Friday, October 29, 2010

Is Nepal a Culinary Gold Mine?

To most people that have spent any time here, the question on its face may seem like some kind of joke. When I did some travel writing on Nepal early this year the book's editor asked if I could do something on Nepali food, as all the submissions she had so far received had been mostly foreign adaptations. I explained to her that Nepal lacks the kind of culinary diversity of its neighbors like China and India, and that Nepali cuisine could for the most part be summed up in four words; dahl baht takari, mo-mos. Now to be fair there are plenty of regional and ethnic cuisines here that are good, Newari food in particular takes advantage of many different ingredients and subtle flavors. Many Nepali people are also very proud of their dahl baht, they love the stuff and often explain to me that they just don't feel right if they don't have a meal of it at least twice a day. Still in a country that has access to such an awesome array of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, and neighbors with such rich culinary histories one can't help but think of someone in the Louvre that is content to sit and play with an etch-a-sketch.

Experimenting with some gourds

In my opinion Nepal is an untapped gold mine. Every season brings with it a huge new array of fresh produce, that could be turned into some really fantastic meals. Every season I go around and buy a bunch of stuff that I have no idea what it is, and spend a few hours searching the internet and experimenting with it to figure out how to eat it. Currently many gourds seem to be coming into season, and I've eaten at least four that I had never even come across in the west, and at least two of them I still don't have any idea what they are named. Chayote, cassava, pointed gourd, pumpkin, potato, carrots, more lentils and beans than you can shake a stick at, tomatoes, red onion, eggplant, scallions, cayenne peppers, sorreno peppers, asparagus, ginger, garlic, green peppers, just to name a few of the things available and fresh.

Custard apple (technically a sugar apple), something I'd never eaten.

The fruit stands have been some of my best experiences. I knew what guava was for instance, but I had never really eaten much of it in the past. This is now one of my favorite fruits, and it is extremely versatile to cook with. It's light flavors and subtle sweetness mix great with cheeses or savory herbs, while it can also be made into a filling base for desserts. Mangoes, watermelon, apples, some of the best pears I've ever had, coconut, avocado, pineapple, custard apple, papaya, pomegranate, oranges, strawberries, tamarind, plums, lapsi berry, are just some of the other options that you can get throughout the year. Because they are fresh, many of these items, especially the mangoes and guava, are much better than what you normally pick up in the states at the supermarket.

Avocado salad with feta served with a balsamic-lime reduction

Other strong points are excellent dairy products in curd, milk and occasionally cream. I find the quality to be quite good, if lacking slightly in variation. The "king of Curd" stuff you can get in Bhaktapur is to die for and really has potential for both uses in sauces, marinades and desserts. Herbs are also abundant and very cheap. Basil, cilantro, sage, mint, parsley, rosemary, thyme, chives, and occasionally oregano are available freshly picked and ready to be thrown into whatever you have happened to mix up.

Rum spiced apples and Kashmiri pears in curd & cream, garnished with custard apples

The weak points might be the selection of meats and cheese. Beef is is hard to come by, this being a predominantly Hindu nation and all. The alternative is buff and yak, both of which are actually quite tasty when prepared certain ways. Nepal gets their lamb from the same place as everyone else; New Zealand and Australia. This seems really odd to me though, as the terrain here seems very conducive to sheep and they taste better and provide wool unlike a goat. Goat is the alternative though and essentially is like lamb only worse, but it's still a very accessible option here. Both chicken and pork are also widely available and occasionally other birds like guineafowl and duck. Cheese would be absurdly expensive as an import only item if it were not for a few enterprises run mostly by Europeans that have popped up over the last few years. Some nice French cheeses, feta, mozzarella, and chevre are currently available. Almost anything else would have to be imported.

Cashew crusted chicken stuffed with chevre & guava served over garlic mashed cassava.

I've spent all this time listing all these ingredients just to illustrate the really wide potential to create great food here. I've been experimenting quite a bit recently with some results that I've been quite happy with. It's still quite different than cooking back home, but I've come a long way in getting use to the do's and don'ts of what you can do here. A recent couple of dishes I've put together here (pictured through this post) I've been working on as a dinner I'll be putting together for some friends. The food will look something like this;

-Bread served with mango & cilantro butter.
-Avocado salad with feta served with a balsamic-lime reduction
-Coconut sauteed jumbo butterflied shrimp served with a pomegranate coconut dip
-Cashew crusted chicken stuffed with chevre & guava served over garlic mashed cassava
-Rum spiced apples & Kashmiri pears served in curd and cream, garnished with custard apple.

It's exciting to me to pull all the different ingredients here together and try to combine them into new and interesting dishes using a variety of traditions. A surprising amount of the food here is actually indigenous to south and central america, and were it not for the complete lack of sweet corn and decent corn flour you could recreate much of the food from that region effortlessly. While I like to draw from tradition as inspiration it usually hurts the process of creation to use it as a crutch and feel the need to remain completely faithful to the past. What makes the food here so exciting is that most of the possibilities are uncharted, unexplored territory. Those are the kind of places I like exploring best of all.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails