We took a weekend trip to Darjeeling. A work thing. Mixed with tons of sleep. And food.
Well, I mean, look. Just look.
The last Friday night was spent swaying in a train, as we made our way to Darjeeling. At one point, the time when my folks honeymooned there, Darjeeling was quaint, cold and romantic. It is still cold. It is no more quaint. And the romance is stale and fragrant-less.
Now it smells of horse-shit, from the ponies that carry children around the market square. It also smells of smoke from the roasted peanut stalls that dot the viewing decks. A stroll at 6 a.m. in the morning would give you a good glimpse of Kanchenjunga. This is July, so naturally it’d be shrouded in clouds and fog. But a lucky spot can fix that. Families, locals, school children in maroon frocks and pigtails walk by the tourists, like they have for years.
Later in the morning, we had to give sightseeing a miss for work, and a visit to an abandoned hotel (that had burned down in 1978!). The hotel stood in silence, dressed in wet green moss. A history-steeped piece of architecture that the world has forgotten.
After traipsing around an unkempt site – all for the sake of work, I promise – we took lunch at Glenary’s. A fish au gratin, pictured above. Flaked white fish smothered in bechamel and salty, bubbling cheese on top that crusted beautifully at the edges. I could have wrapped the dish back to my hotel room and snuggled with it all night.
Not in a weird way.
Au gratin, of any kind, bothers me a bit. Yes, the caramelized cheese and the creamy bechamel makes any au gratin worth the name. I don’t know if it’s just me, but downing more than five large spoons of bechamel sauce becomes a chore fraught with queasiness. Does that happen to you? Does the creaminess get to you too?
We ordered some roast beef and roast pork sauce to offset all the cheese. The roast beef came in irregularly cut minute-steaks swimming in gravy, which I can only assume was some sort of pan juice mixed with brown sauce. The pork was untrimmed and floated in an insane amount of fatty sauce. Don’t get me wrong, the dishes were far from bad. Fork-soft and just the right amount of spice. They were diluted versions of English meat-n-gravy plates that had gotten lost in a cross-culture marketplace – influenced by European classics and overshadowed by Tibetan cuisine.
We also loaded our laptop bags with boxes of tarte au citron, liquor filled chocolates and Paris Brests. If you’re ever in Glenary’s, try their rum-n-raisin chocolates and pork fat buns. You won’t be disappointed. It was a to short a stay. In less than 48 hours, with the rain dripping non-stop, we took the car back to flat-lands. On our way back, we made a stop at the Kurseong Tourist Lodge.
Sitting precariously on a mountain ledge, the cozy lodge is mostly a wooden structure. In a dark kitchen stands a lone chef at the stove, frying plump chicken momos for the diners. We were seated at a table in a wooden room with high ceilings, and windows looking out over the ledge. While the cook prepped steamed momos and coffee for us, we sat looking out at all the…fog.
No mountainside, no pretty valleys. Just fog. Out of which stood the silhouettes of dark pine trees. It would have been nice to catch a glimpse of the mountainside. We ended up pretending like actors on the sets of GoT. We’re happy with that.
Kurseong and Darjeeling are pretty much perfect for a quick break. You might even consider Darjeeling for a writer’s retreat, because it just is that kind of a place. Chilly, foggy, nestled between the mountains. Colourful locals in colorful shawls, breakfasts at the edges of precipices. We will be going back over and over again. Take the mountains’ word for it.
In the spirit of guzzling meat, I picked up a set of lamb neck fillets a day after I got back.
A good sear, some tomatoes and wine and 2 hours in the oven, led to a melt-in-the-mouth stew. Granted, I don’t have a photograph of the final dish. You’re just gonna have to take my word for it.
Lamb Neck Stew
The quantities are for two lamb neck fillets. You can easily halve or double it.
2 lamb neck fillets (ask your butcher to trim it well)
Oil, to sear
1 tablespoon of salted butter
2 large white onions, chopped
1 large dried bay leaf (if you have fresh bay leaves, then use two instead of one)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 teaspoons of cinnamon powder
2 teaspoons of cumin powder
2 tablespoons of tomato puree (only the thick, concentrated kind)
2 cans of chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup of white wine
2 teaspoons of dried oregano
Salt, sugar and cracked black pepper to taste (I say sugar, because sugar neutralises the acidity of the canned tomatoes)
Pre-heat the oven to 170 deg C.
Dry the lamb neck fillets with paper towels to clear of as much surface moisture as possible.
Heat oil in a shallow pan, on high heat, till the oil starts smoking (don’t let it burn!). Reduce the heat to medium-high and sear the fillets for 45 seconds on each side. If your fillets are round-ish in the beginning like mine were, you may need to hold them in place with tongs to get an even sear on all sides.
In a deep-bottom pan or a braising pot, heat oil and butter till the butter melts. Fry the onions in the oil, on medium-high heat, till translucent and glossy and slightly brown at the edges.
Add the bay leaf and garlic and stir for 30 seconds. This takes the pungency off the garlic.
Lower the heat to medium-low. Add the cinnamon and cumin. Stir to coat the onions and let cook for a minute.
Stir in the tomato puree, tomatoes and wine. Remember to swirl the cans with a bit of water. Add the water to the stew as well. Season with salt, pepper and sugar. Put the lid on and cook the stew for 1.5-2 hours at 170 deg C.
Once the stew has cooked, take it out of the oven and do a quick taste check. Adjust salt, pepper and sugar accordingly. Depending on how dry your oven bakes, sometimes the stew can be a bit wet. This works well if you’re planning to eat it with steamed white rice. If you want the sauce to be thicker, heat the pot, without the lid on the stove-top for 15-20 minutes till some of the liquid evaporates.
Serve with rice or roasted potatoes.