Nepal is well-known throughout the globe for many things, primarily, its natural beauty, its ancient heritage, and its mighty Himalayan peaks. The first is evident especially when on a trek; the second is to be found in every nook and corner of a city like Kathmandu, as well as in many heritage hotels in Nepal (such as Hotel Shanker), while the third is something that you’ll be delighted to see even as you fly into Kathmandu. These are but a few of Nepal’s many attractions, among which is also Nepali cuisine.
It is said that the prosperity of any particular region in any country can be judged by the quality of its cuisine, that is, the better off the region; the more evolved its cuisine. Well, that holds true for Nepal as well. And, thus, you’ll find greater variety of dishes in a place like the Kathmandu Valley, of which Newars are the original inhabitants. So, one hears a lot about Newar cuisine when talking about Nepal’s food culture. That is not to say that other regions do not have as good cuisine, it is just that Newar food has more variety.
At the same time, it must be said that Nepal, although a small country, has close to a hundred different ethnicities, and great ecological diversity ranging from the lowlands (Terai) at below 100 meters above sea level to the highest point on earth, that is, Mount Everest at 8,048 meters. So, it is natural that there should also be many different types of food culture in different parts of the country. At the same time, it should also be known that no matter which region you go to, the staple meal of most Nepalis is ‘daal, bhaat, tarkari’ (lentil soup, steamed rice, and vegetable curry), a phrase that becomes pretty familiar very soon with most tourists coming to Nepal.
If you want to have a sampling of this nutritious and wholesome meal, all you have to do is to ask whatever hotel in Nepal you’re staying in to serve it to you. Most restaurants will be glad to provide you with this, and, in fact, quite a few restaurants with a tourist clientele specialize in providing typical Nepali cuisine. At such places, what you get when ordering ‘daal, bhaat, tarkari’ is this: steaming white rice, thick yellow (or black) lentil soup, vegetable curry (of the vegetable in season), dark green spinach, a bowl of mutton (or chicken) curry with rich gravy (or deep fried), a vegetable salad of sorts (cucumber, radish, tomato, onion), and a pickle (tomato or radish and potato). You will also be asked if you want to have ghee (warm clarified butter) poured over your rice. Our suggestion is: ask for it, and consider it an off-day from your weight-conscious lifestyle, because the rice gets on a new and fragrant life with some ghee in it. Certainly increases your appetite! Anyway, leaving this fulsome meal aside, let’s get a glimpse into what else there is in Nepali cuisine. Let’s begin from the Terai.
Sattoo and Mahuwa of the Terai
People of the Terai have a taste for spicier and hotter food than elsewhere in the country, thus, you’ll find the curry to be a real tongue tingler, and naturally, the pickle will test your courage. They also prefer to have raw onions, the more the better, along with their meals. One reason is because raw onion is supposed to be good for combating prickly heat. You are also likely to be served a couple of chili peppers on the side. Besides the usual, that is, ‘daal, bhaat, and tarkari’, Terai dwellers like to have a mix made from soybean, maize, and gram called sattoo. It is pretty energizing due to its high protein content. Mostly, sattoo is mixed with water to make a thick paste; seasoned with salt, it tastes great. Sometimes, sattoo is also eaten dry, and often, sattoo mixed with water, salt, and lime juice makes for a cool and rejuvenating drink. However, speaking of drinks, per se, mahuwa raksi is the preferred choice. Derived from the juice of the mahuwa flower, it’s a pretty heady alcoholic drink. Another strong alcoholic drink is toddy, which is derived from the sap of palm trees.
Hilly Fare, Dheendo-Gundruk
Maize and wheat are the primary crops in the hills, and so the cuisine is also based on those staples, the main one being dheendo, a mix of maize and wheat; a sort of a porridge. It’s filling, all right, and nutritious as well, but bland. And so, it is accompanied by gundruk, a dish made from fermented leafy vegetables, which can either be in the form of a soup (gundruk ko jhol), or just pickled and spiced. Dehhendo-gundruk makes for a tasty and filling meal, and it becomes all the tastier when served with sinki, a pickle made from fermented root parts of carrots. Both gundruk and sinki, being fermented products, can be preserved for quite some time.
Higher up in the hills, noodle dishes such as chowmein and thukpa (soup with vegetable and meat), and Tibetan style momos (large-sized meat dumplings) are the preferred dishes. In the hills of eastern Nepal, you’ll get to taste a pungent-smelling dish called kinema made from fermented soybean. Other unique dishes are the breakfast food, khatte, which is made from brown rice, and poko, a dish made from the base derivative of the local liquor-making process. Naturally, poko has an alcoholic flavor; but it’s quite tasty, and what’s more, it gives you an immediate lift. Talking about drinks, tongba, a freshly fermented barley drink, is very popular, as are chaang (a fermented product of millet) and rakshi, a strong alcoholic drink. If you like tea, you might not get what you are used to up in the mountains; you are more likely to be offered Tibetan-style tea, which is thick and buttery. Pretty warming, too!
Kathmandu Valley’s Newar cuisine
The Newars of Kathmandu Valley take great pride in the variety of their cuisine. They excel in different culinary arts, from almost a score of delicacies from different parts of buffalo meat to a dozen and more varieties of bread. Buffalo meat (buff, in short) contributes to a diverse range of delicious dishes: haku choila (spicy grounded meat broiled on high heat), kachilaa (minced meat, raw and marinated), takhaa (soup of jellied meat), senla:mu (liver parts, steamed, then sautéed), swanpu:ka (filled lungs, fried), bhuttan (intestine/stomach parts, deep fried), mainh (tongue pieces, fried), cho:hi (blood, boiled with marrow and spice), mamachas (dumplings), etc. Most hotels in Nepal should have some of these in their restaurant menus; if not, do ask about nearby restaurants where you can get these exotic delicacies. Not to be left un-savored, certainly, during your Nepal tour!
And, yes, you’re right in assuming that the Newars re a meat-loving people; however, they don’t lag behind in the non-meat department, too. These include a kind of rice pancake called chatamari, a sort of doughnut called bara, made from pulses, and a cake-type snack called wo, also based on pulses. Some dishes are generally made only during festive occasions; these include the special stupa-shaped dumplings called yo mari, that are packed with brown cane sugar and sesame seeds; a special circular bread with a hole in the middle called sel roti; and a thick and delicious soup made from nine kinds of beans called kwantin. When talking about Newari food, one cannot miss out on mentioning juju dhau (king curd), which is a specialty of Bhaktapur, and delicious to a fault.
As far as drinks are concerned, Newars pride themselves on their liquor-making skills, too. Ai:la and thown are the traditional drinks of the Newar community. They are not only real belly-warmers, they are also auspicious offerings during many religious rituals. Ai:la is a fiery liquor, and a fitting accompaniment to the meat dishes mentioned above, since it is a surefire way to ensure good digestion of all that protein. Some hotels in Nepal will offer you ai:la as a welcoming drink, and the moment you gulp it down from the small clay vessel in which it will be served, you’ll have had the first taste of Nepal! A taste promising high-spirited adventure ahead!