I love to travel. I love to meet new people. I love to learn about different cultures in foreign places. There are many ways to take in a new culture. While some love to read travel books or go on guided tours, I prefer to be with those who call that place “home.” I want to talk with the locals, shop where they shop and of course, eat where they eat. Food is palatable history. The sights, the smells and the tastes of the local cuisine provide a tangible connection to a location’s past and present. You’d be surprised how much you can learn through what you taste.
When I visited Nepal, one of the first things I ordered was “momo’s”. Every Asian country has its version of dumplings and these are Nepal’s. They are most commonly steamed although you can order them fried as well. You will find them on every menu in Nepal at a very reasonable price. A set of ten costs no more than $1.50. Wikipedia provides the following history of momo’s,
Since this dish was initially popular among the Newar community of the Kathmandu valley, one prevalent belief is that traveling Newar merchants brought the recipe and the name momo from Lhasa, Tibet where they were a traditional delicacy for centuries. They modified the seasonings of the dish with available ingredients, using water buffalo and kept the same name.
Nepal is sandwiched between China to the north and India to the south. It’s interesting to see how momo’s embody both culture’s influence. The appearance of the wrapper is very similar to that of the Chinese xiao long bao (the soup dumpling made famous by Din Tai Fung), but is more el dente and doughy in texture. The filling is typically a mixture of minced pork or chicken with finely chopped vegetables primarily consisting of cabbage and onions. The flavor is distinct. Garlic, coriander, cumin and other Indian-inspired spices combine to provide a pungent and pleasant taste. A dipping sauce similar to tikka masala is included. It’s mellow tomato-base compliments the aggressive flavors well.
Another very common dish is Nepal is dal bhat. Bhat means “rice” and dal is a simple but very flavorful lentil soup that is eaten with it. Typically included with these two items is a chicken or goat curry and tarkari, a mix of various cooked seasonal vegetables. The spices and spiciness is very similar to Indian cuisine but slightly more subdued. Also included is a small portion of yogurt and a mild mustard-like dipping sauce that blends well with the other complex flavors. Overall, the presentation is quite exquisite as everything is served in individual metal bowls encircling a large portion of rice in the center.
The best restaurant Sonia and I ate at for momo’s and dal bhat was Thasang Authentic Thakali Kitchen in Kathmandu. It was quite swanky and quickly became one of our favorite places. But by far, the best food we had in Nepal was in the homes of people who invited us over to share a family meal. The Nepali people are naturally warm and very hospitable. Two different times, we were invited to come and break bread (or share rice), sometimes unexpectedly. Nothing can compare to a home cooked meal. No doubt family recipes outshine restaurant offerings but what made the meals even better was the love and generosity of the hands that prepared and served the meals.
We were told that in Nepali culture, if you have food left over on your plate, that meant you truly had enough to eat and were satisfied. But, if you were able to finish everything on your plate, that meant the host had not provided enough and should give you more. We found that to be true as the host families were always willing to generously refill any bowl or plate that ran low. That’s why I also lost very little weight on my trip.
If you can’t go all the way to Nepal to eat but live in southern California, there are two Nepali/Tibetan restaurants in Pasadena. The Himalayan Cafe and the Tibet Nepal House are quite authentic. I would recommend the latter over the former although neither can compare to the real thing. If you want to taste a little of Nepal, give it a try. You might discover a new culture and in the process find it’s the best thing you ever ate.