One of my favourite things to explore in a new place is its food and what better place to discover it than the local fresh produce markets. In every culture, the fresh produce markets are the symbols of a place’s social norms, climatic condition, agricultural wealth, and its social history. These markets hold fruits from the land, sea, and rivers and are essential keys to feeling the place through a local’s perspective. What goes into the cooking pot talks about the destination’s uni/multicultural population and every taste and ingredient brings with it a long trail of human history. That is why exploring the Darjeeling local market was one of my favourite activities in the premier hill station and I was much in awe of the variety of interesting local ingredients which were for sale. My fascination with North Bengal cuisine began in Kalimpong where I tasted the fiery ‘daelle’ pickle for the first time. Though I am never going to repeat that again, North Bengal cuisine intrigues me with its heavy dependency on foraged food.
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Explore the action-packed Darjeeling local market
In the Darjeeling local market which is held every day near the Chowrasta, I saw heaps of ferns, dried herbs, lichen, mushrooms, and edible vines, which clearly displayed the remarkable foraging skills of the locals. Though toasted as the “newest trend in the contemporary culinary world”, foraging food is an art as old as time. Our ancestors were all gatherers and hunters and we have lived off that skill for millennia. While some cultures have moved to modernism and lost that life skill, many less advanced communities still incorporate it in their daily lives. This made me explore the foraged produce of North Bengal and by chance, I stumbled upon the rarest of the rare Rajbanshi cuisine.
Traces of Rajbanshi cuisine at the Darjeeling local market
Incidentally, it so happened that most of the wild herb produce I saw at the Darjeeling local market were ingredients for Rajbanshi cuisine and it is a kind of food history which is being lost because not many think of documenting it. This sort of casual unintentional negligence happens due to lack of awareness, overuse and believing that it will always be there. You would not really make it a point to document everything you have seen your grandmother cook, just because nowadays you prefer the faster, quicker (thus readymade) version of it. Unless you are aware of the recipes tangibility, you would just let the recipes slip away with time. The same thing happened to the Rajbanshi cuisine and today hardly anybody applies the original recipes of their unique dishes anymore.
Who are the Rajbanshis and why is their cuisine so rare?
The Rajbanshi community of North Bengal have mixed Mongoloid-Dravidian origin and they were originally settled in the districts of Cooch Bihar and Jalpaiguri of West Bengal, along with lower Assam. This Eastern Himalayas foothill region is blessed with rich diverse fauna and the Rajbanshi people use many wild plants in their food. Their foraging habits have created some endemic recipes and cooking styles and Darjeeling local market still bears traces of their traditional food items. The most important dishes of Rajbanshi cuisine are Fokdoi, Pata Khaoa, Pyalka, Sidol, and Sukati and each of them contain more than one useful parts of the plants. They also prepare a special additive, Chhyaka, which is used in the preparation of many such items.
Foraged food at Darjeeling local market
During my walks in the Darjeeling market, I came across many unique fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. I have not seen them anywhere else and study of a detailed research paper told me that they were all original Rajbanshi forage produce. There was also a big range of dry food on sale and this stemmed from the Rajbanshi habit of preserved fishes. This community had its unique style of preservation and it included washing, cutting, and sun-drying in a step by step manner. The washed, cut, and sun-dried fishes are mixed with the paste of arum leaf base from which round hand-made fish balls are prepared. The Rajbanshis do not mix up salt before sun drying the fishes and neither do they treat them with turmeric or heat. Darjeeling local market abounds with such dried fishes and some restaurants serve the unique fried fish ball or Sidal curry.
Have you tasted these unique vegetables of North Bengal?
Take a look at this photo essay and check out the incredible sights of a Darjeeling local market. Next time you are in North Bengal, do sample one of these unique ingredients.
- Tamarillo or Rukh Tamatar is an egg-sized oblong shiny red fruit. A very popular vegetable item in Darjeeling and Sikkim, tamarillo is consumed by the locals in the form of chutneys, pickles, and added with meat.
- Squash Root or Eskoos Ko Tarul is one of the most common vegetables used in North Bengal. Squash root is actually more delicious than the main vegetable itself and is as a starchy tuber.
- Watercress or Simrayo is one of the most popular foraged foods of this region. It comes in the form of soups, vegetables, stir-fries and is even added to fish based dishes.
- Fern Fiddleheads or Nigro is a local delicacy. The first time I saw these beautifully curled fronds for sale, I bought them as flowers for my homestay hostess. You can imagine her gay laughter at the sight of me presenting her vegetables packed neatly in a bouquet. This is a dish enhancer and is foraged by villagers from the denser parts of the forests.
- Nettle Plant or Sisnu is a multi-purpose forage food. The local people of Darjeeling eat its flowers, seeds, and young shoots. It is a foraged food which needs to be carefully collected owing to the painful itchy stings this plant imparts upon contact with naked skin.
- Bamboo Shoot or Baans ko Taamaa is perhaps the most globally known foraged food from Asia. Though bamboo shoot is now available throughout the year in cans, locals of Darjeeling forage it fresh during the monsoon. Not every bamboo shoot is edible. There is only one variety which is thin, grows above the altitude of 5000 meters and can be consumed.