The Spices of Nepal
During my recent consulting assignment in Nepal, I had an opportunity to experience some of the spices and unique dishes that characterize Nepali cuisine that I want to share with you.
Nepal itself is one of the most diverse countries on the planet with every type of terrain and climate imaginable. It’s a relatively small country tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains and is roughly divided into three eco-zones that run horizontally through the country from west to east: The cold Himalayan mountain zone in the north that includes Mount Everest, the temperate hill country zone in the middle where Kathmandu is located, and the southern “Terrai” region that borders India which is flat, hot, and almost jungle-like as it blends into the Ganges plain.
The geographical diversity is reflected in the culture as well with over 120 languages spoken and 125 ethnic groups identified in the last Nepali census. Each of these ethnicities, of course, brings some unique element to their cuisine. Food is so closely identified with ethnicity that the Nepali constitution declares that every citizen has a right to “Food Sovereignty”, meaning not only enough food to eat, but food that characterizes the particular cultural heritage of their ethnicity.
While staying in the capital city of Kathmandu, I had the chance to meet with one of better-known chefs in the country, Mr. Bikram, to experience the spices that infuse Nepali cuisine. I was invited into the kitchen of his restaurant for an afternoon of learning and tasting along with his young staff.
Although Chef Bikram comes from a military family, he says that early in life he knew he didn’t want to enter the army and felt somehow, as he says, that cooking “flowed from my blood.” When his father died, he was fortunate to have an uncle who took him under his wing and introduced him to the restaurant business where he was able to train under some of the more famous cooks in the country. He has been cooking for 14 years now and will publish his first cookbook entitled, “Tasting is Believing” in about two months.
Chef Bikram started our session by explaining the key spices and flavorings used in Nepali dishes.
They include from left to right in the first row: black mustard oil, garlic-ginger paste, red chili powder, Himalayan salt, and dried red whole chilis. In the second row left to right you see a sour yogurt, bay leaves, turmeric, cumin seeds, and fenugreek. In the third row left to right are onions, coriander leaves (i.e. cilantro) and black peppercorns. Not shown, but often used in various dishes, especially curries are black cardamom seeds and cinnamon bark. Chef Bikram warms most of his spices in a pan over an open flame before adding them to his dishes because he claims it makes them “kick.”
According to Bikram, most of the spices used in Nepali cooking are grown in country and sold by small vendors in villages and larger cities in small quantities. Most people grow their own coriander, garlic, ginger and turmeric in home gardens. Turmeric is also used for its reputed health benefits for joint and stomach pain and normally consumed with yogurt. Per Bikram, mountain women have historically consumed a lot of turmeric when pregnant believing the baby will be “cleansed” by it; and men will use a turmeric blend of spices as a body deodorant.
Chef Bikram demonstrated a couple of dishes during our time together, but the one that knocked me over and I want to share with you was what he said was a salad dish called “Palpa.” It’s basically a potato-based cold salad, but don’t think this is your mother’s potato salad! Its apparently eaten by the hill peoples as a breakfast item along with hot tea, but could be served as a side dish or even as a meal in itself, with maybe some chicken or salmon pieces tossed in.
The prep time for this dish is really short. Once you’ve boiled and cut up the potatoes and heated the black mustard oil, you just mix in the rest of the ingredients, which are:
- 5-6 small potatoes cut into small-medium sized pieces.
- ½ cup of sliced onion
- 1 tablespoon garlic-ginger paste
- 2 tablespoons black mustard seed oil
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon coriander leaves (i.e. cilantro)
- 1 tablespoon green chili pieces
- 1 teaspoon red chili powder
- 1 full tablespoon of turmeric (you want that nice orangish color as in the picture.)
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons sour yogurt (or regular yogurt with some lemon squeezed into it.)
(Please note that the above ingredient proportions are NOT precise. Chef Bikram “flies by sight” not by measured instruments, so to speak. You’re going to have to experiment with this a bit and see what works for you. The batch we made together was quite hot with the green chili pieces and the red chili powder.)
The preparation steps are very simple and yield about two very good size servings
- Cut the potatoes into pieces and boil them.
- Put into a mixing bowl and add the rest of ingredients.
- Mix well and serve at room temperature or cold.
I think you’ll like this one. We did.