Spices (masala) are indispensable to the Nepali way of life, and that’s a good thing is what we say! Spices contain valuable oils with health-enhancing properties, and contain a fair amount of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. While no Nepali cuisine can be complete without a number of spices being used, demand spikes during festive occasions like Dashain and Tihar, as well as during the wedding season. One of the most commonly used is garam masala, especially in meat dishes, of which most Nepalis can be said to be connoisseurs. It’s a mixture of a dozen spices, viz. coriander (dhania), cumin seeds (jeera), turmeric (besar), methi (fenugreek), black pepper (marich), cinnamon (dal chini), bay leaf (tejpat), mace (saipatri), nutmeg (jaifal), clove (luang), large cardamom (alainchi), and green cardamom (sukmel).
These different spices are the ones that generally go to make up the usual range of spices used in Nepali cuisine. Of course, different dishes require different combinations. For example, the better informed use only dhaniya, besar, and garlic (lahsun) when making fish curry; the less adept use everything possible to make it spicy, which may be how they like it, but it does reduce the taste of the fish itself. This only goes to highlight the fact that spices are to be used sparingly because their function is to enhance flavor, not dominate it. And, while people all over the country use the same range of spices, different communities use them in different ways. The people of the high hills and mountainous regions, such as the Sherpas, also use wild spices such as koma and zimbu. Some other spices used all over, beside those mentioned above, are ajowan (jwano), fennel seeds (saunf), basil (tulsi), mint (pudina), and of course, the all-prevalent chili peppers (khursani).
Now, the last mentioned might not be so desirable for many tourists, but for those who like it hot and fiery, it gives a real zing to any dish. Anyway, you might like to know that you can minimize chili’s fiery effect by removing the seeds and white inner membrane, which actually contains most of the capsaicin. However, it’s in capsaicin where the health benefits of chili lie, such as inhibiting inflammation. Speaking about health and spices, here’s a brief review: Jeera helps digestion and prevents bloating. Dhaniya helps to reduce fever and reduce excessive menstrual flow, while freshly dried coriander helps in conjunctivitis. Hariyo dhaniya (green coriander) promotes digestion and is said to be a mild aphrodisiac. Besar has ant-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, besides containing antioxidants; its paste is a popular home remedy for sunburn.
Kalo marich boosts digestion and increases appetite. Jwano is good for building up resistance, and for curing indigestion, ear aches, and toe nail fungus infection. It also helps to bring phlegm out, besides being an antispasmodic. Lahsun has antibacterial and antifungal properties and helps to lowers blood pressure (crushed garlic is what is recommended; add it towards the end of cooking, more potent that way). Aduwa (ginger) reduces gas and alleviates travel sickness and hangovers; and it, too, is a mild aphrodisiac. Pudina soothes the digestive tract and tea made out of it will ease irritable bowel syndrome discomfort. Tulsi helps in relieving bowel inflammation and rheumatoid arthritis. Sukmel stimulates digestion and relieves flatulence, and its fragrance covers bad breath. Dalchini relieves pain and improves circulation, aside from providing relief for intestinal gas. Luang is an effective panacea for toothaches because of its anti inflammatory and pain relieving properties. Saunf helps to reduce coughing bouts.
So, you see, even this very brief mention of some of spices’ health benefits should make it clear that spicy food is not such a bad thing after all! Of course, like said before, there has to be a balance, since taste can be compromised if too much spice is used. While most people today go for the packaged stuff, there are plenty of places around Kathmandu Valley where you’ll get freshly ground spices, and really, in this day and age of massive food adulteration, that’s the best way to go. If you go to Ason Bazaar, that ancient market in the center of Kathmandu, you’ll find many spice shops, some of which have been there for ages. In fact, there’s one called Shanka Pasal, whose founder, Bhai Ratna Bajracharya, is said to have first started the spice trade here. At such shops, you’ll also get whole spices that you can have ground later on.
There’s another thing about the word ‘masala’—the Nepali word for spices. It can also refer to dry fruits, and this is something that is at its highest demand during Tihar. Also, there’s a mixture called ‘sutkeri masala’ that’s a popular supplement for nursing mothers. It’s a mixture of both spices and dry fruits, specifically, edible gum (gund), batisa (mixture of 32 herbs), jwano, methi , saunf , and dry fruits. It’s a potent mixture that contains all the essential nutrients. Similarly, infants are traditionally fed a mixture of cashew nuts, pistachio, almonds, nutmegs, and dates as a nutrition-packed supplement. Dry fruits make up an important part of any celebration in Nepal, and some like the coconut are considered to be an auspicious offering to the gods.
All in all, Nepal is a masala-loving country, that’s for sure, with their use being both traditional and obligatory in many instances. And, that’s not all; it’s also a matter of pride that the country can claim to be among the world’s leading producers of some spices. In 2010, Nepal was declared to be the global leader in producing large cardamom (alainchi), the quantity being a whopping 6,647 tons. The country also produces large quantities of ginger. Great going, right? So, here’s a big hurrah for Nepal and its masala culture!