Nepalese Food: Life is Like a Plate of Dal Baat

Filling one’s belly in north India requires a bit of memorization.  Was that thing I had last night Chana Masala or Navratna (still can’t spell that word) Korma?  Biryani or Pulao? Malai kofta or veg kofta? Muttar aloo or aloo palak or palak paneer or paneer pakora?  Should I really eat something called a “barfi?”  Menus are often five pages long; the flatbread section alone contains chapati, roti, tawa roti, tandoori roti, nan, butter nan, garlic nan, ginger nan, kulcha, Afghani kulcha, paratha, laccha paratha, aloo paratha, and who knows what else.  As if choosing weren’t hard enough, it’s normal for at least half the offerings to be out of stock.  The food may be mouthwatering, but getting it is a headache. 

Nepal, though practically India in so many ways – the religion, the language, the sarees, the head wobble – is a bit different when it comes to fooding.  You only need to know one thing: Dal Baat.  Dal means lentils, Baat means rice.  Put one on top of the other and you’ve got a meal. 

 

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Here’s what a normal Nepali dude would eat for his 10AM brunch or 7PM dinner: 80% rice by volume, a little 10% soupy lentils to add some flavor and round out the protein profile, and 10% for tarkari (curry), but that’s optional.  Many Nepalis just go for a second helping of dal and baat. 

 

 

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This state of affairs can get a little repetitive after a while, particularly in the poorer areas where the only dal is yellow and the only veg are potatoes and onions.  The rice is of the thin, nonglutinous variety, generally terribly unsatisfying, leaving you heavy and sluggish but not at all full or happy. 

 

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DB gets a slight upgrade when you add a standard tarkari of potatoes and cauliflower and a side of sauteed mustard greens. 

 

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Sometimes you’re even lucky enough to get a crispy, oily papad, too.

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Oh, another thing about DB: free refills!  This makes it the go-to option for trekkers on the Everest and Annapurna circuits; where everything costs three times more as you should, you might as well eat twice as much as you need. 

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When it’s good, though, it’s really good.  “Dal Baat” is really just shorthand for “rice, lentils, and whatever else you happen to have made out of whatever happens to be in season, I’ll take two helpings of all of it, thanks.”  In the autumn and early winter, this meant potatoes and peas, spinach, green beans, fresh garden veggies, sometimes even a helping of squash – you never know what you’re gonna get. 

 

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Deluxe DB courtesy of Ram at Panorama Guest House in Bandipur.  Starting from 12 o’clock (I love it when that’s the best way to describe a plate): hard-boiled egg in curry, dal soup, mustard greens, rice, tomato and potato curry, small helping of pickled chili pepper, and a glob of steamed buckwheat mash (Dhiro) in the middle.  Best $2 I ever spent?

 

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More Dhiro.  It’s actually a specialty of the high lands (about 3000m and above) where cold-tolerant buckwheat grows well, so it’s easier find in the remote regions (and on the trekking circuits) than in the big cities.  This stuff is great; it’s ground into a flour before it’s steamed back together, so you don’t really have to chew it at all.  Just slop it around in your curry and suck it down.  Guaranteed to clean your gut on its way out. 

 

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Trekker Food Interlude

Stuff that’s fun to share but not good enough to end the post with.

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Treks are for trekkers, not for foodies.  Most of the food is a little on the lame side, probably made as generic as possible so as to please (or at least not piss off) the Americans, Britons, Israelis, Germans, French, Chinese, and other trekkers on route.  I don’t really see why there couldn’t be a bit more variety – as in, why not bring up a bag of chickpeas instead of that fiftieth bag of potatoes? – but that’s how things are.  Everything is generally bland and pretty expensive…but at least there’s a lot of it. 

Best value for money aside from DB: veg egg fried potatoes, with our without cheese.  Ranges from $1.50 to $4.50. 

 

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When you can’t handle any more potatoes or DB, you can switch over to “veg fried rice with egg and yak cheese.”  Pretty much the same flavor and ingredients.  Also $2.00-$5.00 depending on elevation. 

 

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$3 plate of veg fried macaroni – pretty lame, but at least it’s not rice or potatoes.  This one did come with local mushrooms though.  Nice touch. 

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Breakfast: $1 or $2 for a bowl of oatmeal or Muesli or local buckwheat gruel, or $1.50-$2.50 for a pancake with “local” honey. 

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Buckwheat, millet, and corn pancakes are also available. 

 

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$2.50 French Toast

 

 

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At 4900m, Chris goes gaga for a $5 Snickers calzone. 

 

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One local food success: “Seabuckthorn” juice, made from an orange shrub berry that grows all over the Manang area.  Tastes like apricot, supposedly one of those “superfoods.”

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Local food spotted but not tasted: auntie boiled potatoes and spinach, smushed it into balls, and left them out in the sun to dry.  She said she’d use it as instant curry fodder in the colder months when they wouldn’t be able to harvest anything. 

 

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Other end of the spectrum: massive $3.50 breakfast at a lowland resort where I camped on my way to Kathmandu. 

 

 

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In Nepal, on Thanksgiving, having Korean, with Brazilian friends. 

Also available in Kathmandu: Italian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Japanese, German pastries, broccoli soup and…North Korean (didn’t dare to take a picture).    

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Veg paneer burger made by a rather obese Nepali uncle who lived in Chicago for ten years and wanted to “teach Nepalese people to eat more.”

 

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Ok, now back to the real world…

 

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Nepalis generally have DB twice a day, once at brunchtime and once for dinner.  Those who need to get a move on early or who need an afternoon pick-me-up have their choice of Indian-style snacks to choose from.  Papad (crisp, savory crackers), pakora (veg dipped in spicy batter and fried), aloo chop (mashed potatoes, peas, and spices, breaded and fried), bread pakora (same filling, spread on white bread, battered and fried), and of course samosa (same filling, wrapped in dough sheet, fried).  Best consumed with Chai to cut all that oil. 

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Typical roadside snack shop with an assortment of sweet and savory snacks – all of them cheap, all of them oily. 

 

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Fresh coconut slices in the lowlands. 

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Puri (deep-fried circle of dough that somehow takes on an extra dimension in the oil) sabji (chickpea and green pea curry). 

 

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$0.50 calorie bonanza : pakora, aloo chop, and samosa along with some chickpea curry.  That ought to fuel me for a few hundred km.

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Most of the above on top of a bed of buja (puffed rice). 

 

 

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“A Moveable Feast” – chana (chickpea) chatpat (snack?) stand.  These guys can fold up the table legs, balance the whole thing on their heads, and run over to the other side of the road to hawk their goods to the passengers on the next bus that comes through. 

 

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Puffed rice and crushed instant noodles, green peas and chickpeas, steamed potato, fresh tomato, plenty of cilantro, salt, vinegar, and chili powder.  It’s still rice-based, but it’s a welcome break from the daily DB routine.  And much healther than all that fried stuff.

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A slightly less portable chatpat stall. 

 

 

 

 

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So, there’s boiled rice (baat) and puffed rice (buja), but that’s not all.  Allow me to introduce chew-ra, aka “beaten rice.”  I don’t quite know how it’s done, but but the rice is smashed into little flakes.  You can eat them raw with yogurt or potato curry on top, or fry them up (my preference) and serve with chickpeas.  Excellent breakfast or afternoon snack.  

 

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More chana and chew-ra.

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OMG best snack ever – chew-ra friend with sweet potatoes, plain potatoes, peanuts, chili peppers, and sprinkled with masala salt.   Bonus: Served in a sheet of last year’s newspaper. 

 

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Mmmm veg dumplings.

 

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Plain chew-ra in the middle with a sel roti (rice and corn flour donut ring) on top, surrounded by potato fries, veg curry, gundruk (dried and preserved mustard greens, soaked and spiced when it’s time to eat) and some sukoti (buffalo jerky, also rehydrated and curried), and batmas sadeko (soy beans, first dry roasted then quickly fried in oil with spices).

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Auntie making bara, a kind of griddle cake usually made with eggs or buffalo meat.  The vegan version wasn’t very exciting. 

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Good thing I had a friend with me so that I had an excuse to try some other stuff too. 

 

 

But the winner is….

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Tongba, there in that nice stein, with a side plate of various curries and pickles to slow you down a bit.  Tongba is made by boiling purple millet or other grains, then keeping them in a tub or plastic bag to ferment.  Whenever you want to get boozed up, you just pull out a few handfuls of grains out of the fermentation station, drop them in a cup, and add hot water.  After a few minutes the water will be infused with both alcohol and a strange, sour-yet-malty kind of flavor.  You drink the resulting liquid through a straw that’s all but pinched shut at the end so that you don’t suck down a bunch of millet grains with your liquor.  Best part: since you don’t drink the grains, you can keep adding hot water until you’ve extracted all the alcohol and flavor out of them; let the pigs or the compost pile have what’s left. 

Another fun point: the brew gets stronger the longer the grains steep, so the last sip packs a bigger punch than the first; but it also gets weaker with each succeeding refill, so that the last mug is weaker than the first.  The taste is thus slightly different with every sip.  Man, I already regret not drinking more of this.   

 

Such was my sustenance from October 2014 through January 2015.  Nice going, Nepal! 

 

Danyabad (Thanks)

Mitto cha (It’d delicious)

Kana Kanus! (Eat your food!)

Baat kani? (You want some more rice?)

Neihi, Pugyo.   (No, that’s enough.)

Huncha Huncha (Alright.)

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3 Responses to Nepalese Food: Life is Like a Plate of Dal Baat

  1. wd says:

    Huncha huncha, hubba hubba

  2. DanDru says:

    Rode through Burma over the Christmas period and pigged out on similar food at the Napali, Krishna and Everest Nepali restaurants, your pics are making my mouth water.