Much more than momos

With 120-odd ethnic groups and varied topography, Nepal is not easy access for the culinary conscious. But the rewards are high


A Nepali ‘thali’. Photo: iStock
A Nepali ‘thali’. Photo: iStock

Once upon a time, a wild boar flew over the Himalayas and parked itself at the bottom of our freezer in Delhi. (Thud.) Shortly, we ate it. True story.

The boar, or bandhel, that once roamed the wilds of the Kathmandu valley was smoked in a shed, before a kindly friend—who could have traded it for window seats to Mars—hand-delivered it to our doorstep 1,200km away. In short, if you want to eat well, find friends who can make pigs fly, keep free tickets to Mars handy, or go to Nepal and hog.

Although, technically, hogging may not be a given in Nepal. Pigs—unlike boars—are unwelcome in the kitchens of several ethnic groups. As is beef—not buff. And yes, you can go through life (and 53,860 momos) without knowing any of this, and still eat well in Kathmandu or Pokhara on your 40th trip to the country. Nepal is forgiving that way.

I should know. Yet try as I might to make amends, to figure out what they typically eat, I run into some obstacles—over 120 actually, the number of ethnic groups. Add to that the variables of the Tibet-to-Terai landscape and predominant faiths—Hindu, Buddhist and somewhere-in-the-middle—and I’m back where I started. Like Sisyphus on the Rum Doodle, a fictitious mountain in W.E. Bowman’s 1956 satire, The Ascent Of The Rum Doodle.

In the shadow of Mount Everest (and Rum Doodle) though, pride is easier to swallow. And humility is a natural by-product. Rare is the Nepali, for instance, who talks up local food. Even at restaurants, the quietly confident Thakali thali of dal-bhat-tarkari (lentil-rice-vegetables/meat/fish), or festive Newari dishes, rarely outshines wood-fired pizzas and grilled lamb chops. And where local food is celebrated—and sanitized for tourists—the right side of the menu undercuts the idea of a simple, rustic meal. Not to suggest it doesn’t deserve a handsome price.

***

Nepal, though, is a long way to go for a weekday lunch. So I drive instead to Ama Thakali in the Tibetan settlement of Majnu ka Tilla in north Delhi. Tucked in an alley near the Rigo Coffee House, it’s a gem hidden in plain sight (by the time you read this, it would have moved to a larger home at the end of the main lane).

Past the organized chaos of stalls selling thermoses, yak jerky and timur (Sichuan pepper), the door to Ama Thakali stands aloof. Yet right behind it lies a warmer world, twice removed from Delhi (via Lhasa). No prayer flags here, but a parlour of burnt orange walls with Newari woodwork and black and white images of people and places I’d love to meet. Packed with Nepali customers crouched over mounds of rice, it’s like Bhaktapur or Patan eloped to Delhi—with the best cook in town!

But before I tell you how well I ate, let me take a stab again at breaking down Nepali cuisine into digestible bits. The simplest way, perhaps, is to cleave the map, horizontally, into three: the upper reaches, near Tibet; the belly, or Pahari region; and the lower Terai belt. Also, circle Kathmandu valley in deep red, like it’s the centre of the universe. Because it is, and because Wai Wai grows on trees here (no, really).

Dal-bhat-tarkari is the national dish, of course. Yet in the Terai areas, expect extra helpings of rice, plenty of fresh produce and shared kitchen secrets with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The middle hills add corn and potatoes to the basket, and fermented soya bean, simki (dried radish), gundruk greens, and achars (pickles) of all manner.

The higher Himalayan districts also pile millet and buckwheat on to the plate, adding Tibetan dishes like tsampa (ground barley or wheat), butter tea and momos to the mix. But it is the Newars, the original residents of the Kathmandu valley, who are the big churpi (yak cheese), really. Flamboyant cooks, especially during festivals like Yomari Punhi, they eat all kinds of meats, including buffalo, and make offal taste less o(w)ffal, more festive.

Across communities, Dashain (Dussehra) and Tihar (Diwali) offer up their own specialities too—such as the sweet rings of sel roti. Growing up, Purabi Shridhar nee Thapa, co-author of the cookbook, The Seven Sisters, remembers how food and ritual were inseparable once. Or how it was only when the town of Tura in the Garo Hills in Meghalaya, where her parents’ families had emigrated, went to bed on the eve of Tihar, that Sridhar’s grandmother set to work on her sel rotis. Insisting on a separate kitchen, where she didn’t have to use that abominable thing called the LPG cylinder, and where the “grill” was a cobbled together contraption of iron rods, she knew that both her grandchildren and authentic Nepali food could use some grandmothering.

***

When grandmothering is in short supply though, a homesick Nepali will walk into any restaurant with Thakali in its name. For a Thakali is to a Nepali, what an Udupi is to most Indians. A small but prosperous trading community from Thak Khola in Mustang, the Thakalis once manned most inns and eateries along the trade and trek routes of Nepal. Delhi’s Ama Thakali thus combines two of the most powerful words in the Nepali language—ama or mother and thakali. But who needs a hard sell when your brass thali arrives as a beautiful edible mandala, with fragrant rice at the centre. Accompanying it is a dark, moody dal tempered with ghee and jimbu, a wild herb that marries the flavours of onions and chives. Also, a light chicken (or mutton) curry, some smoky wilted greens, fried wedges of tareko aloo and condiments, including mula (radish) and karela (bitter gourd) ko achar. If you like, there are Nepali momos (with timur) and Newari specialities like choila (dry chicken dish) and sekuwa (grilled meats) to be had.

Owners Kelsang Namgyal Sherpa, who grew up in Namche Bazaar and Kathmandu, and Tenzin Thardoe from Dharamsala, now plan to expand the menu with riki kur, a potato roti, and buckwheat momos and breads. The challenge is to draw in those who skip rice at dinner. Yet business has been brisk so far. And plans of another pan-Himalayan restaurant with a spectacular view of the Yamuna are afoot. Now that Yeti, a Delhi institution, has put a minor dent in the Capital’s butter chicken sales, Thardoe and Sherpa seem fearless. Like Boris Lissanevitch.

A legend who set up the Royal Hotel in Kathmandu, Lissanevitch was what they call a “character” (read Michel Peissel’s Tiger For Breakfast). In charge of king Mahendra’s coronation banquet in 1955, he had the privilege of hosting hundreds of international delegates in a country that had only just opened up to foreigners. Thousands of ducks, chickens and guinea fowl were flown in from Patna on DC3s. As were bathtubs and forks and spoons. Without an ice plant in the nation of “eternal snows”, he even imported ice!

Today, setting up Nepali restaurants in India may involve much less drama and many more chickens. Yet going by the record, it’s something of a Rum Doodle.

The chicken curry at Ama Thakali.
The chicken curry at Ama Thakali.

Bhunga ko achar

If you have the patience to prep and clean a banana flower, try this recipe by Purabi Shridhar.

Serves 2

Ingredients

250g bhunga or banana flower, steamed/pressure-cooked

2 tbsp heaped silam, dull brown, smoky seeds, or 1K tbsp black sesame

1 lime

1-2 green chillies, slit

Mustard oil

Salt, to taste

Method

Lightly dry-roast the silam or black sesame seeds and pound them, preferably in a wooden mortar and pestle, to make a thick, smooth paste.

Mix it gently into the bhunga in a glass bowl

Add salt and lime juice.

Heat the mustard oil and let it smoke. Throw in the chillies and cover instantly to prevent splattering and to trap flavours. Pour over the bhunga and fold.

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