The only true downside of eating everything under the sun is that sometimes even renowned institutions can leave you in a state of tepid dissatisfaction. Heavy blows, if you have not only spent countless nights pondering on what to eat in Darjeeling but also obsessing on menus to figure out what to order and then fantasised about the flavour profiles of individual dishes. My first foray into taking a bite out off the high street of Darjeeling cuisine turned out to be one such misadventure. Debanjan, my co-traveller on this trip who puts up with my questionable dining choices was pretty pleased with Ara by Bellevue when we walked in on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Chic with upholstery that can be described as urban hip, Ara is the newest gastropub to open its doors to the people of Darjeeling.
I started to question our choice after my first spoon of the American Chopsuey we had ordered. The Indianised version at Ara was a scalding hot gravy containing some vegetables and shredded, broiled chicken. It was thickened with cornstarch and marred by too much soy sauce. The gravy is to be poured upon the bed of deep fried crispy noodles and the 5-year old in me found the perfect opportunity to play with food, twirling the noodles to coat them in the tangy gravy. Unfortunately, the fun ended there. The acidity of raw tomatoes was overpowering and the flavour profile was a singular sour note. Heartburn aside, this meal made me reminisce about the very first, and satisfying, meal I had had in Darjeeling three years ago.
Back in 2015, on my first solo trip, I had reached the mall by way of a heart-attack inducing climb from the Chowk Bazar area one afternoon to find myself suddenly arrested by an unseasonal chill and gallons of wispy clouds that hung like a sinister shroud over the crowds. Hungry and longing for familiar comfort and too tired to search for an eatery, I had taken shelter in the nearest Café Coffee Day. Now, before I admonish myself for picking a restaurant chain over a local business in Darjeeling, I put my defence forth: Hunger knows not righteous culinary choices. Distracting myself from watching the damp dance unfurling outside, I had ordered a latte and a chicken sandwich. The latte, though ordinary and run-of-the-mill, did manage to warm up my arteries but to this day, the grilled chicken sandwich— cubed pieces of chicken smothered in spicy mayonnaise and spread generously on two humble slices of bread, then grilled to the perfect degree of smokiness— that came out of a standardised recipe in a corporate kitchen is still the best meat and bread combination* I have ever had. In the shivering cold of a rain-drenched Darjeeling, that sandwich had taught me two things: Never to disrespect any food, even when it’s formulaic, and to appreciate the flavour altitude imparts to simple meals. After countless bowls of Maggi and countless glasses of masala chai in the hills, this remains an undisputed truth.
As twilight looms purple over Darjeeling, I am given a simple task: To buy three chapatis and a non-threatening bowl of sabzi for Debanjan who has decided to stay in his room, at a comfortable proximity to the loo, following the eventful afternoon. Keeping Keventers on my left and making a mental note to orchestrate a breakfast performance there, I veer off towards Glenary’s, one of Darjeeling’s oldest eateries specialising in Continental Cuisine. The last time I had visited Glenary’s, I had a scrumptious Shepherd’s Pie in the family section upstairs and a glass of expertly concocted Bloody Mary. But that was after spending hours in the legendary Joey’s Pub and all I can recall now is the aromatic steam that gushed out as I sank my knife into the crust. This evening, I choose to pub it out and head downstairs to the slightly clubby, slightly loungey drinkers’ den. I settle down at a corner table and order a roast pork with a side of fries to celebrate my affair with food in Darjeeling. Cradling a drink, I indulge in people watching.
My attention, until the pork arrived, is held squarely by the people at the table next to mine. A woman in her early twenties, probably a college graduate, is trying to coax her mother into ordering a glass of whiskey. Her mother, giving out a very middle-class Bengali bhodromohila vibe, is visibly perturbed at her daughter’s insistence. The daughter has almost convinced her mother when my food arrives: Thick slices of pork, both lean and fatty, drizzled generously with an orangey sauce. The spicy and slightly sweet sauce perfectly complements the succulent slices of pork. Most importantly, it is just the right quantity to let the flavours of the meat shine through. I pick up the fries one by one, dip them in the sauce, and put them in my mouth before digging into the pork. The meat and the fried potatoes slathered in the sauce when chewed together brings forth a gamut of flavours, all fortified with a few rounds of rum on the rocks. A good glass of rum, a good winter, and a good dish of pork go handsomely together. I clear my bill and put in a twenty for a bit of good faith and glance sideways to discover that the mother and daughter duo has downed more than a few pegs each. Maybe Darjeeling does instil a sense of nonchalance and fearlessness. Who knows? What’s a bit of liquid courage when your heart is glowing a deeper shade of red?
Chor Bato, as the narrow, offshoot, winding roads characteristic of hill towns are called in Nepali, offer a simple pleasure to those who opt to stray away from the main roads. They allow the traveller to get lost. Egged by the pine-breathing freshness of dawn, I leave the warmth of my hotel room for a stroll. Close to Bhutia Basti, I encounter a cart selling piping hot momos, one of the high points of eating in Darjeeling. I am hungry after my long ramble and Keventers, my chosen breakfast spot for the day, won’t open until 8 am. The momos (8 for INR 50 for chicken and 8 for INR 40 for vegetarian) with their milky white covering of soft and supple dough are stuffed with flavorful minced chicken. As I tug at the pleats with my teeth, the savoury filling of chicken tumbles out on my tongue and the hot soupy meaty juices make me gulp rather abruptly. I slather the next one in the spicy red chilli sauce that accompanies the momos before devouring it. The heat is the antidote to the chill in the air. You don’t really need the sun to make a sunrise memorable, do you?
In Keventers for the “actual” breakfast, I order a Bacon Burger. The key to frying bacon is to not overdo it. Fry it less and it looks threateningly pink. Fry it up a notch in the hope of making it crispy and you have overcooked it to the point of charring it. The strips of bacon in my burger are done just right, the trace saltiness complemented by the sweet and sour mayo-based sauce. If you manage to strike up a conversation with the owner, Mr Rahul Jha, enquire about this treasure that is not on the regular menu: A cheese and cold cuts platter. This gem of a dish with locally produced cheese of the finest quality and locally cured meat is something that is on my agenda for a future visit.
Keventers epitomises the romantic soul of Darjeeling. A guide to eating in Darjeeling is incomplete with a mention of Kevs. My mother, who had visited Darjeeling before my birth, fondly remembers the conversations she had in broken English with an elderly British couple on the terrace of Keventers about the significance of sindoor. Twenty-five years later, sitting in the same spot on my first solo trip, I had thought of her walking the sunlit streets of Darjeeling in a saari. As I had taken a voracious bite out of the famous Keventer’s hotdog, the skies had magically cleared up and offered me a glimpse of the elusive Kanchendzonga. A few minutes later, walked in a childhood friend with whom I had lost touch. What followed was a long and leisurely adda in the dappled sunshine.
Back in 2015, while researching places to eat in Darjeeling, Mohana had suggested me Kunga for lunch and paying due diligence to her, I had sauntered in into the homely Tibetan eatery on a damp and dark afternoon. I remember that I had to share a table with two monks dressed in maroon and orange robes, faces wizened, the skin on their hands wrinkled. I had ordered a plate of momo and thinking what good will a single plate of momos do, also ordered a bowl of Curry Rice: plain rice served with a big bowl of curried beef. When the food arrived, it was a gigantic feast. Momos, each half the size of my palm, ten of them, crammed with juicy, meaty goodness. The bowl of meat jhol, I could practically swim in! The monks had given me a look of displeasure, assuming that like yet another tourist, I would waste a lot of the food and walk away unaware of the hard work that goes into bringing produce to the plate. 45 minutes later, when I had finished off every last morsel and polished my plate clean, the older monk had smiled at me and remarked, “You are a very hungry boy.” Redeemed, that is to date, one of my proudest food memories.
This time, aware of the quantity they offer, Debanjan and I split a Pork Phing, Fried Rice, and Chilli Garlic Chicken. They arrive emanating copious amounts of aromatic steam that intensify our hunger. The Phing, a glass noodle soup, is the showstopper of the day and is the best food find on this trip. Sweet and sour with a characteristic umami, the Phing is a thick, peppery broth containing succulent chunks of pork and leafy greens like bok choy. The jumbo-sized chicken pieces perched on a heap of sautéed chillies, garlic, and (surprisingly!) minced but not pulpy tomatoes were excellent accompaniments to the fried rice.
As I write this piece, I can see a subconscious objective attached to my desire of retracing my food steps and eating at the same places I had eaten at on my last trip. These places— restaurants, bars, food-carts— with their people, views, and stories are not merely place-markers but anchors in my memory that I will return to later in my life, that on looking back will provide me with a sanctuary of happiness and contentment. I wasn’t merely eating at the same places because they were good or familiar (which they indeed were) but I was also re-connecting with a relationship whose seeds I had planted three years ago.
But there are also other places, places that I haven’t eaten at, that I want to try. Penang, once acclaimed as the best restaurant of Darjeeling, tops my wishlist. The family-run Nepali eateries in Chowk Bazaar that still have those little cabins for teenage lovebirds beckon me to partake of an untouristy experience of eating in Darjeeling. On a future visit, I want to visit some of Darjeeling’s Bengali restaurants where the menu is painted by Nepali hands and the ubiquitous Macch bhaat becomes “Moccher Jhol Bhot”. Maybe next time instead of smirking at the name “Hot Stimulating Café,” I’ll drop in for a latte or spend an entire evening at the Mall gorging on phales, shaples, chowmien, and all the other street food that Darjeeling has to offer. But tonight, as the city prepares to sleep and I, unwillingly, prepare to bid goodbye at daybreak, I head back to Joey’s Pub. Between chugging from a bottle of Budweiser and munching on chanachur, I call Revolver, the fantastic hotel I’m staying at, and inquire what’s for dinner. Sailesh Daju informs me that they have some Naga specialities including bowls of pork curry with anishi (dried and smoked yam leaves) and dried bamboo shoots. How do they taste? Well, that is a story for another day!
*Mohana’s most memorable sandwich, or meat and bread combination as I call it, is a simple chicken sandwich that the staff at Bookman’s BnB in Gangtok, Sikkim lovingly made for her at 7 in the morning on her last day there.