We (HBI*) must be among the rare bongs** who had never visited Darjeeling before we crossed our thirties. Frankly, everytime we spoke of visiting Darjeeling, we were discouraged by jaded fellow bongs saying ‘too crowded, too dirty, too commercialized, and so on’. However, by now we had learnt that, to us, commercialised = fun place with some hopes of night life whereas romantic = beautiful but dull place with nothing to do; which is why our faces lit up when they said all that. From the time we set foot in NJP, we knew we weren’t wrong. The drives were replete with pretty scenes of alternating picturesque hill villages, tea valleys and mossy woods.
This is a place where colonial charm rubs shoulders with Buddhist serenity – the strong British hangover seen in stonewalled academic institutions, the magnificent chapels and heritage buildings converted into cushy resorts on one hand, and an equally pronounced Tibetan influence in the ornate monastries, colourful prayer flags and fragrance of Tibetan incense interspersing the hills, on the other.
We absolutely loved the way we lived, walked and drove through the clouds. Every morning, we would wake up to the sight of white mist blowing into the room by a gentle draft of air. We stayed at a hotel bang on the Mall, in a wooden suite, refurbished from the British era, with remnants of nostalgia such as an old covered type woodfire place still intact.
The fireplace in the suite
The food was reminiscent of the colonial, Tibetan and Nepali influence – the sheer range of food that was on offer made us wonder at every meal what we would be having on the next. Needless to say, we were eating at much more frequent intervals than we do back home. Here is a short trailer of options if someone had to spent 24 hours eating in this city –
We managed to grab a bite of the succulent peppery cocktail sausages and cold coffee shake at the legendary Keventer’s – breakfast at breakfast time always involves queuing up at this place, luckily for us they serve breakfast all day. The other legend, Glenary’s, was a joy everytime we visited it – the ginormous roast pork sub sandwich tasted as good as it looked. Also we made it a point to not miss the eggs, bacon and sausages, and the husband has a thing for baked beans and he got a big bowl full of it.
Smoked pork sandwich at Glenary’s
Eggs, bacon and sausages (Glenary’s)
The spread at Keventer’s
Another delicious option for a more local Tibetan style breakfast is to head to this small almost hole in the wall joint called Kalden for their Kaudi soup and Thukpa – run by a cute couple, this place has authentic local fare and is almost always thronged with locals. Their kaudi in beef broth that has chunks of handmade pasta (shaped like gnocci) dumped in a rich flavourful dark broth with slivers of beef, veggies and greens, is to simply die for. Just head there in time before they run out of kaudi, and if they do, you can order for the other local pasta delicacy, the Thenthuk.
Beef Kaudi soup
Other breakfast options – puri with piping hot aloo sabzi, pakoras (fritters)
Our favorite pick for lunch was the Shangs – another family run place that proudly served an awesome homecooked Nepali thali. Our favorite order was of course the pork thali, not on the menu but very much there and rocking. The thali comprises Nepali veggie delicacies (which change everyday), a bowl of daal and a curry of your choice.The thali was so simple and sumptious that we kept going back to Shangs for more. Also not to be missed were their momos and their homemade chutneys – the chilly garlic chutney and the chilly coriander chutney. You could also ask for something spicier and they will happily serve you a jar of the fiery-hot Dalle chilly paste on the side.
Nepali thali at Shang’s
Pork curry (Shang’s)
Our bestest lunch on the trip, however, was undoubtedly at my friend Kaajal’s place in Kalimpong. She and her mom had cooked up a storm of Nepali dishes for us and we could not be any less grateful for the warmth and hospitality. On the table that day were fresh bamboo shoot stir-fried with mustard seeds (in a manner we bongs do a chenchki), kinema (a sabzi made with semi-fermented soy beans), kalo daal (daal with the simple yet rich flavours of ghee), mutton with mustard greens (she had used mutton with skin and the layer of fat underneath worked wonders for the dish). (Am guessing Kaajal would be putting up the recipes soon on www.kaajalkooks.com). All this was served with the local rice, an aromatic sticky variety – I wanted to take some back home but aunty pointed out we wouldn’t get the real deal in retail stores.
Nepali Cucumber achar with sesame seeds
Chhurpi (fresh yak cheese) sabzi
Mutton with mustard greens
The lovely dry fruit dessert prepared by Kaajal’s lovely mom
Replete with its numerous tea bars, Darj is the best place to even think of the afternoon tea. The cha bars found abundantly in and around the town serve varieties of high quality tea that one can sip and taste at leisure before deciding on which ones to buy. We spent one such leisurely afternoon at the Nathmulls shop on Chowrasta, I settled for a white tea while bro had a herbal tea – served delicately in elegant wine glasses with an order of scrumptious homemade cookies on the side.
Most places in Darj do not allow entry beyond 9:30pm – we tried getting into the next door Shangri-la every single day, either we were too late, or ‘all seats were reserved’, so after several tries, we gave up and settled for Glenarys every time. With their wide choice of options, it did not pinch us to be visiting the same place repeatedly. While everthing we ordered at Glenarys was par excellence, I have to mention the roast pork and mashed potatoes (we asked them to replace the fries with the mash) – the mash was runny and buttery and yumm, just like old times. The pork had enough soft fat to melt in your mouth and compliment the mash. Sorry if I’m being biased to the mash but I could live in a room of that mash.
Roast pork with mash, Chicken and veggies with rice
Their chilly pork and beef chilly had succulent rashers of red meat doused in soy sauce and stir fried with green chillies and bell peppers. We were getting increasingly aware of how little they had changed their age-old recipes, we were literally dining in nostalgia with an ambience to match. To make it more memorable, I ordered their Shepherd’s pie, out of plain curiosity to see how they made it in the yesteryears. And there it was just as I had imagined it to be – sitting perfectly pretty in a pie dish with a thick layer of baked cheese crust hiding underneath a creamy layer of buttery mashed potatoes and minced meat.
The Shepherd’s pie and chilly pork (excuse the bad picture for lack of light!)
To sum it all up, here are some key takeaways from the trip which might be useful:
1. Hills have a lot to offer in its various seasons, so if accessible, hills should be visited repeatedly across seasons. We came in monsoons to we got the cloudy mushy weather, and relatively less tourists perhaps – which we might find alongwith the beautiful Kanchenjunga view in the ‘right season’, which locals say is March and October.
2. Compared to other hill towns we visited, Darj has a better nightlife in the sense, it has streets abuzz with people till about midnight. Although restaurants start closing entries by 9:30pm, so if you’re planning dinner and are deferring it due to laziness, you may have to settle for the worst chowmein ever (that we had at a certain Lama hotel).
3. Compared to other tourist places, Darj is also super cheap and a great place to shop. The mall market is by far the best value for money, whereas the curio shops are a treat to marvel around in; the curio shop adjoining the CCD on Chowrasta is one we found relatively reasonably priced. I couldn’t believe myself when I picked up a local really warm woollen shawl from the mall market for just 300 bucks, without needing to bargain. Other suggested buys include colourful warm leggings (for about 250 bucks), the nepali kukri (ranging from INR 1200 – 2500), colourful Tibetan wooden masks (starting at about 250 bucks), woollen/ faux leather berets that the boys did not want to part with (at 100 bucks each), antique jewellery and artifacts from curio shops, and of course, a large variety of tea that you won’t find back home. I also wish we could pick up the veggies, they all looked so fresh, and we totally drooled on the variety of fresh greens on offer. We did manage to bring back some fiddlehead ferns however.
4. Pork momos are surprisingly (and sadly) hard to find in the region, although its a household popular. I however heard that Penang restaurant on HD Lama road is famous for their pork momos, that, and Joey’s pub at the end of that lane are places we wanted to visit but could not find time, and have reserved for our next trip there.
*Husband, brother and I
**I’ve realised I can use slang names for my own race*** and still not be termed racist 😉 Aankaalchaared, maybe though. ***Until now I really thought Indian was my race (since I grew up in so many parts of the country). When that changed, I don’t know.