Travel notes: a taste of Nepali cuisine

“Eat some momos for me out there!” my friend Morgan messaged me as I got on the plane to Kathmandu. Once in Nepal, a common question from my very hospitable Nepali hosts was “have you tried the momos yet?” (This often occurred at a restaurant, and was followed by several plates of steaming hot momos). Oh don’t worry, I would not be one to miss out on the momos. For those unfamiliar, momos are dumplings, traditionally filled with ground buffalo meat, herbs and spices. Nowadays, momos are filled with all kinds of things: chicken, pork, lamb, buffalo, tofu, vegetables, paneer (cheese). They might arrive steamed, kothey (steamed first, then pan-fried), deep fried, or boiled in a soup. The variations are endless! And for 50 NPR to 150 NPR ($0.50 to $1.50) for a plate of 8-10 momos, they are a filling and economical meal.

What distinguishes the momo from other dumplings, say the Korean mandu, or the Chinese baozi, or the Japanese gyoza, is the dipping sauce, called momo achar. It’s a mixture of tomatoes, chilies, sesame seeds, garlic, and coriander, and surprisingly complements the momos perfectly. For somebody who has spent his entire life eating dumplings with soy sauce, this has opened a truly new horizon!

But momos are just one famous part of Nepali cuisine. The one other dish I would like to mention (and something I ate very much of during my 3 weeks in Kathmandu) is the Nepali national dish, dal bhat.

Dal is normally a lentil soup, and is often thinner and soupier than the Indian versions I am used to eating in New York; but no less tasty. Bhat typically means boiled rice, but could mean other starches if rice is not available. In addition, we were usually served tarkari; at first I thought tarkari meant spinach cooked with herbs, then I thought it was curried cauliflower, and later thought it was a paneer curry. Then I realized that tarkari is simply the vegetable component of dal bhat, and there are no rules! You will get served whatever the chef has made for the day. The meal is traditionally eaten with your hands, which adds its own bit of distinctive flavor to the food.

And how could I forget: the absolute best part about dal bhat is that it is nearly always all you can eat. That’s right, they will keep bringing out the rice and vegetables until you are full. True Nepali hospitality.

The photo above was a particularly fancy version of dal bhat geared towards tourists in Kathmandu. Since most Nepalis eat dal bhat at home, a place like this is frequented mostly by Western tourists, and as such they could charge 550 NPR ($5.50), which is quite expensive considering that if I tried a bit harder I could easily find a less extravagant dal bhat  for 100 - 200 NPR ($1.00 - $2.00).

In any case, there was no shortage of delicious food in Nepal – I'm glad that Nepalis share my love of good food, which will make long trips away from home much more… palatable. No pun intended!