10 things I learnt about Nepali Cuisine
by B Thornton- Harwood
After nearly a month in Nepal I’ve taken down a few notes on the Nepali cuisine. With an understandably big influence from their Indian neighbors Nepali food is largely well spiced curries, mountains of rice, sweet and spicy and sticky chicken, with all the bones left in at sharp angles, poised to scratch the roof of your mouth. For the most part it’s great, so here’s ten things I learnt about Nepalese food in the past 28 days.
Should never be overlooked! In my teenage years I dabbled with breakfast. The milk early in the morning before I had to run for the bus was often too much for my stomach to handle. As I grew up the necessity to have a belly full of food before a commute or prior to a day running around a restaurant was overwhelming.
In Nepal you’re offered wonderful, although quite heavy pastries, often sold from”German bakeries” although I’m dubious of the label. The problem being it’s mighty difficult to find a decent coffee to pair it with.
Curiously the one good cup of coffee I did have was in Bagnas, here we stayed with Dinesh and spent a good hour roasting beans, grinding those beans by hand and then sifting the results to make our own pot of coffee. I think things just taste better when you’ve put your own sweat and elbow grease into producing them.
There are a lot of egg options , or something billed as an English breakfast but oh so far from it, but largely the Nepali people have a Dal Bhat (which were coming to) at around 11 o clock.
Dal bhat is the equivalent of the vegetarian thali at your local curry house. You get a big pile of rice, a potato and cauliflower curry, wilted spinach or cabbage, some pickled or fermented veg of some kind and a lentil soup. You can also get chicken and mutton varieties, but for the real deal veg is the way forward.
The Nepali have one mid morning and one late afternoon. From everyone I spoke to it gave them a good balance of protein and carbs, kept them very full and nice and warm until their second one of the day. Some liked chapatis on the side others liked poppadoms and curd.
That was another great thing about the Dal Bhat, wherever you go it varies slightly. Some with curried spinach, others with picked onion, some with a spicy tomato relish, others served with coriander and garlic heavy potatoes. And the lentil soup added to your rice adds loads of protein to a meat starved meat lovers belly.
Regardless of the content of the dish there was always one trusty invariable. It will always be served on a prison tray…
They’re everywhere, and they’re great. Find a guy with a little cart mounted to his push bike and fresh samosas and pakoras for about 20 cents a piece. Wrapped up in yesterday’s newspaper, or more likely a page from a discarded school exercise book. Again the variation is fantastic, some are blow your head off spicy, while others have the muted flavours of cumin and cloves mingling through soft potato and crunchy garden peas and beans.
Don’t get on a coach journey without a trusty bag of samosas.
Fan favourite is the chapati, flat breads thrown in a HOT dry pan, Pressed down at the edges when in the pan to give it that little steam pocket in the middle, almost like a pitta bread. It’s a staple, and it’s great.
If you take a chipatti and calzone it up with some mashed potato, plenty of coriander, cumin, hot curry powder and a bit of garlic you get Aloo Paratha. Fried in a hot buttered pan they’re the Nepali equivalent of a toasty I guess? They’d be fantastic with some halloumi or buffalo mozerella too, and I fully intend on crafting those when I’m home.
Garung bread or Tibetan bread, I’m pretty sure it’s deep friend and comes out like a donut of sorts, light and fluffy inside, a slight crunch on the outside, perfect sprinkled in sugar or dunked in porridge.
We were also lucky enough to stumble upon a little flour mill whilst wandering somewhere between Tolka and Sinuwa. The hydraulics of the river were used to drive the mill to grind the corn into flour. A desolate hut sat above a stream and the pressies do water was being fired out of the side, small plumes of flour billowing from the cracks I the stone. After investigating the Miller, with his face wrapped in a ratty t shirt gave a demonstration. Seeing such primitive techniques and effort involved to create such a basic ingredient for every day cooking is a sure fire way of letting you know how much you take for granted while wandering around Morrisons.
So things change a bit when you start getting up the mountain. Firstly you’re itinerary for the day revolves around when you eat, largely because when you get hungry it’s difficult to comprehend the massive set of stairs in front of you without imagining the Dal Baht waiting for you at the top.
Also you need to make sure you’re fueling the vessel carrying you and your 17kg bag for the next 12km.
The thing is food starts to get expensive, which you can sort of combat with a cheeky wink and the promise to eat two meals at your guesthouse; they tend to knock the price of your room on the head. A free bed in exchange for paying for two meals isn’t so bad.
All the guest houses along the route to Annapurna Base Camp have largely the same menu, catering to Koreans (and oh boyyyyy is there a lot of Koreans hiking around Nepal in January) European tastes (usually 4 variations of Mac and cheese/ spaghetti and red sauce) and traditional Nepali cuisine.
So try as you might it’s rather difficult to get any variation in your diet. Especially when your stomach thinks your throats been cut, and by the time the food arrives you’ve eaten it so quick you can’t actually recall the taste.
My staple became egg veg fried rice for lunch, and mushroom Mach and cheese for dinner. Although we did find a burrito along the way, but it’s just not the same with no meat…
Oh yeah, it’s difficult to eat meat when you’re on the mountain. Like, “don’t even bother lookin’ cos you ain’t gonna find it here, pal” difficult. Simply meat is a ball ache to transport, and even if you were to get it to the more remote villages they haven’t got fridges to store it in. Even if they did have fridges to store it in, there’s only power six out of every 24 hours. IF you’re lucky.
So I, Ben Thornton Harwood, the guy who wouldn’t cook an alternative for a veggie if I was on Come Dine With Me, was (largely) vegetarian for the better part of the past month.
And here’s the shocker- it was alright.
I really started to notice the variation in veg from town to town, village to village. I enjoyed how they played with the flavours, and appreciated a good bit of spinach or cauliflower or broccoli. Granted I didn’t really have a choice, but when meat was on the menu I still opted for veg, even if the true reason was I didn’t want to fire out of both ends at 4170m above sea level.
But I enjoyed it, I had a few meat cravings which we sorted with a can of tuna thrown in with a Mac and cheese here and there. Also no stomach ache, which is a massive bonus.
Many guest houses we stayed at survived on sustenance farming. The guest house just being a source of extra income to support themselves and make use of their spare rooms. I remember sustenance farming being a buzzword in GCSE geography and I’d never really seen it in action.
The first house we stayed at (Sunlight Lodge, Tolka,) we were shown around the back garden/ allotment/ hillside farm by our Didi for the night. Didi means older sister, but is used as a term of endearment for older ladies in general. Our host for the night is exactly what I wanted from an adoptive Nepali grandmother.
She grew cauliflower, cabbage, spuds, broad beans, and this curious little plant sat mingled within the crops, undisturbed. Although from the amount Didi presented to us at dinner time, it was one of her cash crops…
Black tea is cheap, milk tea is quite literally a cup of hot milk with a tea bag limply floating with a pale hue of brown surrounding it, mint tea is fairly difficult to cock up, and masala tea is the nectar. Sweet and cinnamony, with a touch of cloves, it can come out with a little bit of spice, and is wonderfully milked in texture. It warms you to your bones, then cuddles the marrow inside.
All of the above require LOTS of sugar, even my walking partner/ mission leader Zak, a tea purist at heart was dumping spoonfuls into it. Partly to make sure you’ve got loads of energy for the walk ahead but also because diabetes tastes hella good in a cup of masala tea.
I can’t quite emphasis enough just how integral a role Snickers play in your diet while trudging up a mountain. A tasty and quick way to take on board sugar, fat, carbs and protein, the snack sized are perfect as a one bite boost in the afternoon. Full sized a perfect desert. We got told by a Sherpa to break it up and melt it in our porridge, which is like peanut butter and golden syrup mixed and mashed with oaty goodness.
Then there is the encore, the piece de resistance, the mother of gluttony and lead up to the leg wobbling climax of munchie food. The deep fried Snickers.
Most have tried a deep fried Mars Bar before now, a battered, greasy, sickly mess of a heart attack. Not these. Firstly rolled in sweet crumbs and wrapped in a momo pastry, not unlike a spring roll, then deep fried- the Snickers Roll comes out hot and sometimes smothered in custard, with a deep crunch of pastry and nuts, and a gooey molten caramel and nougat centre.
Bring a spare pair of shorts, and prepare for your dining company to see your vinegar face.
Other than my mums lasagne it’s the food that I’ve missed the most. I’ve become a bit obsessed the past few months with all things pizza, it’s become something i want to cook more and more, and search out wherever possible. I blame a large part of this on my trip to Naples earlier on in 2014.
I was told it’s the global food stuff and I’ve had some duff (see:APPAULING) excuses for pizza in my time throughout Asia, but in Pokhara there is a place called Godfather Pizza and it produces fantastic pizzas in a proper wood burning oven. I actually visited two concurrent nights, after I went for a calzone and then realised that was no test, the basic Margarita with just its six ingredients is the test. And it passed that test with flying colours.
It can’t really compete with some of the cool London pizzerias that I’ve gone out of my way to try the past few months. But that being said it’s all produced by a troupe of Nepalese chefs, who I doubt have crossed the border to India, much less made the pilgrimage to Napoli.