Published: November 26th 2008November 23rd 2008
After spending some time in Nepal the first thing you begin to miss about India is the food. After the initial optimism and enthusiasm you foster for Nepal's culinary individuality, sooner or later you are forced to admit that it just doesn't compare with its southern neighbour.
The national dish is called dal bhat (dal=lentils, bhat=rice). At its worst it consists of a plate of white rice with a few spoonfuls of tarkhari (bland potatoes) on the side and a small bowl of watery dal. At its best there is the addition of a little sabje (vegetable curry), achar (spicy pickle) and a poppadam. The idea is to fill up on rice, the other ingredients acting as little more than condiments. The majority of Nepalis eat dal bhat twice a day, in the late morning and again in the evening. The consumption of a plate of dal bhat is traditionally a desperate and furtive event. Hunching protectively over his plate the eater pours the dal onto the rice and mixes the food to an even consistency with his right hand. The concoction is then eaten extremely raidly, the hand in constant fluctuation between plate and mouth, the fingers nimbly readjusting the
Tea and Biscuits
A trekking staple.
mixture between mouthfuls. No talking takes place during the meal and the eyes are lifted from the plate only occaisionally to monitor the surroundings.
In a restaurant, a good waiter will always be on hand to replenish your supply of rice, dal or sabje at just the right moment and will do so repeatedly until you unequivically refuse. For me, this is the main appeal of dal bhat and is the reason why when trekking I eat it daily. Food at trekking lodges typically costs five to ten times what it does in Kathmandu. But the real slap in the face is the shocking miserliness of the portions served up at these establishments. After six hours of trekking you can't help but feel dismay when a lodge owner places in front of you a less than child-sized plate of food without even a trace of humility or shame on her face. I should add at this point that my peers do not all share my opinion on this matter, many of them taking a few disinterested bites before pushing the plate aside and rummaging through their backpacks for their supply of snickers bars (however I suspect the quality of the
food may play a role here). Ordering dal bhat is a safeguard against hunger, a guarantee of quantity if not of quality. Nonetheless, requests for a third helping at trekking lodges are often met with feigned surprise or disapproving clucks, but they usually come up with the goods.
Proponents of dal bhat (i.e. most Nepalis) are quick to point out that a combination of rice and dal provides a complete protein. However I fear that it offers little else by way of nutrition. The dal bhat diet can cause a frightfully unpleasant combination of constipation (from the rice) and flatulence (from the dal), making it difficult to make new friends or indeed to retain existing ones.
But Nepali cuisine reaches far beyond just dal bhat. Maby Tibetan standards such as momos (dumplings), thantuk (a hearty buchwheat pasta stew) and thukpa (noodle soup) have placed themselves firmly within Nepali culture and taken on a life of their own. Newaris are avid meat eaters, buffalo, goat and chicken being the animals of choice. A walk through Durbar Square in the evening reveals a long line of vendors selling an array of fried and roasted meats. Being for all practical purposes now entirely
This was the best meal during the Langtang trek. The yak cheese, which is normally leathery and tasteless, becomes stringy, pungent and delicious when melted
vegetarian (in no small part due to my observations at butcher stalls in the subcontinent), I am unable to offer a critique of these delicacies. But the range of vegetarian street faire to be found in Kathmandu is ample, the most widely available being "chat", simply meaning snack. Chat vendors display a range of beans, nuts, corn and puffed rice, mostly dried and crunchy but some are cooked and tender. A serving of mixed chat will contain a little of everything together with chilli, lemon juice and chopped onions served up in a newspaper cone with a spoon fashioned from an old business card.
Of course the tea vendors are to be found everywhere. The Kathmandu chai-wallahs, in a flair of creative genius often sprinkle a few granules of instant coffee into the glass of tea for that unique and becoming tea-coffee blend. They usually have a selection of sal (doughnut-like snacks made from rice flour) on offer too. One of our favourite tea stalls is actually located inside a small and ancient shrine dedicated to the goddess Durga. A glass of tea at such places usually costs between 6 and 8 rupees (10 cents). Our favourite street drinks in
This guy sets up outside our Kathmandu hotel in the mornings. His tea-coffee mix is very popular.
Kathmandu are the sweet lassis served up by a large-bellied man at Indra Chowk. The tiny cupboard-like shopfront would be easy to miss if it weren't for the constant crowd of people gathered around it clutching glasses of the delicious white stuff. A large glass is served with a garnish of dried fruit and nuts, costs 25 rupees (33 cents) and is a sufficient meal for someone of Emily's constitution.
But our favourite eatery in all of Nepal has to be teh Lumbini Tandoori House on Freak Street. This no frills joint serves up Indian-Nepali faire and is frequented largely by single men with a smattering of grungey tourists. The food is always fresh and delicious and the staff attentive and friendly. Bowls of curry start at 15 rupees (20 cents) and any order is accompanied by a limitless amount of zesty achar and raw carrots and radishes for dipping. Despite serving the best dal bhat in the city we usually ignore the rice dishes as at the front of the restaurant stands a clay tandoor oven from which a constantly fresh supply of roti, stuffed naan and parantha are produced. The waiter patrols the floor with a plate of
roti lest anyone run out.
A few doors down from the Lumbini is the Snowman Cafe. This cafe was a favourite of the European and North American hippies in the 60s. Apart from upgrading their music collection from vinyl to cassette tape and a shift in clientele towards predominantly chic young motorcycle-owning Nepalis, not much has changed in 40 years. It still has the same proprietor who runs the place with his son. The menu is simple; tea and cake. The large selection of cake is invariably rich, moist and addictive. A generous slice will set you back 50 rupees (65 cents). If that wasn't enough, perhaps four out of ten times you walk through the door to the welcome sound of Jim Morrison's enchanting voice.
Like the men of so many nations, Nepali men like their booze. Perhaps the most famous of Nepal's alcoholic drinks is "chyang", which is often described as "local beer" and is usually made from millet or barley and fermented with yeast. Its fame seems a little undeserved though for the simple reason that it's not that widely consumed. And there is a reason for that - it's horrible. It has the appearance and consistency
A delicious lunch at Kopan Monastery
After a morning of meditating on the shortcomings of greed and the serving of sense pleasures, it's difficult to walk into the dining hall at Kopan. You are presented with a vats of delicious food and told to help yourself.
of mud and tastes like unbaked bread. It is usually served warm, and if you don't finish the cup before it cools down it's not likely that you ever will. I have heard about a form of chyang known as "tomba" which is supposedly quite delicious and potent. At the bottom of a glass of tomba is a fermented millet pulp onto which hot water is poured. The cocktail is then drank through a straw, the hot water being topped up as needed. I have yet to sample this and it is currently my mission to seek out a dive in the alleys of the old city which serves it up.
The drink of choice for Nepal's boozers is "Raksi". Usually misleadingly translated as "wine", it is closer to whiskey in alcohol content and by the process of distillation through which it is produced. Usually made from millet, it is surprisingly pallatable. Also served warm, it is perfect for those cold nights in the mountains where, conveniently, it is cheaper than tea.
In a few days we're moving into a Nepali household for a month on the outskirts of Kathmandu, where we will be fed dal bhat twice a day.
Of course we are a little apprehensive about this prospect, but are reassured by the knowledge that Freak Street is only a bus ride away; a journey which I'm sure we'll be taking at weekends or in cases of emergency.
There are more photos below