The following is one of the many backlogs I have . . . “What is Nepali food?” That was one of the most asked questions we got from friends before we left for Kathmandu in August last year. It was a question that I found quite difficult to answer. For one, it was going to be my first trip ever to this exotic destination and that I simply didn’t know at all, for two.
Even as the departure date came closer, I refused to dig down and research as I didn’t want to have any expectations. With Nepal’s geographic location, I simply deduced that it was kind of “similar” to Indian food.
On the eve of our departure, I found myself googling for certain traveler information about Kathmandu and came across interesting entries about Nepali cuisine.
Arriving in Katmandu, my online readings were confirmed by a local travel magazine called Nepal Traveller. And to make it easier for me and you, dear readers, I’ve decided to copy and post the article in its entirety. Although I have not personally tried everything written about in the article, it makes for good reading.
“What is Nepali food?” is not an unusual question for a first-time visitor to Nepal, but, surprisingly, often heard from second or third time visitors as well. For this is a country where more than ninety percent of the people are engaged in agriculture primarily food production, and where food is a focus of nearly every festival, as offerings to elders or gods. In a kingdom bordered by countries famed for their food since ancient times, one would expect Nepal to have developed an excellent characteristic cuisine.
It has, but to be fair, perhaps the question should be rephrased: “What is Nepali?” Try it. Ask a Nepali and you’ll find therein lies the difficulty of defining Nepali food.
For in Nepal there are at least thirty-five different ethnic groups, with distinct languages, dress, customs and, to a degree, cuisine. Admittedly, a daily diet is often determined by ingenuity and environment. In remote areas, there is little choice: you eat what you grow. The Sherpas eat potatoes two or three times a day, plain, boiled by the heaping plateful, in tasty shakpa (stews), as hefty alu roti (pancakes), as dumplings in rhil doke (soup) or just mashed and spiced. Considering that the potato was introduced to these high mountain dwellers just over a century ago, Sherpas and potatoes are now as inseparable as . . . well, rice and curry.
Nepal’s hill and lowland dwellers, particularly of the Kathmandu Valley, subsist on daal bhaat trakaari: bhaat (rice) with daal (thick lentil soup), and tarkaari (vegetable curries). As Nepal’s most widely eaten food, it is closest to being the national dish. A day without daal bhaat is considered incomplete in many Kathmandu households. The common mid-day greeting among Valley neighbours after “Hello, how are you?” is “Bhaat kayo?” or “Have you eaten rice?”
As redundant as daal bhaat may seem to the trekker lunching and suppering on it for weeks on end, there is much variety in its ingredients and ample variation in its preparation. A typical family meal in a middle class Kathmandu home would include tarkaari — autumn season favors beans, green peas, carrots, squashes, etc. – each flavoured with different combinations of ginger, garlic, onions, chilis, cumin, fenugreek, coriander, mustard seed, turmeric and masala, a mixed spice concoction, slightly sweetened with cloves, cinnamon and cardamon.
Daal comes in more than a dozen varieties: black, green, yellow, red and as various small dried beans that are cooked into a thick soup with some of the above seasonings.
Rice, commonly and preferably white (through red and brown are eaten in hill areas), is steamed and served in gargantuan proportions.
Nepalis love spice and make some delicious achaars, relished or pickled vegetables such as tomatoes, peas, radishes or cucumbers seasoned with lots of garlic, chilis, salt and spices. Sometimes ground roasted seeds or dried fish are added. Achaars come salty, sour, sweet or tangy, all big on flavour such that just a spoonful is needed with the meal. Daal bhaat is commonly eaten with the right hand rather than utensils even in the most elite circles.
Meat is eaten widely, and in abundance on special occasions such as Dashain and Tihar festivals. It is usually cut into small pieces and cooked in a curry-flavoured gravy, or fried with chilis. Chicken, buff (water buffalo), pork, mutton (goat) or fish are available fresh in Kathmandu, but are slaughtered on special occasions in hill communities. Because of the Hindu prohibition on killing cows, consumption of beef is strictly illegal.
A variation on daal bhaat tarkaari common among Newars, one of the oldest of Kathmandu inhabitants, is chiura – dried beaten rice served with an array of meat, vegetable curries and achaars.
Outside of Kathmandu Valley where the variety of vegetables and ingredients is much less, diets are simpler. Chapatis, unleavened bread, is common in the Terai, with tarkaari and daal. Above 3000 metres of altitude, corn, millet, buckwheat, barley and wheat take over as staples. The everyday lunch and dinner of many hill villagers is dhindo, a thick mush of boiled ground grains, doctored up with a soupy vegetable sauce of the ubiquitous Nepali saag (spinach), gundruk (dried and fermented vegetable leaves) or sisnu (nettles).
In the far west, hill dwellers subsist on heavy bread made from crude brown wheat or buckwheat. Barley, potatoes, dairy products and a few hardy vegetables fuel the highest Himalayan settlers of Nepal. Yes, and an occasional yak steak. Traders to Tibet cross 6000-metre passes carrying little more than dry tsampa (roasted fine-ground grains) to mix with butter tea, and perhaps some churpi (dried cheese) and meat.
Here’s the first part, highlighting some of the interesting food weâ€™ve indulged in (as well as the venues) while we were in Kathmandu, the Valley of the Gods . . .
HYATT REGENCY KATHMANDU
Through the years, the Hyatt chain of hotels has been known for the quality of their food. In fact, even as I write this piece, the owners of the company I used to work with still employs the services (food, beverage, and staff) of Hyatt for their daily meals.
And as far as I can remember, I have never encountered bad food in all the other Hyatt properties Iâ€™ve stayed in previously. In fact, my best foodie experience in this chain is at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore.
Done in the traditional Newari style of Nepali architecture and set on 37 acres of immaculately landscaped grounds, the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu is spectacular.
Located in Boudha Taragaon, six kilometres from Kathmandu’s city centre and only ten minutes from Tribhuvan International Airport, the Hyatt offers panoramic views of the world-famous Boudhanath Stupa, the most holy of Tibetan Buddhist shrines outside Tibet, and the mountain ranges that surround Kathmandu Valley.
Food at the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu where Michelle and I were billeted for our first three days in Kathmandu was not a disappointment and was in fact something to look forward to after each meal. Like all other hotels that feature international dishes in their restaurants, the Hyatt balances its menu offerings and boasts of local cuisine that is sure to enthrall and tantalize the taste buds. (Above: The Cafe at Hyatt Regency Kathmandu)
Momos. The moment we sank our teeth into these familiar-looking traditional Nepali dumplings, it became an instant favourite. Momos are dumplings made similarly like the dumplings served over dim sum in Chinese restaurants.
The Nepali momos tastes differently though from its Chinese counterpart mainly because of the spices used. They also come available with a choice of filling â€“ either meat (chicken, normally) or vegetables and prepared/served either steamed or fried. The momos are normally served with spicy tomato chutney dip.
Gobhi Kalimirch (Curried Florets of Cauliflower). One of the strongest influences on Nepali menus in hotels and restaurants throughout Kathmandu is Indian due to the two countriesâ€™ proximity to each other (with India located south of Nepal), so donâ€™t be surprised to find Indian sections in restaurant menu cards.
This Indian vegetable dish is made of curried florets of cauliflower stir-fried with spices and pounded black pepper.
Methi Machli Ka Tikka. This dish (below, left) of grilled cubes of freshwater fish was marinated in a tangy tamarind curd, mint, fenugreek, and other spices. Since Nepal is landlocked, chances are most local fish dishes served here are the freshwater variety. Served alongside this dish is an interestingly delicious achaar (below, right), of pickled onions using beetroot vinegar which gives the onion its deep pink colour.
Overall, our dining experience at the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu was extremely satisfactory.