Nepali VeganNew book takes Nepali recipes to the world, and shows that vegan does not have to be boring or bland
Growing up amidst lush paddy fields of Bara district, Babita Shrestha felt the most at home gardening with her grandfather.
Her parents worked in Hong Kong and Kathmandu, so Babita looked after her younger sister, and her life in an age before tv and cell phones revolved around friends and family.
She acted as the sous chef for her grandfather, helping him in the kitchen every day.
At the age of 12, she moved up to Kathmandu from the plains when her mother got pregnant. She took over the kitchen, making chaku bhat and a variety of soups to heal her body. What initially started as a responsibility soon grew into a life-long passion.
Her mother had grown up in Kolkata, and was an accomplished cook, blending the flavours of Nepal and India. In Kathmandu, Babita also learnt from chefs at her father’s restaurant.
She absorbed all the knowledge she could get from everyone she met. “The more variety of food I ate, the more I wanted to learn how to make them and experiment with flavours,” she says.
But at the end of all her culinary explorations, she came back to the basic Nepali comfort food: dal bhat--simple, tasteful, nourishing, and healthy. It is her love for flavours and simplicity that Babita Shrestha brings to her new cookbook, Plant-based Himalaya: Vegan Recipes from Nepal.
The book shows that vegan food is not just about salads, or replacing dairy and meat with more expensive and exotic products. Maintaining a plant-based diet is possible with very little change to the ingredients already used in everyday Nepali food.
Read Also: Recipe for Nepali Culinary Diversity, Sahina Shrestha
For example, the Gajar ko Haluwa recipe replaces ghee and milk with coconut oil and coconut milk, and the carrots and other ingredients are the same. Cauliflower curry that is already a staple in every Nepali household is already a vegan dish if ghee is not used.
Babita became a vegan when she realised that milk and meat in the US were not as fresh as in Nepal and contained hormones and additives. “In an American college, I had an unhealthy diet and was not completely happy with what I was putting in my body. So, I decided to live a vegan lifestyle as much as possible,” she says.
Her plan was to move back to Nepal after graduation. But in 2015 after the earthquake, she decided to stay back before deciding what to do next.
She moved to Kentucky from Minnesota, and could not find a single restaurant that served wholesome Nepali or Indian food. Initially, she thought of opening her own restaurant, but the investment was too high. Even a food truck was too costly, so she opened a pop-up at a local night market serving momo and pakoras.
In 2017, veganism was trending and people started lining up at her counter as word of mouth brought more customers. She also ran cooking classes, all the while maintaining a full-time job.
It was her husband who planted the idea of writing a vegan cookbook when he saw her love for food. She looked at all the recipe books at a local Barnes and Noble and decided that is what she was meant to do, too. But writing and publishing a book meant money and time, and with bills to pay, she shelved the idea.
After completing high school, her parents had sent Babita to Hong Kong to get away from the conflict in Nepal. She spent three years as a domestic helper, first for some relatives and then for another family.
In 2009, she traveled to the US for an undergraduate degree in Film Studies. A year into the program, she discovered maybe making movies was not for her, and she transferred to graphics design, a skill that proved valuable to publish her own cookbook.
Read Also: Flavours from Nepal, Prashanta Khanal
“When I started researching who needs to be involved in producing a book, I found out that writing is only the first step,” says Babita. She needed designers, photographers, food stylists, and editors, but as a graphics person, she decided to do it all herself.
She had come to Nepal after 11 years away, and after the lockdown traveled across the country, developed recipes, and took photos for the book.
“I wanted the book to be an introduction to Nepal so that people who have never visited can also know the country,” Babita explains. “I wanted to share some of my favourite recipes I grew up cooking and eating.”
Divided into eight sections with 38 easy to follow recipes, featuring 250 photos of food, mountains, Nepali culture, and animals, Plant-Based Himalaya reminds people the beauty of home-style Nepali food.
The book starts with an introduction to the geography and biodiversity of Nepal followed by recipes for different kinds of chiya (tea), khana (grain), dal (lentil), tarkari (curry), sag (greens), khaja (snacks), achar (pickles) and mithai (desserts).
The simple, easy to follow recipes along with the photographs of ingredients and quick tips makes the book suitable for not only those interested in vegan recipes but also Nepali food culture.
The more advanced Nepali home cooks may however find that they already know many of the recipes shared in the book.
Thoughtfully designed with mouth-watering food photography, the book is a visual treat even for those who are not interested in cooking.
This book is especially helpful for foreigners looking to explore what Nepalis eat on a daily basis, and for second generation Nepalis living abroad who are looking for an introduction to the taste and culture of Nepal.
“Cooking is about loving yourself and loving those around you,” says Babita. “It is a skill everyone needs to learn and pass down to generations to preserve.”
A vegan diet is based on plants including vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes, fruits and seeds. Vegans do not eat foods that come from animals, including dairy products, honey and eggs. Many also do not consume products like wines and beers that may have been filtered using animal parts, made with animal ingredients or been tested on animals.
A vegan diet may seem overly restrictive or complicated, but Nepalis looking to switch or try it may be surprised at how many local dishes are already vegan, or need only a few ingredients to be replaced. If milk and dairy products are removed from the cooking and garnishing, most Nepali dishes are already vegan to start with.
Mas ko dal (black lentil) can be made vegan if the ghee is omitted. Pakora, samosa, chatpatey, pani puri snacks are also vegan. With some planning for a good balanced diet, anyone can follow a healthy vegan diet.
Sahina Shrestha is a journalist interested in digital storytelling, product management, and audience development and engagement. She covers culture, heritage, and social justice. She has a Masters in Journalism from New York University.