with its distinctive sharp odour and strong taste, for it will be enjoyed in a variety of ways: crumbled in salad, mixed with herbs from the garden and spread on toast, or used as the base for ema dashi (Bhutanese cheese-and-red-chilli stew).
Broad counters display buttercup-yellow pyramids of freshly-churned butter ready to be scooped on to weighing scales, before being packed in a leaf. On raised platforms, there are mounds of different types of flour sold by women sitting in a gossiping group. We head straight for the red-tinged buckwheat flour—phapar ki pitho—so that we can indulge in a favourite breakfast treat of buckwheat crêpes stuffed with herb-seasoned chhurpi.
Despite Dolma’s grumbles, it is slow progress because pleasantries need to be exchanged with the vendors and questions answered on the state of our health, when we arrived, and how long we plan to stay. But eventually, she’s bought the pork for the momos that night, and also for the rest of the week when she’ll be using this excellent meat of home-reared pigs for stir fries with squash tendrils, roasts flavoured with sage, rosemary and thyme growing in the garden, and hot, spicy curries. We see her to a taxi, heaving in the shopping bags that are now bursting at the seams. As we wave goodbye, we can hear her imperious instructions to the driver to hurry: “Chheeto! Chheeto!”, a completely unnecessary command since the default pace of the hill drivers would give Schumacher an inferiority complex.
With the serious business of stocking up the larder done, we return to the haat for a slow mooch around. But first, it’s time to fuel up. We head for the centre, where a slight, young woman is deftly shaping and filling momos before putting them into a gigantic moktu, or steamer, balanced on a makeshift stove. This is Meena, the momo lady of the Kalimpong haat and our special friend. The moment she sees us, her beautiful features light up with a smile and, ignoring our protests, she seats us on the wooden bench, puts a large leaf in our palms and piles a fresh batch of steaming vegetable dumplings on to them. We’ve just jumped a hungry queue but incredibly, no one seems to mind. Instead, there is undisguised interest in our conversation—conducted in a mix of Hindi and Nepali—and much laughter when Meena, eyeing me critically, pronounces that I have put on weight. Despite this verdict, she is satisfied only when we’ve polished off some 20 momos between us. We take our leave, promising to be back for the Wednesday haat. On that day, we know from experience that once we’ve had our momos, Meena’s husband will press on us a gift from their tiny homestead near the Sikkim border: a sweet-fleshed Halloween-orange pumpkin or a basket of brown eggs carefully cushioned in leaves.
We move on for a quick recce of the garments line—a row that would give Mumbai’s Fashion Street serious competition. The clothes are mostly smuggled in from Bangladesh and China and of dodgy provenance but there’s everything from fleece jackets to wispy shrugs, and bargaining fetches you phenomenal deals. On the other side, a shrewd old Tibetan lady wearing the traditional bakku is perched on the broad counter in the middle of her wares—an array of fascinating items including wooden votive bowls, bamboo thumbas, and delicate wooden straws, and tablets of yeast with fern imprints. We buy some dried chhurpi from her (our mutt in Kolkata loves to chew on them) and her wide toothless grin tells us that like every time, she’s overcharged us to her satisfaction. She’s helped by her chic granddaughter in skinny jeans and tee, who would be equally at home on the ramp as she is in this busy marketplace. On the ground beside their stall, a wild-looking Tibetan youth has laid out old coins, semi-precious stones, and a marvellous range of knives and cleavers. We walk off quickly, before we give in to temptation. Climbing out of the haat square, we stop off at Lark’s to collect a fresh roundel of Kalimpong cheese that would have been delivered in the morning by one of the many small producers in the area.
Our last stop before we leave town to start the uphill walk home is Himalayan Stores. We peek in for newspapers and a quick chat with the owner, to update ourselves on the latest political and cultural happenings in the area.
It’s been a wonderfully satisfying morning but as we leave the busy little town behind and enter the coolness of the tree-shaded road, we can’t wait to reach the steep stone stairs that serve as a shortcut to the peace of the garden, the cool quietness of home. We gaze at the snows of Kanchenjunga, savouring the knowledge that we are still at the beginning of our visit, and that the golden days in the hills we’ve longed for all year, stretch out before us.
Appeared in the December 2012 issue as “Haat And Food For The Soul”.
Kalimpong is a hill station in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, at an elevation of around 4,000 ft. Kalimpong is 50 km east of Darjeeling, the nearest city, 72 km south of Gangtok and 630 km north of Kolkata.
Kalimpong has mild, pleasant summers (Mar-May) with maximum temperatures of around 25°C. There is heavy rainfall between Jun-Sep. Winters (Dec-Feb) are rather cold but invigorating, with sub-zero minimums.
Air The nearest airport is at Bagdogra, around 76 km/3hours away, which has direct flights from Delhi and Kolkata.
Rail Siliguri (66 km away) and New Jalpaiguri (77 km away) are the closest major railheads and are well connected to Delhi and Kolkata. Both are part of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway circuit with trains to Darjeeling every morning. Buses to Kalimpong are available from Darjeeling, Siliguri and Gangtok.
Orchid Retreat is a family-run establishment with cottages and home-cooked local food (03552-274517; www.theorchidretreat.com; doubles from ₹3,000).
Himalayan Hotel has airy rooms with fireplaces, and lush lawns and courtyards (03552-255248; www.himalayanhotel.biz; doubles from ₹3,400).
Elgin Silver Oaks is a colonial home from the 1930s that was converted to a hotel around 20 years ago (03552-255296; www.elginhotels.com; doubles ₹8,400, inclusive of meals).
Arundhati Ray is a Kolkata-based food writer and researcher.
Dhritiman Mukherjee is as elusive as the animals he photographs. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic Traveller, The New York Times, Lonely Planet, WWF, UNESCO, Birdlife. He is a RBS Earth Hero award winner for inspiring people for conservation.