Nepal is a magical Himalayan country tucked between India and China. It is famous world over for its scenic and affordable treks. Travelers come here seeking glimpses of the Everest, the natural beauty of the Langtang National Park, and the serenity of monasteries and temples. In the excitement over its natural beauty and cultural heritage, travelers often overlook local Nepalese cuisine. Many visitors don’t explore beyond the ubiquitous dal-bhat-tarkari which is a simple meal comprising of rice, mildly-flavored lentil soup, a side of stir-fried vegetables, and papad (thin, crisp, gram flour cakes). However, Nepalese cuisine is a medley of flavors with Indian, Thai, and Tibetan influences. The Newari community, the oldest indigenous people of Kathmandu, have a host of flavorful meat dishes and rice wines that will leave you asking for repeats. Here’s a list of traditional local foods that you must have when in Nepal.
1. Sel Roti - a fried sweet
Sel Roti is lightly sweetened fried dough. This ring-shaped crispy dish doesn’t look very different from a donut, though it is made with rice flour. A perfect sel roti is crispy on the outside and soft inside. It is typically prepared during the Hindu festivals of Tihar and Dashai. Getting the proportion of the roti mix right is a challenge – rice flour, ghee (Indian clarified butter), sugar, milk, water, bananas, and cooking oil must be mixed to the right consistency. Each family uses a slightly different spice combination to flavor the batter, the most common ones being cardamom and clove. Locals eat sel roti as a snack or with accompaniments like yogurt dip and vegetables. This national street food can be found across Nepal.
2. Chatamari - a Nepali crepe
Chatamari is a thin crepe made from a batter of eggs, rice flour, ginger and garlic paste, and a variety of powdered spices. What differentiates chatamari from other bread is that it is not flipped while cooking. Instead, the crepe is topped with minced beef or chicken, eggs, green chili, cilantro, vegetables, or tomatoes while cooking. Chatamari comes with different toppings and you can ask for customizations as well. The savory crepe is either served cut in half and folded or flat like a pizza. Pickles and chutneys are served as accompaniments.
3. Dhido and gundruk pickle - millet porridge with fermented greens
The mountainous regions of Nepal don’t have access to rice or wheat. Instead, they use millets. One of the healthiest traditional dishes is the dhido, which is buckwheat and millet boiled in an iron pan. Dhido is quite bland and is served with gundruk, vegetables or meat, and other accompaniments. The beauty of this dish is the pure ingredients and the balance of flavors. Gundruk is considered to be the national dish of Nepal. Like kimchi, gundruk has a strong flavor and for some, it can be an acquired taste. Fresh mustard greens and radish and cauliflower leaves are pounded and fermented in closed jars. Once the leaves develop a sour taste, they are dried and stored. These leaves are made into a soupy broth or used as a pickle. Dhido and gundruk is a good alternative to dal bhat.
4. Laphing - mung bean flour noodles
Tibetan refugees brought this scrumptious dish, originally called Liang Fen, to Nepal. Over the years, laphing has become an integral part of Nepalese cuisine. These noodles are prepared using starches extracted from mung bean, potatoes, or wheat flour. The dough is rolled and cut into wide ribbons. The noodles are placed in a deep bowl and spicy soy sauce soup is poured over it. The dish is garnished with chili paste, vinegar, coriander, garlic, onions, Szechuan pepper, and a dash of sesame oil. Light and easy to prepare, this street food is a favorite snack for students and professions. There are plenty of eateries in Patan, Boudhha, Ekantakuna, Shyambhu, and the Tibetan Camp areas of Kathmandu where this dish is available.
5. Gorkhali - lamb curry
Gorkhali is an aromatic lamb curry served with rice or rotis. Nepalis prepare this dish in winter, especially during celebrations and festivals. It is a treat for the senses. There’s a lot of planning involved in preparing the curry. First, chunky lamb pieces are marinated in roasted onions, mustard oil, and spices overnight or for six hours. The marinated meat is grilled and then slow-cooked in a gravy of potatoes, chopped onions, garlic, and a host of other spices. This layered cooking method infuses the meat with flavor and richness of texture.
6. Samya bhaji - beaten rice with accompaniments
Samya bhaji is the traditional dish of the Newar community in Nepal. Newaris are the indigenous people of Nepal and among the most prosperous communities of the country. Samya bhaji comprises several individually prepared dishes brought together on a plate. It typically contains chiura (beaten rice), chhwela (marinated and barbequed buffalo meat), bara (spiced lentil pancakes), boiled eggs, alu tama (curried bamboo shoots and potatoes), bhatmaas (ginger soybean stirfry), saag (green vegetables), boiled black-eyed peas, and pickle. Newaris prepare this auspicious dish throughout the year; it is a part of all celebrations as well as somber occasions like a death anniversary.
7. Yomari - sweet rice dumplings
Yomari is a special Newari sweet that has a festival named after it, Yomari Punhi. This festival is celebrated in December to mark the end of the rice harvest season. Women prepare fish-shaped steamed rice dumplings filled with a gooey mixture of jaggery, sesame seeds, and grated coconut. Legend has it that shaping a long-tailed yomari will signify a shorter winter. So, women pay special attention to the shape of this sweet. Now, this dish is available at selected restaurants throughout the year. It is relished as a stand-alone snack or for dessert after meals.
8. Tongba - hot millet beer
Tongba is the traditional alcoholic drink of the Limbu community of eastern Nepal. It is brewed from fermented whole grain millet. Tongba actually refers to the container which stores the beverage. Limbu people offer tongba to guests as a mark of respect as well as have it during special occasions and festivals. This drink is had in a special way - it is poured into a glass and hot water is added. The drink is allowed to sit for five minutes and then had through a perforated bamboo straw that also acts as a filter. People keep adding more hot water, much like green tea, until the alcohol is finished.
9. Chaku - a Nepali sweet
Nepalis beat the harsh Himalayan winters by munching on bits of traditional candy called chaku. They also prepare chaku for Maghe Sankranti celebrations. Jaggery, concentrated sugarcane juice, nuts, and ghee are cooked in a pot and then left to cool down. Once the mixture solidifies, it is hand pulled and then molded into bite-sized shapes. There are several shops in Ason, the old bazaar of Kathmandu where authentic chaku is available all year round.
10. Sapu Mhicha - stuffed buffalo leaf tripe
In Newari families, sapu mhicha is prepared for the most special occasions. When a man visits his wife’s family for festivals, this dish is prepared for him. Buffalo tripe is cut into pieces and stuffed with minced bone marrow and tied up. These ‘bags’ are boiled and then deep fried. Biting into a sapu mhicha is a burst of flavor that simply melts in your mouth. A trip to Nepal is not complete without a taste of this Newar cuisine treasure.
Explore the flavors of Nepal
When visiting Nepal, delve into the local culture through their mouthwatering dishes and food stories. In this land of myths and misty peaks, there’s a story behind every dish, a time for each ingredient, and joy to be found in every mouthful. Sample the traditional dishes of Nepal to experience the heart of this enchanting Himalayan country.
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