Eating and drinking in Nepal
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Nepal – and specifically Kathmandu – is renowned as the budget eating capital of Asia. Sadly, its reputation is based not on Nepali but pseudo-Western food: pizza, chips (fries), “sizzling” steaks and apple pie are the staples of tourist restaurants. Outside the popular areas, the chief complaint from travellers is about the lack of variety, though with a little willingness to experiment, a range of dishes can be found.
Indeed, a vast range of flavours can be found just in daal bhaat, the national dish of rice, lentils, lightly curried vegetables and pickles; though it can also, sometimes, be disappointingly bland. In the Kathmandu Valley, the indigenous Newars have their own unique cuisine of spicy meat and vegetable dishes, while a vast range of Indian curries, breads, snacks and sweets comes into play in the Terai; in the high mountains, the traditional diet consists of noodle soups, potatoes and toasted flour. “Chow-chow” packet noodles, cooked up as a spicy soup snack, are ubiquitous. Vegetarians will feel at home in Nepal, since meat is considered a luxury. Tourist menus invariably include veggie items.
Outside the tourist areas food is very inexpensive, and a simple meal and drink may well set you back less than Rs100. In places like Kathmandu and Pokhara, however, costs can quickly add up: you might pay around Rs250–500 for a main meal at a tourist-oriented restaurant, and even more at a posher place. Note that few restaurants include government taxes (13 percent) and service charges (10 percent) in their menu prices.
Tourist restaurants in Kathmandu, Pokhara and a few other well-visited places show an amazing knack for sensing what travellers want and simulating it with basic ingredients. Some specialize in particular cuisines, but the majority attempt to cover most bases. Outside these tourist hubs, options are more limited, though Terai cities always have a fancy (by Nepali standards) restaurant or two, generally serving a mix of Nepali, Indian and Chinese food.
Local Nepali diners (bhojanalayas or, confusingly enough, “hotels”) are traditionally humble affairs, offering a limited choice of dishes or just daal bhaat. Menus don’t exist, but the food will normally be on display or cooking in full view, so all you have to do is point. Utensils are usually available on request, but if not, try doing as Nepalis do and eat with your right hand – and bear in mind the various social taboos relating to eating. In towns and cities, places to eat tend to be dark, almost conspiratorial places, unmarked and hidden behind curtains. On the highways they’re bustlingly public and spill outdoors in an effort to win business.
Teahouses (chiyapasal) really only sell tea and basic snacks, while the simple taverns (bhatti) of the Kathmandu Valley and the western hills put the emphasis on alcoholic drinks and meaty snacks, but may serve Nepali meals too. Trailside, both chiyapasal and bhatti are typically modest operations run out of family kitchens. Sweet shops (mithaipasal or misthan bhandar) are intended to fill the gap between the traditional mid-morning and early evening meals; besides sweets and tea, they also do South Indian and Nepali savoury snacks.
Street vendors sell fruit, nuts, roasted corn, and various fried specialities. As often as not, food will come to you when you’re travelling – at every bus stop, vendors will clamber aboard or hawk their wares through the window.
Daal bhaat tarkaari (daal means lentil, bhaat rice and tarkaari vegetable), usually just known as daal bhaat, isn’t just the most popular meal in Nepal. For many Nepalis it’s the only meal they ever eat, twice a day, every day of their lives, and they don’t feel they’ve eaten properly without it. Indeed, in much of Nepal, bhaat is a synonym for food and khaanaa (food) is a synonym for rice. The daal bhaat served in restaurants ranges from excellent to derisory – it’s a meal that’s really meant to be eaten at home – so if you spend much time trekking or travelling off the beaten track you’ll probably quickly tire of it. It’s worth looking out for establishments sporting the name Thakali – Nepalis believe this ethnic group (originating in the hills around Annapurna) produces a particularly good daal bhaat, and they are usually right.
That said, a good achhaar (a relish or pickle made with tomato, radish or whatever’s in season) can liven up a daal bhaat tremendously. There are endless subtle variations in the flavours and grades of rice and in the idea of what constitutes a good daal, from the buttery, yellow gunge of raharkodaal to the king of winter lentils, maaskodaal, cooked in an iron pot until it turns from green to black.
Daal bhaat is often served on a gleaming steel platter divided into compartments similar to an Indian thali; add the daal and other condiments to the rice, knead the resulting mixture into mouth-sized balls with the right hand, then push it off the fingers into your mouth with the thumb. One price covers unlimited refills, except in tourist-savvy establishments.
Most Nepalis begin the day with a cup of tea and little else, eating daal bhaat some time in the mid-morning (often around 9am or 10am) and again in the evening, with just a snack of potatoes, makkai (popcorn) or noodles in between. Daal bhaat times in Kathmandu are pushing nearer to lunchtime but, outside the city, it’s worth remembering that if you turn up for khaanaa at noon it’ll either be cold or take hours to cook from scratch.
You’ll usually be able to supplement a plate of daal bhaat with small side dishes of maasu (meat) – chicken, goat or fish. In Indian-influenced Terai towns you can often get roti instead of rice. Sukuti (dried, spiced meat fried in oil) is popular everywhere. You could make a meal out of rice or chiura (beaten, dried rice) and sekuwa (spicy kebabs) or taareko maachhaa (fried fish), common in the Terai. If you’re invited into a peasant home in the high hills you might be served dhedo (a toasted corn, millet or wheat flour dough) instead of rice. Some say dhedo with gundruk, not daal bhaat, is the real national food of Nepal, though it’s only just started to appear on the menu of Thakali restaurants.
Nepali desserts include khir (rice pudding), sikarni (thick, creamy yoghurt with cinnamon, raisins and nuts) and various versions of Indian sweets.
Like many aspects of Newari culture, Newari food is all too often regarded as exotic but too weird for outsiders. It’s complex, subtle, delicious and devilishly hard to make. Most specialities are quite spicy, and based around four mainstays: buffalo, rice, pulses and vegetables (especially radish).
The Newars use every part of the buffalo, or “buff”: momocha (meat-filled steamed dumplings – differentiated from Tibetan momos by their purse-like rather than half-moon shape), choyila (buff cubes fried with spices and greens), palula (spicy buff with ginger sauce) and kachila (a paté of minced raw buff, mixed with ginger and mustard oil) are some of the more accessible dishes; others are made from tongue, stomach, lung, blood, bone marrow and so on. Because of caste restrictions, Newars rarely eat boiled rice outside the home. Newari restaurants therefore serve it in the form of baji (chiura in Nepali) – rice that’s been partially cooked and then rolled flat and dried, looking something like rolled oats – or chataamari (a sort of pizza made with rice flour, usually topped with minced buff).
Pulses and beans play a role in several other preparations, notably woh (fried lentil-flour patties, also known as baara), kwati (a soup made with sprouted beans), musyapalu (roasted soya beans and ginger) and bhuti (boiled soya beans with spices and herbs). Various vegetable mixtures are available seasonally, including pancha kol (a curry made with five vegetables) and alu achhaar (boiled potato in a spicy sauce). The best veggie option is alutama, a sour soup made with bamboo shoots and potatoes. Radish turns up in myriad forms of achhaar.
The tourist restaurants of Kathmandu and Pokhara offer tastes of virtually every cuisine under the sun. There’s no denying that this international food is tasty, but the sheer range of choice available to visitors has the unfortunate side effect of isolating many visitors from Nepalese cooking. Many restaurants try to offer a bit of everything, but some are moving upmarket into dedicated cuisines, notably Chinese, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican and Thai.
Indian food is widely available. The dishes you’re most likely to encounter are from North India: thick, rich curries, tandoori dishes, and breads like rotis, chapatis, naans, parathas and puris.
In the Terai you’ll also run across South Indian canteens, which serve a predominantly vegetarian cuisine. The staple dish here is the masala dosa, a rice-flour pancake rolled around curried potatoes, served with sambhar (a savoury daal flavoured with tamarind) and coconut chutney. There is also an incredible array of sweets, including laddu, yellow-and-orange speckled semolina balls; jalebi, orange pretzel-shaped tubes of deep-fried, syrup-soaked treacle; gulab jamun, spongy balls in super-sweet syrup; and ras malai, cream cheese balls in a milky, perfumed syrup.
Strictly speaking, “Tibetan” refers to nationals of Tibet, but the people of several other highland ethnic groups eat what could be called Tibetan food.
Momo, arguably the most famous and popular of Tibetan dishes, are available throughout upland Nepal. Similar to dim sum, the half-moon-shapes are filled with meat, vegetables and ginger, steamed, and served with hot tomato salsa and a bowl of broth. Fried momo are called kothe. Shyaphagle, made from the same ingredients, are Tibetan-style pasties. Tibetan cuisine is also full of hearty soups called thukpa or thenthuk, consisting of noodles, meat and vegetables in broth. For a group feast, try the huge gyakok (chicken, pork, prawns, fish, tofu, eggs and vegetables), which gets its name from the brass container it’s served in. In trekking lodges you’ll encounter pitta-like Tibetan or “Gurung” bread.
The average peasant seldom eats any of the above. Potatoes are common in the high country, and Sherpa potatoes – usually eaten boiled in their skins with a dab of salt and chilli paste – are justly famous for their nutty sweetness. Tsampa (toasted barley flour) is another staple, and often, especially for trekkers, mixed with milk or tea to make a porridge paste.
Common food on the road includes pakora (vegetables dipped in chickpea-flour batter, deep fried), and bean curry served with puris or roti. Another possibility is dahi chiura, a mixture of yoghurt and beaten rice. If you’re in a hurry, you can grab a handful of samosas (curried vegetables in fried pastry triangles), baara (fried lentil patties), or other titbits on a leaf plate. In the hill towns and around Kathmandu, huge aluminium steamers placed by the restaurant door advertise momo. If nothing else, there will always be packet noodles (“chow-chow”).
Imported chocolates are sold in tourist areas, and waxy Indian substitutes can be found in most towns. Biscuits and cheap boiled sweets (confusingly enough, called chocolet in Nepali) are sold everywhere. Cheese, produced from cow, buffalo and occasionally yak milk (nak milk in fact – the yak is the male and the nak the female), comes in several varieties and is sold in tourist areas along trekking routes. Watch out for churpi, a native cheese made from dried buttermilk – it’s so hard as to be inedible.
Which fruits are available depends on the season, but there’s usually a good choice imported from India. Lovely mandarin oranges, which ripen throughout the late autumn and winter, grow from the Terai up to around 1200m and are sweetest near the upper end of their range. Autumn and winter also bring papaya in the Terai and lower hills, Asian pears, apples and sugar cane. Mangoes from the Terai start ripening in May and are available throughout most of the summer, as are lychees, watermelons, pineapples and guavas. Bananas, harvested year-round at the lower elevations, are sold everywhere.
Water (paani) is automatically served with food in Nepali restaurants – but it may not be safe, so it’s best to pass. Bottled water is widely available and usually safe; check that the seal is intact. You can also purify your own water. Soft drinks (chiso) are sold everywhere; lemon soda, made with soda water and lime juice, makes a good sugar-free alternative.
Tea (chiya) is traditionally brewed by boiling tea dust with milk (dudh) and water, with heaps of sugar (chini) and a bit of ginger, cardamom or pepper. In tourist restaurants you’ll be offered “black” or “milk” tea with a teabag – you have to specify “Nepali” or “masala” tea if you want it made the traditional way. You can also ask for lemon tea or “hot lemon”. Tibetans take their tea with salt and yak butter, which is definitely an acquired taste. Locally produced (often organic) coffee and fancy espresso machines are increasingly seen in Nepal, though non-touristy restaurants just do a very milky instant.
Roadside stalls serve freshly squeezed fruit juices and lassis, but the practice of adding water and sugar is widespread – and if the water comes from the tap, as is usually the case, your chances of catching something are high. Fruit juice is sold widely, and in trekking areas you will find the rosehip- or cherry-like sea buckthorn juice, which is high in Vitamin C.
Beer (biyar) makes a fine accompaniment to Nepali and Indian food. It isn’t cheap, though: you could spend as much on a bottle as on a full meal. Domestic beers include Everest (locally considered to be sweet, and therefore feminine) and Gorkha (stronger), while the “foreign” brands available, including San Miguel, Carlsberg and Tuborg, are all brewed in Nepal. Most are sold in 650ml bottles, though 330ml cans are increasingly available.
An amazing selection of spirits is distilled in Nepal, ranging from the classic Khukuri rum (dark and raisiny) to a myriad of cheap whiskies and vodkas. They’re mostly rough, but tolerable when mixed – “Mustang coffee”, made with Khukuri and instant coffee, is a classic. Look out for regional specialities like the apricot and apple brandies of Marpha, north of Pokhara. Imported spirits and wine are available at inflated prices; many tourist restaurants and bars serve wine by the glass, and make cocktails.
Home-brewed jaar, or beer often made from rice or millet, is commonly referred to by the Tibetan or hill word, chhang. Raksi, which is ubiquitous in hill Nepal, is a distilled version of the same and bears a heady resemblance to tequila or grappa. It’s made in a series of pani, or distillations: ek pani, or the first distillation of the liquor, is the strongest. Harder to find, but perhaps the most pleasant drink of all, is a highland home-brew called tongba. The ingredients are a jug or tankard of fermented millet, a straw and a flask of hot water: you pour the water in, let it steep, and suck the mildly alcoholic brew through the straw until you reach the bottom.
Nepalis love their cigarettes (churot). The cheaper brands like Yak and Khukuri are harsh and strong for most Western tastes. Marlboro is widely available, while the most similar luxury domestic brand is Surya. After the evening meal, old men may be seen smoking tobacco in a hookah (hubble-bubble), or occasionally passing around a chilam (clay pipe).
Many Nepali men make quite a production of preparing chewing tobacco (surti), slapping and rubbing it in the palm of the hand before placing behind the lower lip. Surti comes in little foil packets hung outside most general stores.
At least as popular, particularly near India, is the digestive and mild stimulant paan. A paan seller starts with a betel leaf, upon which he spreads various ingredients, the most common being jharda (tobacco) or mitha (sweet). Paan-wallahs also sell foil packets of paan parag, a simple, ready-made mix.