If we are talking about the food of Sikkim, we cannot leave out the lesser-known fruits and vegetables here. One of them is the Slipper Gourd (called chuche karela in Nepali). The plant bearing the vegetable is a seasonal creeper that springs up during late rains and continues producing fruit till early winters.
Traditionally, it is known to be native to the Andes region and has been cultivated since olden times. The plant has soft tender vines that can grow up to a few meters in height and has tendrils that help it climb. The leaves are 5 lobed joined at the base, and the tender leaves and shoots are consumed as greens. The fruit shape is closest to an oval with a curved-up tip. The fruit starts off as lime green in color when very young and keeps getting lighter in shade as it grows. The inside resembles a very young pointed gourd with spongy flesh and multiple white seeds. The taste of the fruit is almost like a cucumber, or in other words, almost tasteless. The matured fruit takes on an almost a yellow color, with the spongy interior shrinking and the seeds turning black. The completely matured fruit is hollow and forms black dry seeds that can be heard when the fruit is shaken.
The fruit is consumed as a vegetable, stir-fried with onions and potatoes or cooked with chicken, which is said to be a delicacy. But the most scrumptious parts are the matured seeds themselves that are roasted and ground into a fine powder along with salt and a few spices. It lends a lovely toasted nutty-flavoured taste and is best eaten with hot rice and clarified butter (ghee). It mimics podis (powder made with dry roasted pulses/ legumes/ rice with spices) loved throughout South India. This is, however, one of those vegetables that you will very rarely see in restaurant menus but will always find it inside local homes. A homestay experience in Sikkim would be best to get a taste of it.
You can see chuche karelas abundantly in the market during the right season and even find quite a few houses with these creepers around the fences or in the backyards. Not much is known as to how they crept into the mainstream cuisine of Nepalis in Sikkim and Nepal, but it is not easily found in the rest of India, or at least I never came across it anywhere else. Do ask for this vegetable if you are in Sikkim or Nepal during Autumn-Winter and let us know about your experience eating it.
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