The first thing I do when I visit a foreign city is go to a grocery store. Nine times out of ten, I don’t even buy anything; it is reflexive. I delight in weaving through the aisles and seeing what foods are similar and what foods are different, peeking into carts and seeing what people of a different culture consider staples, what foods I may grow to love. The second thing I do is find a good place to eat. Typically, not knowing anyone in the area, this entails looking on the Time Out [insert city name here] website or scouring through online restaurant reviews for the most promising cheap option. Lately, however, I have found that the best way to find good local food is to ask a local, any local. We all have to be good at something, and I am exceptionally good at wandering aimlessly through grocery stores and finding the best restaurants of a particular place. When I leave, I like to type up my own guide of where to eat. Later, I can rely on it for personal use and send it to friends who are visiting the same city and have full faith in my ability to pick may way through all the crap and find the food establishments truly worth visiting.
Unfortunately for the Chirag interns, we grew tired of the food provided in the dimly lit kitchen on campus in a matter of days and had little idea of how to eat elsewhere. There are no supermarkets in the Himalayan region of India, no Time Out Kumaoni Region. So we talked to locals, but, above all, we wandered. Though I still have a month left at Chirag, here is my guide to where to eat if you ever happen to find yourself around the Chirag campus (which is, granted, highly unlikely), places I will go back to if I am lucky enough to return to this amazing region. Here it is.
Located in Orakhand, the nearest village, this shop is well stocked with local produce and India’s most beloved snacks. I will miss Masala Magic Lays and Parle-G biscuits (I swear there is crack in these) when I return to the States and am stuck eating boring old Sour Cream and Onion and Chips Ahoy (an intern from Delhi hilariously referred to huge, overly sweet American cookies as “muffins”). If you want prepared food, you can wait about a million years for an egg sandwich or Maggi, the Top Ramen of India that shop-keepers magically transform into a delicious dish using some combination of vegetables, oil, and spices. I think I speak for every Chirag intern when I say I will miss Deepu and will forever have a soft spot in my heart for his perfect little shop.
The director of Chirag describes this store, located forty-five minutes from Chirag in Sitla, as “the village Wal-Mart.” This is an apt description, which helps explain why I greatly prefer Deepu’s charming shop to this relatively large store full of a variety of imported products. The only reason I included Kapil’s on this list is because it is the perfect place to buy ingredients to cook some comfort food. Last week, the French and American interns took over the Chirag kitchen in a revolt against over-spiced lentils and mushy rice and made mac ‘n’ cheese (and, not to boast, but one of the interns from Delhi eagerly asked for the recipe for the sauce—only to have me respond, “Uh, mix milk and butter and cheese.”). Kapil’s is a long hike away and overpriced, but it is really the only place in the area to get specialty food items.
The Omelet Place, Sitla
I don’t actually know the name of this place because we lovingly refer to it as “The Omelette Place.” The two-egg omelets with chili and onion on top of toasted, butter buns and served with ketchup are worth the hike up to Sitla. I cannot pinpoint what exactly it is that makes them so delicious, but his place came highly recommended to us from a Chirag employee. He took us for the first time and immediately after we finished our first omelets, he said what we were all thinking: “Shall I order another round?”
Early in our internship, we had to register with the police in Nainital. We took a two-hour bus ride to the commercialized lake-side city that Delhi tourists flock to in the summer. We asked the fatherly police chief where to eat, and he told us to head to the Tibetan market and brave the crowds at Sonam. The momos (or dumplings) we would get there, he assured us, were worth it. They were. Veg or non-veg, steamed or fried, served with ridiculously spicy chili sauce, and dirt cheap, the momos were so good I went back to Nainital just to get them again. style=”text-align:left;”>
Any sweet shop, Almora
Almora is a pretty small, pretty lackluster city a short car ride from Chirag. There is one very good reason to visit, however: bal mithai. The soft, chocolaty rectangles coated in white sugar balls are to die for. Some shops are more famous than others, but I bought 250 grams of the stuff from a random store and was very impressed. Nestled in adorable boxes, these make a perfect gift for villagers or fellow interns and employees. But they are good enough that you will want to buy a box just for yourself as well.
The orchards, all over the place
One of the biggest perks of working in or visiting the foothills of the Himalayas at this time of year is the fruit. Everywhere you look, plums, peaches, pears, apples, and apricots are being picked from trees and put in boxes for shipment to nearby markets. There is perfectly good fruit on the ground (you need only to wash it), and, if a villager catches you eying one of their trees longingly, they will offer you more fruit than you can carry. A French intern once reached out to pick a peach from a tree on the road just as the owner approached. The French girl blushed in embarrassment, but the woman just smiled, bounded down the hill, and returned with a dozen of the ripest peaches for her to take home.
I saved the best for last. A cup of chai from the lovable Mohan-da is guaranteed to brighten your day. His tea is both the cheapest and the best in the region, and, if you get to know the right people, he will even make you a delicious lunch. I love coffee shops, and I love bars. And somehow, this place feels like both. It is open early, and, in the evening, villagers and Chirag interns and employees fill every seat. Monah da is currently in the process of expanding his tiny shop and seems to be preparing his teenage son to take things over (last week he made me a chai that may have been even better than his father’s). Years from now, I will smile when I think back to all the times I laughed and chatted in a mix of English, French, and Hindi with my friends at Mohan-da’s, This roadside shack made of wooden logs and roofed with scrap metal is my single favorite place in India. Good food and good company—what more could you want?