With our taste buds still tingling with delight after our month in India, we crossed the border to Nepal. How would it’s fare compare? Would we soon tire of momos and uninspiring dal bhat as fellow travelers had told us or would it be a culinary bohnanza? Here’s my verdict and opinions on food in Nepal after nearly two months munching our way around the country.
Dal bhat, the national dish and for once it means that everyone eats it, lunch and dinner, everyday, 24 hour power or so the t-shirts say. Meaning lentils and rice, it’s a large portion of rice, with vegetable curry (or often just potato), lentil soup and can also include pickle, spinach like greens and papad (an oily poppadom). The quality varies between each servery but you can always be sure of one thing; plenty of it, they keep coming with extra helpings of rice, curry and dal. Whether you’re at a roadside shack, halfway up a mountain, or a fancier Newari restaurant, you can be certain that dal bhat will be on the menu. It may never grace the table of a Michelin starred restaurant but it’s cheap and easy to cook, plentiful and to me feels like a healthier alternative to samosas or other deep fried snacks often available at lunchtime, Mike just has to remember to say no the extra helpings!
Dal bhat was not the only traditional dish available, in Kathmandu, Pokhara and some of the larger cities you could find upmarket restaurants serving Newari cuisine. This typically took the form of a set menu, served in a similar format to dal bhat and you might even have the choice of meats, buff or chicken and there was choice in the carb other than rice! We tried chiura (dry beaten rice, that was a bit like cereal) and another that looked like mashed potato. Opinion was divided among the three of us as to whether we preferred a Newari set, personally I would rather have a good dal bhat with a delicious vegetable curry than a chewy buff curry. Buff (water buffalo) was the most frequent meat option, from buff momos, buff curry and what felt like buff everything.
Another renowned Nepali dish is momos, in fact a Tibetan delicacy but they are ubiquitous across Nepal. Generally described in English as dumplings, they bear no resemblance to a dumpling nestled on top of a hearty British stew, Italian ravioli would be a better analogy. Dumplings are prevalent in Asia, each country has a different name and way to cook them, gyoza in Japan or jiaozi in China, same same but different as they say. The standard range of fillings was vegetable, buff or chicken. Then there’s the choice of how they are cooked, steamed, kothey (pan fried on one side), fried (as in deep fried) or c-momo – chilli momo, steamed or fried momos in chilli tomato sauce with a couple of pieces of onion, pepper and tomato, it probably has a few other ingredients but it’s hard to tell with the chilli, they always make my nose run but definitely my favourite type!
A large portion of our time in Nepal was spent treking in the Everest region, as such we ate a lot of Tibetan influenced food, which frequently featured potatoes and noodles. The often potato heavy dishes felt a bit like a winter back home when you have run out of fresh green vegetables so bulk out your dish with potatoes instead, although a hash brown the size of your face and if you’re feeling extravagant with yak* cheese is an awesome lunch after a morning’s treking. Other methods for cooking the trusty tuber included frying and stewing and the dish is given the prefix of sherpa to make it sound more exciting. This may sound like I was unimpressed by the food and cooking while treking, yes meat and variety in vegetables or ingredients may have been scarce (or expensive) but the number of dishes that were whipped up at 4000 metres is impressive, especially as most the dry ingredients and fuel to cook with had been lugged up the mountain by yak or human! Besides momos another traditional Tibetan dish we tried while treking was Tibetan bread, a fried bread usually eaten for breakfast. The best way to describe it is the love child of an Indian nan bread and a doughnut, with two slashes across to middle to help it cook. Unsurprisingly it was pretty oily and not my favourite breakfast choice but the honey it was served with made it more enjoyable, especially if you had a cup of hot ginger, lemon and honey with it, the Nepali cure for all minor ailments. * It should technically be called nak cheese, as a female yak is a nak.
Outside of the main tourist areas of Kathmandu and Pokhara, options other than dal bhat or momos were often limited to fried rice or fried noodles. Noodle based dishes ranged in quality and often it was just a packet of instant noodles, however if we spotted them on a menu, our favourite were the Tibetan dishes of thukpa and thenthuk. Served as a soup or dry (fried), thentuk are fat fresh rice noodles and thukpa are thinner noodles (or sometimes just instant noodles). Noodle dishes were a welcome change as we entered Nepal after a month of Indian curries.
In towns and cities you would often come across Indian food, especially samosas and other fried snacks. The quality was not quite as good as in India and one shack we stopped at for our final lunch in Kathmandu was probably the source of delhi belly for Glenn and I only just escaped a case as well! The rest of the Indian food we tried in Nepal was really good, especially restaurants serving curries, they were simple looking places but could they cook! Having habituated ourselves to a daily lassi in India, we could still get our fix in Nepal as most restaurants had them on the menu, although a little more expensive. No trip to Bhaktapur would be complete without trying juju dhau, king of curds and it was a delicious and creamy curd, although perhaps the king had been put on a diet as it seemed a rather small portion!
The most impressive food from our time in Nepal was during the three day whitewater rafting trip. With the chef and his assistants negotiating their boat through the rapids with just one burly man and a pair of oars, as soon as we arrived at each location the kitchen was rapidly unpacked and reinstalled. With one gas bottle and three burners, they whipped up a plethora of tasty dishes for us each mealtime, including plenty of option to suit the pickiest of western eaters. With popcorn as soon as we had set up camp, pasta, chips, banana fritters and even a freshly baked cake on our final night, I’m still amazed at how they manage to prepare it all, fear not we still had dal bhat one evening, we were in Nepal after all!
So Nepali food, was it a culinary delight or was the only bohnanza to be found just the endless games we played of it while treking? Personally on the whole I enjoyed the food, especially momos and dal bhat, if it was a good one. With a mixture of curries, noodles, momos and some really good western food, Nepalis can cook! I wouldn’t recommend visiting the country for the food alone but there’s plenty of reasons to visit Nepal and you certainly won’t go hunger while you’re there.