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Ah, Nepal. Well, to be honest I’ve never been to Nepal, but it seems like the sort of place that prompts sighs of longing and delight in people who have. But having never been is a very good reason to bring a little Nepal to my central European kitchen.
The folks who have sojourned in Nepal think fondly of a Dal bhat recipe. This dish is eaten on a daily basis by many Nepali, and it is the food most associated with the nation (and most likely for a visitor to consider a must-eat).
What is dal bhat recipe?
Dal bhat is a meal consisting of several components, often served on a compartmentalised plate that recalls a high-end version of a school lunch buffet tray. The dal part of the dish is a legendary lentil saucy-soupy-stew that is a world unto itself (more on that later). The bhat is boiled rice, though in practice these days most people serve steamed rice.
Now, depending on where in Nepal you have encountered this dish, you might not have been served rice with it. Rice grows only at lower altitudes, and the parts of Nepal above 6000 feet in elevation swap out rice for millet or barley or buckwheat. In addition to the dal and the bhat, it is traditional to serve an unleavened round bread called roti, or mixed vegetables called tarkari.
The secret of dal? the spice mix
Dal is a soul-satisfying, nutritious lentil soup that can be eaten like a soup or used as a dip or mixed with rice. Any way you like. The key to making it Nepali is the spice mix: coriander, turmeric, garlic, ginger, chili and garam masala.
That last ingredient, garam masala, is itself a spice mix, and one that recalls the heady scents and flavours of India, Pakistan and Nepal. This is really the only ingredient in the whole Dal bhat dish that you can’t do without (and lentils), with the others being fairly easy to come by. Garam means “to heat,” as in warming up the body (it’s used in healing Ayurvedic medicine), and usually contains black and white peppercorns, green and brown cardamom, nutmeg, mace, clove and cinnamon. But Nepali garam masala can also include dried ginger, cumin seeds, and Szechwan peppercorns.
How to Make Dal Bhat at Home
After boiling the lentils for 10 minutes, I reduce the heat and let simmer for 20 more, until they are soft: for dal you want a soothing porridge. Fry up chopped garlic, onions and chili in ghee (clarified butter), add the spices, and mix through the lentil porridge.
If you want to get crazy (and who doesn’t), you can finish with a punch of ginger paste, asafetida or even jimbu. No, I’d never heard of those last two, either. Asafetida is derived from tap root and is technically a dried latex (doesn’t sound like something I’d want to eat, either). But its flavour is like onions and garlic, and a pinch is a powerful pick-me-up for Indian foods.
Jimbu is a Himalayan relative of the onion, and including it would be extremely authentic – however, there ain’t no way I’m going to find any jimbu at my Slovenian grocery store, so I’ll have to content myself with a smidge less than complete authenticity. Same for the vegetable tarkari.
I’d love to make something that might appear on a Nepali herdsman’s table, but my local fruit-and-veg guy is fresh out of gundruk (fermented green leafy vegetable) and sinki (preserved radish tap root). You should’ve seen the look on his face when I asked him for these. Same went for taro leaves, sano kerau (a pickled veg) and fenugreek seeds (a herb that is ingested to increase one’s milk supply – yowza!). Sigh. So potato, cauliflower, bell pepper, zucchini and onion, chopped, sautéed and mixed with turmeric, coriander, garlic and ginger is as close as we’re going to get.
The rice? Well, maybe I’m the only weirdo who thought to look up rice recipes. It reminds me of an old Far Side cartoon, in which children hold open a book called The Breakfast Cereal Cookbook that appears to be several hundred pages long, and one says to the other “Oh, first the cereal and then the milk.” But you can get rice wrong.
The general rule is twice as much water as rice, and it’s nice topped with butter at the end. But you boil the rice for a while, and then you’ll want to take the top off your pan and stir the rice with a fork, so it doesn’t clump. Too much water and it can get soggy and soupy, too little and it doesn’t cook and it can burn on the bottom of the pan.
When served on a compartmentalised plate, while watching a National Geographic special on Nepal, I can almost pretend that I’m sojourning outside of Kathmandu. Now, if only I can get my hands on some sinki…