“Twice a day?” I confirmed, not believing what I was hearing, “Every day?” Anu smiled. “Yes. Every day.”
We were referring to dal bhat, the traditional dish of Nepal, which people there do indeed eat twice each day, every day. And they LOVE it. When you walk through the streets of Kathmandu (or any Nepali city) that fragrance constantly wafting through the air and making your stomach growl is pretty much guaranteed to be some element of dal bhat.
In Kathmandu there’s a lovely little family who have started a cooking school right in their own home. Amrit is the organizer, and his 17 year old daughter Anu is the teacher. I met the rest of the family too; brothers and cousins and other unidentifiable relatives. They’re so friendly and open about their lives that it’s not only a cooking course, but a unique chance for insight into a real Nepali family and home.
I was picked up at 7am from my hotel and taken down a dusty concrete alley past locals having a chat and getting ready for their day, a very grumpy dog, a man working on a sewing machine, and finally into a house and up 4 flights of narrow, somewhat rickety wooden steps to their small apartment.
Anu greeted me with breakfast – a buckwheat pancake and a cup of sweet and spicy Nepali tea. Normally the course would start with a market tour, but on this particular day Amrit was out taking some tourists to see the sunrise at Nagarkot (he’s also a licensed tour guide) and thus was not available. He offered to take me later, but honestly, the markets in Asia are mostly a bit the same and I’ve seen a LOT of them, so I didn’t feel that it was very necessary!
My class started with a quick language lesson, covering a couple of things I already knew and many that I didn’t. I found myself wishing that I’d done this class at the beginning of my time in Nepal, rather than just a few days before I was leaving!
We then began cooking by making a tasty snack of popcorn and toasted soybeans. Now, I’ve made popcorn many, many times in my life (I’m a bit of a popcorn addict) with an air popper, with oil in a pot on the stove, in a microwaved store-bought bag, or a similar store-bought foil pan over a campfire. The Nepali way is to put the kernels in a big ceramic pot with a bit of salt over a gas fire (or any fire I suppose) WITHOUT any oil, put a lid on top and shake it every so often. I guess it’s most similar to our air poppers, but it made me wonder why we always need to add oil when doing it on a stovetop? Surely if we just shake it enough it would do the same thing without the need for unhealthy oil.
Soybeans were made the same way, and I don’t think I’ve ever had toasted soybeans like that but I might start! They were tasty!
Then it was time for momos. Momos are dumplings, which in this part of the world can be filled with buffalo meat, vegetables, potato, and maybe a bit of cheese. We made vegetable ones, which I think are my favourite!
We prepared the veggies and subtly flavoured them with salt, turmeric, and cumin seeds. We then rolled out bits of dough that Anu had prepared in advance, and cut out little circles.
Each circle got a spoonful of the filling, and then Anu showed me how to fold them up in several different ways. It’s harder than it looks, and she’s a pro! I am not.
While Anu steamed the dumplings we mashed up a dip of sesame, tomato, and spices. Yum!
Then it was time for dal bhat. This dish consists of rice (bhat) and lentil soup (dal), along with some combination of curry (tarkari), pickles (achar), yogurt, and a few fresh veggies. Sometimes there is meat, but not always.
It’s delicious, and usually any of the elements of the dish can be refilled as many times as you want, for free! I think I would get tired of eating it twice a day, every day, but if the spread is a bit different every time then I guess there’s enough variety for the Nepali people!
We made potato and cauliflower curry (tarkari), and Anu has this curved knife to cut the potato. I would shred my hand to pieces if I attempted to use it the way she does!
We also made spinach curry and pickle (achar), as well as the dal, and then it was all put on a plate in neat little separate piles. There are different ways of eating this, and the most common seems to be to just mix it all together, and it’s always eaten with the right hand. No forks or spoons here, although they gave me one to cater to my Westernness! I made sure to try each of the elements individually for a while before mixing it all together.
The last thing we made was rice pudding, with rice, milk, coconut, sugar and spices. I was SO full by this time, but it was so delicious I just had to eat it all! The spices in it added such a warmth, it was irresistible. And I never thought I’d say such a thing about rice pudding!
Then it was over! But it wasn’t….they invited me back for dinner on the night before I was to leave Nepal. It was a simple dinner of dal bhat of course, but with chicken curry this time, and rice wine!
By doing this course I not only learned a lot about Nepali food, but also about how a real Nepali family lives, their struggles in this developing country, and their hopes for the future. I made some new friends and gained new cooking knowledge and skills at the same time!