While food in Nepal might not be as widely known as Indian cuisine, Nepalese food still has its fair share of gastronomical finds.
The local food tends to be healthy and largely vegetarian with an emphasis on lentils, potatoes and spices and less reliance on fats or red meats.
Discover five basic dishes from traditional Nepalese food and familiarise yourself with the flavours you could be exploring.
Traditional Food in Nepal
1. Dal Bhat
Dal Bhat is one of the most basic dishes of Nepali cuisine. It's usually vegetarian (meat is very expensive in Nepal!) And consists of rice (bhat), a thick lentil soup (dal), a curry of vegetables (tarkari) and spicy vegetables macerated in vinegar (achaar). It is eaten all day long and serves as a side dish for many dishes. To make this dish:
- Boil the lentils until they are soft.
- Fry onions, garlic, and chili in ghee.
- Add the spices and mix into lentils.
- Sautee locally available vegetables like potato, cauliflower, bell pepper, etc. and mix with spices.
- Cook rice and serve components of the meal on a compartmentalised dish.
Discover more on how to go about making dal bhat here.
2. Newa Cuisine
The Newars were the first inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. Their typical dish consists of rice flakes, spiced potatoes, achaar (pickled vegetables), fresh soybeans cooked in a spicy sauce and slices of raw vegetables. Generally, Newars go heavy handed on spices so to calm the taste buds, a little yogurt is often served as an accompaniment.
Momos are small stuffed and steamed dumplings that originally hail from Tibet, but are now served everywhere in Nepal. The dough is made from wheat flour and water while the stuffing can be made of various fillings like spinach, carrots or cabbage, sautéed with a few onions, spices, cheese and minced meat. They are steamed and sometimes browned in a frying pan and served with a hot sauce. In Tibetan, Momo means 'eight', which is why these little ravioli are usually served in quantities of eight.
To try your hand at momos:
- First make the dough. It has to be kneaded until firm. Let it sit for 30 minutes.
- Make the veggie filling. Chop and sauté vegetables (spring onions are key), adding garlic, salt, pepper, and soy sauce.
- Shape the dough into balls, roll into thin circles, add a dollop of filling, and pleat the dumpling closed.
- Steam the momos and serve.
Behind this exotic name lies a simple meal of flour. Dhido can be made from millet, wheat, maize or buckwheat flour and replaces dhal bat in parts of Nepal. It is served with a spicy broth with achaar and a spicy sauce. It can also be eaten in the same style of a dhal bat with a dal or a vegetable curry. To make this simple meal:
- Boil water in a pot
- Add ghee and flour and stir continuously.
- Cover the pot and cook on low for 5-10 minutes.
- Stir thoroughly and serve.
- Eat the dhido by forming balls with it with your hands and dipping it in sauces or curries.
5. Street Food in Nepal
Nepalis are not followers of the three meals a day. At home, they usually eat a dal bhat around 10am then a second around 17h. But in case of hunger, gourmands consume what would be called here healthy street food. The most popular snack is puffed rice with boiled potatoes, green peppers, red onion, spices, coriander and lime.
Food from Nepal’s neighbour to the south
Nepal has quite a bit of cultural and culinary continuity with India, especially its northernmost provinces. You’ll find variations on similar dishes, such as tarka dal, which like dal bhat features—you guessed it—lentils. This version is usually vegan and showcases a menagerie of flavours and spices, some with names almost as colourful as the dish itself: asafoetida, bird’s eye chilli, garam masala, turmeric, mustard seed, cumin, and the list goes on.
A slightly thicker variation on the lentil theme is black and red lentil curry with paneer, which is still vegetarian, but not vegan, since paneer is a kind of fresh cheese made from cow or buffalo milk (similar to cottage cheese). The strong spices that are India’s hallmark are mellowed by both the paneer and creamy coconut milk.
Aside from mains, there are a few interesting fruit varieties from the areas bordering Nepal. Foremost is the almighty mango, which comes in endless shapes and varieties. In India it is used to make mango lassi, a cool yoghurt and mango smoothie. Both India and Nepal claim the title of the most miniature mango variety, with the Anwar Ratol and Dasheri cultivars growing in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and just across the border in Nepal.
For an even more bizarre fruit from the area, have a look at the blue sausage fruit that originated from the Sikkim province just east of Nepal.