Ever since I have relocated to Sikkim, I have always been curious about food typical to these regions. I have come across many surprisingly delicious finds, but none as surprising as sishnu.
This herbaceous perennial flowering plant of the stinging nettle, also called sishnu in Nepali, grows to a height of about 7 feet and bears tiny bristles all over its stem and leaves. It is these bristles or stingers that give it its name. Scientifically called Urtica dioica, the name is derived from the Latin word 'Uro' meaning burn. Anyone ever stung by this leaf will tell you the name literally suits it. The bristles turn into sharp needles on touch and inject chemicals that cause burning and itching sensations. The plant also produces dense auxiliary inflorescences, which are also edible. Yes, you read it right, young leaves, stalks, and flowers of this seemingly unpalatable plant are actually relished as a local favourite.
Picked during the summer months, bright-colored leaves and stalks are found at the local markets in Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, and even Darjeeling. The local women add some dry flour to the leaves and give them a gentle toss, leaving them in the sun for a while, which puts the bristles to “sleep.” Once cured so, the ladies prepare boiling water and add thinly chop okra (ladies fingers) and garlic and crushed Sichuan pepper to create a finger-licking soup. The texture of it is slimy but makes for an incredibly refreshing and tasty meal along with steamed rice or some cooked millet dough (dhero).
The flowers are a special treat and only found for some weeks before they vanish. The leaves are consumed only during this season, though the plant is available all year round, as the locals suggest that the leaves are at their best in flavour during summers/early rains.
Stinging nettle soup
But why did people think of eating such a plant in the first place you ask? Well, apart from being great on the palate, the stinging nettle is actually a superfood with a lot of health benefits. It contains vitamins and amino acids and is known to act as a blood coagulant, lowers blood pressure, helps in controlling diabetes, promotes lactation in new mothers, cleanses the bowel, helps in respiratory disorders, and had many more uses as traditional medicine.
Some other uses of this plant are making an alcoholic beer out of it and even using the fibres in the matured stalks to weave textiles. This dying art is still practiced by the Lepcha community in Dzongu, North Sikkim.
If you are a gastronomically curious person such as me, I invite you to travel to Sikkim during the summers and do have a rendezvous with the much-loved sishnu.
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