WORLDFOOD – Does Nepalese Cuisine Exist?

08 May 2001

This is not as simple a question as it seems, because there are 35 different ethnic groups in Nepal, and at least three large morphological areas: the plain (to the south on the border with India), the hills (with Katmandu and the surrounding valleys) and the mountains, their altitudes ranging from 1000m to Everest’s 8848m. So the Nepalese diet is influenced by these different types of land and crops (you eat what you grow). For example, the diet of the Sherpas in the extreme north-east of Nepal (near Everest) is based on potatoes, and they rarely eat anything except Rhil Doke (soup) and Alu Roti (potato roulades). But if we were to recommend a series of dishes to a traveler in Nepal, there would be no question about it: in Nepal the basic diet consists of daal bhaat takali, a dish of boiled rice, lentil soup (daal) and tarkaari (curried potatoes and cauliflower). The Nepalese mix rice and daal to make a thick purée, which is customarily eaten with the right hand (use of the left hand is frowned on in Nepal, even for giving and taking things, so bear this in mind if you are left-handed); this is in fact the best way to eat daal bhaat, although using the more canonical cutlery instead of the hands. To give you an idea of how important daal is for the Nepalese, if you want to ask someone how they are in the Katmandu valleys, you say “Bhaat khayo” which means “Have you eaten rice today?”.
This very simple dish varies according to the area in which it is prepared and the availability of the ingredients. In the northernmost part of the Kali Gandaki valley, boiled spinach will probably be served instead of the usual curried potatoes. Preparation of tarkaari also varies, as the cook can choose to add ginger, garlic, onions, chili pepper, coriander, cumin, mustard seeds, cardamom, fenugreek, cinnamon and the inevitable masala (a powdered spice mix widely used in the Indian subcontinent) – in the quantities he chooses. Achaar – elongated pickled vegetables (usually rhubarb and ginger, but there are also green mango, tomato and onion achar, etc) marinated with plenty of garlic, chili pepper, salt and pepper – are often served with the daal, rice and curry, and, occasionally, dried fish.
Meat is basically only eaten on special occasions: mutton, buffalo, pork and chicken, usually with curry. Do not be deceived by the rich variety of food on offer in Katmandu and Pokhara’s tourist restaurants: any dishes containing chicken (biryani, tandoori, pulau, tikka, masala etc.) or mutton have been borrowed from Indian cuisine which is much richer than the simple Nepalese traditions.
Bread is never eaten with a meal: if you really must eat something with your rice and soup, you can order chapati, round flat unleavened bread, or nan which are bigger and softer than chapati, and often served spread with butter or cheese.
Before we conclude our brief excursion into Nepalese cuisine, let’s not forget the radically different Tibetan diet. Tibetans living in Nepal are often refugees (or their descendents) who fled from their native country after the Chinese invasion of 1949. They live on the Tibetan border, often as nomads with grazing animals like yak and dzoo, and their meager diet is based on tsampa, a type of barley meal with very high energy value which is mixed with tea and salted yak butter (the writer has been “lucky” enough to taste this horrendous drink and can assure you that it is absolutely disgusting).
On special occasions sukuti are eaten (fried dried meat), Choila (boiled meat served with oil and spices) and momo – large steamed ravioli stuffed with vegetables or mutton. The latter have been borrowed from Nepalese cuisine and can provide a good alternative to daal bhaat.
One last note concerning alcoholic Nepalese drinks.
The most common are chang (made from fermented rice) and rakshi (a spirit made from millet) although there is also a spirit made from apricots, which is called brandy and is apparently very good. The problem is that to find this drink you have to trek up Annapurna, because it is made in the old distillery of Tukuche and only sold in the surrounding area. What better excuse to attempt one of the most beautiful climbs in the world?

Nicola Ferrero is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office

Photo: The Bodnath Stupa at Sunset (http://neelix.ti1.tu-harburg.de/nepal/ktm-bodnath.html)

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