Exploring Nepal’s culinary diversityDulled by dal bhat? There is more to Nepali cuisine than meets the eye.
It is said that food is eaten first with the eyes. But on our two-month food tour across Nepal recently, we felt that food may be first eaten with the ears. Delicious descriptions drew us to dishes even before we saw them.
We heard of many exotic dishes: milk buried underground for six months in Jumla until it fermented into yoghurt, meat marinated for a week before it is eaten in Kalikot, meat belonging to the entire community cooked in a single dish in Gulmi. Cake-like dishes made of rice, millet and other flour that are not known outside the districts they are eaten in.
Tharu escargots, Sewa Bhattarai
We have always been told that Nepalis don't have names that correspond to breakfast, lunch and dinner, but have only meals and snacks (khana and khaja). However, the Tharu have names for five different meals, according to the time of the day they are served in. Communities that migrated most, especially Brahmins and Chhetris, had lost most of their culinary heritage. Yet in Baitadi, we saw that those who had stayed behind retained their original foods.
All of this led us to ask ‘What exactly is Nepal food?’ Is dal bhat tarkari the national dish? Are foods in Nepal original, and is there a commonality between the country’s varied cuisines?
Bhat (steamed rice) cannot solely define Nepali food in a country where indigenous grains like wheat, corn, buckwheat, millet, barley and others are grown abundantly, and roasted and steamed into bread, boiled into porridge, or ground for storage. Any one of these can be taken as a staple food. Beyond that, lentils form an essential part of our diet, though their cooking varies according to geography and ethnicity.
Much more than dal bhat, Anil Chitrakar
Vegetables are eaten Nepalwide, mostly fried, and sometimes boiled. Oil to fry them in, and turmeric for its colour and medicinal property, are essential to Nepali cuisine. Green leafy vegetables saag differentiate the Nepali thali from North Indian ones. Gundruk, sinki, tama, kinema, and other foods made by fermenting leaves, bamboo shoots, or beans are common across Nepali kitchens. So are dairy products like milk, yoghurt and buttermilk, and it is a tradition to flavour rice with a bit of ghiu.
As for meat, there is no uniformity. Some like pork and others buffalo, both forbidden by other communities. Nepali cuisine is lacking when it comes to dessert, and many communities do not even have the tradition of eating sweets.
Nepal’s most exotic dishes are not found in restaurants but eaten only at home. While this preserves their taste, it also limits the dish to a small family group.
Read also: Could Nepali cuisine go global, Thomas Heaton
In this age of easily available packaged food, we are losing slow-cooked foods that once used to enhance the taste, smell and nutritional value of foods. Not just our recipes and cooking techniques, but our entire agriculture system has fallen prey to commercial agriculture, and many indigenous foods are not grown any more.
After our culinary journey across Nepal, our conclusion is that there is no standard ‘Nepali food’. It is our duty to define, and refine, our ethnic dishes and preserve their originality. We need to get these dishes to restaurant tables around the world by cooking, eating and propagating them ourselves. Nepali food deserves to go worldwide.
Tharus who live in the plains make use of all the ingredients around them, including aquatic animals like fish, snails, clams, shrimp and crabs. You name it and Tharus make a delicious dish out of it. They are also famous for eating healthy, with their staple grains and vegetables steamed or boiled.
It used to be that Tharu food was only available during the Maghi festival at Tundikhel. But Tharu restaurants in Kathmandu now provide the food all the year round. Barghar Restaurant in Kirtipur provides all the traditional Tharu delights, even crabs and clams.
Though Thakalis live in Mustang where rice does not grow, Thakali restaurants have become synonymous with the typical Nepali dal bhat tarkari. That might be because they were historically traders and were exposed to foreign foods. The Thakali thali use Himalayan spices like jimbu and timur. They have also retained many indigenous dishes like kanchemba (pictured, left), fries made of buckwheat, which grows abundantly in Mustang. Thakali food needs to be branded and standardised so that it doesn't lose its originality, and the production of local ingredients can be promoted.
Thakali food has come to mean tasty dal-bhat-tarkari, and spic and span Thakali restaurants can be found all over Nepal, and even abroad.
Sherpa cuisine is derived from Tibetan, and is designed for the cold harsh climate of the high mountains. Rigikur, a potato and buckwheat bread, is rich in butter and eaten with cheese sauce. Shyakpa, or meat soup, is consumed piping hot any time of the day. And su chiya, a unique salt and milk tea, is also had with dollops of butter. Tasmpa, a popular breakfast, is made by grinding grains like buckwheat, millet, wheat, or a combination of them, and is had with milk and honey.
Though Sherpa food is rarely found in most mainstream restaurants of Kathmandu, they are common in the Bouddha area. Newly opened Sherpa Cafe in Jhamsikhel caters to customers in Patan.
Newa cuisine is rich and varied. Samye-baji is the standard mid-day snack and also a festive delight, where beaten rice is eaten with many vegetables and condiments. Spicy potato salad, bara (lentil flatbread), beans, soybeans and marinated buffalo meat are popular accompaniments.
Almost every little alley in Kathmandu contains a Newari restaurant, serving samye-baji, bara, chatamari (rice bread), and other dishes. The choices range from low-end corner shops to high end outlets like Dwarika's Hotel in Battisputali.
Pork meat is a staple of the Rai and Limbu communities in eastern Nepal. Sargemba (pictured), or blood sausage, is made by stuffing blood and seasonings into pig intestines, and then cut and fried before it is eaten. The pork curry Yangben-Fakso (left) is also unique, flavoured with a lichen called yangben, soaked in warm water and mixed with pork blood. It goes well with chamre (fried rice) and kinema (fermented beans).
Rai/Limbu cuisine is rarely found in Kathmandu, except for a couple of restaurants in Nakhipot and Baluwatar. Raithane Resturant in Lalitpur promotes Nepali dishes and local ingredients, and includes a couple of these dishes in its menu.