A taste of Nepal's Rana Past

When a cookbook makes a reader drool, and just turning the pages gets the digestive juices going in anticipation, it means the content is a culinary masterpiece.

Those conditions are fulfilled in Rohini Rana’s mouth-wateringly illustrated book Rana Cookbook: Recipes from the Palaces of Nepal being launched on Friday in Kathmandu after being delayed for a year due to the pandemic. This lavishly illustrated collection of recipes from the House of the Ranas has been worth waiting for.

RANA DISH: Spending an afternoon with Rohini Rana in her kitchen as she prepares one of her favourite dishes from her new cookbook, is like going back in a time machine to the royal kitchens of Baber Mahal to rediscover preparations of her ancestors.

Nepal’s Rana dynasty ruled for over 104 years, and is best known for ornate wedding cake palaces. These vast stucco structures were influenced by neo-classical architecture of England and France that prime ministers Jang Bahadur Rana and Chandra Shumsher Rana were impressed by during their visits to Europe in different centuries.

The Rana era generally gets a bad press in Nepal because the rulers were replaced by the Shahs after 1950s, and most of their achievements were air brushed by later historians. Ranas were known for their luxurious lifestyle, sometimes bordering on decadence.

They were epicures, and the wining and dining was of epic proportions. Rana cuisine was a distinctive fusion of Mughlai dishes blended with Nepali preparations and ingredients. Some of the recipes were actually brought to Nepal by the khansama chefs brought in from Lucknow by Jung Bahadur Rana after the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Even though they were Muslim, they collaborated with the Hindu cooks in the Rana palaces to come up with a unique blend that can be called ‘Rana cuisine’.

Rohini Rana was the daughter of Rajamata Anant Kumari of Awagarh, one the princely states of India’s Uttar Pradesh. It was a tradition in those days for Indian and Nepali nobility to intermarry, and she wed Gaurav SJB Rana, the great-grandson of Chandra  Shumsher Rana, and who was Nepal Army chief from 2012-2015.

“Growing up as the youngest sibling in one of the most beautiful hill stations in northern India I had an idyllic childhood. I was loved and, I admit, slightly pampered,” recalls Rana, who is better known by her nickname, Dolly. “Summers in Nainital were endless lunches and dinners with tables piled high with food.”

Family members were such foodies that they spent one meal planning and discussing the next one. In Kathmandu, Dolly had to get used to life in a palace, and it was the common interest in food preparations that helped her blend right in.

Gen Gaurav Rana is the seventh generation of his clan serving in the Nepal Army, and  Dolly accompanied her husband on various UN peacekeeping and diplomatic postings abroad as well as to remote regions of Nepal.

It was when Gen Rana was posted to the Nepal Army base in Suparitar in Makwanpur in the 1990s that Dolly started working on her cookbook. She prepared many of the dishes herself from the training she got from her husbands’ nanny, Chiniya Champa, whose father also worked in Baber Mahal palace.

Rana cuisine retains much of its Nepali heritage as a substrate on which are added the Mughal-inspired embellishments. So there is the basic दाल, भात, तरकारी cooked with uniquely Nepali spices like जिम्बु, टिमुर, and तामा  that distinguish the Nepali staple from north Indian food. While north Indian cuisine is noted for its rich and thick gravy, Nepali food comes with lighter झोल, भुटन, कवाफ.

Back in Kathmandu, Dolly started collecting and documenting recipes from Rana palaces, and found that each clan had a slightly different variant of the basic preparations. Dolly believes that the culinary heritage of her ancestors is just as important to preserve as its monuments and historical landmarks.

“The cuisine is part of our cultural heritage, and it is in danger of disappearing with the passing of generations,” says Rana. “this book took me three decades to prepare, three years to give it its final touches. It is a labour of love.”

Indeed, that shows in the meticulously described recipes listed conveniently and delightfully under carnivorous-sounding chapters: Bandel, Khasi, Chara, Macha, Haans, Jangali Janawar, Jangali Chara, although it may now be illegal in Nepal to hunt some of these wild beings. There are also chapters on Daal, Bhuja, Tarkari, Roti, Khane Kura, Achar, and to hit the sweet spot, Guliyo. The book has a handy and neatly ordered list of recipes at the end to make it easier to find what you want.

The book is tasted and tested in Nepal, pages designed with exquisite food photography by Mannsi Agrawal, only the printing was done in India. Ex-king Gyanendra Shah, who was himself partly raised in a Rana household, writes in the preface: ‘I have to confess that I have learned quite a few things I didn’t know before I read this book. What’s more, I’m certain that I still don’t know all.’

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