Darjeeling is a popular holiday destination, coveted by domestic and international tourists alike. Known for its picturesque tea fields; sporadic views of Khangchendzonga, the world’s 3rd highest mountain; and original toy steam train, this quaint village is certainly one for the bucket list.
While Ben and I certainly came to Darjeeling for a change of scenery and the world-renowned sites, they’re not what blew us away. It was the food. A crazy cocktail of Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Nepalese and European influences, the food was both thrilling and delectable. From the melt-in-the-mouth pastries dished out in dingy back streets to the high tea sessions in luxury lounges, the ultimate gastronomic adventure awaits food lovers in Darjeeling. If you’re up for the challenge, here’s how to tackle this town, one bite at a time…
Like many Western ladies, I struggle with the idea of a solid, savoury breakfast. My body craves a sweet kick or lean ‘n’ clean proteins. But I couldn’t come to India and not give the local brekky cuisine a try.
Aanchal’s Big Bite was the restaurant I chose for my morning of experimentation. Recommended by Lonely Planet, it offers both local and Western fare. After showing my Google print screens to the friendly waiter, he was able to match my Indian food porn to the menu and kick the kitchen into action.
My hubby and I feasted on Idli, Masala Dosa and Uttapam. The Idli was like biting into soft, white, fluffy pillows of goodness. While they were quite flavourless on their own, smothered in curry they really hit the spot. They’re also partially fermented to aid digestion. The Masala Dosa and Uttapam were even tastier, enhanced beautifully by a side of coconut chutney and tiffin sambar (a light, spicy stew).
While our tastebuds were initially confused by the whack of spice so early in the morning, they quickly fell in love with the flavours. Plus, our bodies felt like they had energy to take on the day. Suddenly, Indian breakfasts made a whole lot of sense.
Chowk Bazaar was, hands down, our favourite part of Darjeeling. We felt like kids in a candy store…so many crazy shapes, pretty colours and tantalising smells. Our mouths wouldn’t stop watering. We could’ve spent days exploring that little pocket of the world, bite by bite.
Sometimes, there are things worth getting sick and softer around the edges for – the street food of Chowk Bazaar is it. I’m not saying you’re guaranteed to get food poisoning; We came out the other side feeling fine and dandy. Just keep your eyes on the finished product, not the kitchens, and dive into the unknown.
So, what should you try? As much as possible. Everything you can’t access back home.Anything you wouldn’t normally touch. You are guaranteed to discover a new favourite food. We did, ten times over.
Based on the recommendation of a lovely local, Ben and I tucked into these edible soup bowl thingies called Gol Gappa. At first, they weirded me out because the liquid was cold. But then the spice kicked in along with the moreish crunch of the puri. They were bite-sized bowls of heaven.
Of course, you can’t go past the homemade samosas, pakoras, and dry snacks (spiced nuts, lentils and pulses etc.). You’ll undoubtedly groan “Oh my God!” with every mouthful. But, if you happen to encounter something unpalatable, chuck it and don’t stress. The food is so cheap, it won’t burn a hole in your travel wallet.
When it comes to travel, the most fulfilling moments are enjoyed off the beaten track. Thanks to the help of our savvy guide from Samsara Tours, Travels & Treks, we were able to experience one of Darjeeling’s best kept dining secrets. Chok Restaurant is difficult to find on Google, let alone by foot. Quietly nestled in an alleyway…off a backstreet…around the corner from the main thoroughfare…it’s reputation is all the advertising it needs.
Chok Restaurant is a cauldron of momo magic. I’m talking the best, most delectable momos in town. As you chow down on Darjeeling’s favourite dish, prepare to be hypnotised by the kitchen theatre. The cooks knead, stuff, fold and pinch doughs like pros.
It’s not the Ritz but it certainly whisks you away to a land of luxury. The Elgin Hotel is renowned for its high tea, an experience which mainly satisfies due to the glorious environment in which it’s served. The regal interior, perfectly manicured flower beds, fluffy bear-dogs, stunning views and sun-kissed courtyard feel completely removed from the hustle and bustle of the streets. While the high tea itself leaves a lot to be desired, the experience offers a unique perspective of Darjeeling for a fair price.
As the sun sets on another day, it’s time to head to the Town Square. Hundreds of tourists and locals descend on this hot spot, eager to meet up with loved ones or get amongst the community. People-watchers and ravenous monkeys line the rim while roving vendors and action-seekers take centre stage. If you trace your way around the perimeter of the square, you’ll eventually stumble across the start line of your street food adventure.
As you enter the alleyway, you’ll encounter a local lass who makes a mean chow mein (among other things). Served in a dried leaf bowl, the portion leaves you feeling positively stuffed for a measly $2USD. If a light nighttime snack is more your style, hit up one of the many stalls which sell Kachori, Samosas and Pakoras. Served with a drizzle of chilli sauce, they’re perfect for those who want to grab ‘n’ explore.
In my mind, there are two great options here. The first involves visiting a traditional Indian sweet shop during the day and stashing the goods away for later. My favourite was a blink-n-miss-it store called Unique Sweets & Snacks. My eyes grew to the size of saucers when they saw the display cabinets. Everything looked so luscious, beautiful and exotic. I could hardly believe it when my box of goodies came to $3USD. My favourite sweet was the yellow wheel thingy, called Jalebi. I actually swore when I first bit into this piece of pure decadence. It instantly became one of new favourite foods.
If you’d like somewhere to chill while you enjoy a nightcap, Glenary’s Bakery & Cafe is your best bet (it stays open until around 8pm). While this tourist hub seems to attract all of the Westerners in town, it’s also a local icon…and I can understand why. The pastries, chocolates, cakes and baked goods are all beautifully made and, for many of the tourists, the menu is reminiscent of home. It’s also the best place in town to grab a coffee ‘n’ cake, ensconce yourself in a whicker chair, soak up the classy vibe, and tuck into a good book. But, at the end of the day, the Indian sweet shops offer tastier treats at a better price.
Of course, this epic feast should be washed down with copious amounts of tea; it’s Darjeeling after all! Chai tea, green tea, black tea, white tea…there’s something tickle anyone’s tea fancy. Of course, no trip to Darjeeling is complete until you’ve visited theHappy Valley Tea Estate, where you can pluck leaves with the locals, explore the tea factory and sample the final product before it’s shipped off to Harrods.