South Asia Minor is my clumsy classification of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Much of the cuisine of this region is influenced by the Tibetan empire, which is now predominantly (and controversially) recognised by many as a part of China. Many citizens of former Tibet fled during the various upheavals across the centuries to surrounding countries, and so much of the cultural history and cuisine has come along with them to be incorporporated into the milieu of cuisines comprising “South East Asia Minor”. For these reasons, and also because the food of mountainous regions are most similar to each other, Tibet is an inherent part of this region. This sounds like an amazing part of the world to visit – the mountains, the nature, the monasteries, the people and, of course, the food, all appeal to me greatly. The tallest mountain in the world, Mt Everest, straddles the border between Nepal and former Tibet. This sort of mountainous living presents some niche difficulties for cuisine, including intense variations in temperature, extremely dry conditions for most of the year. As such, agriculture is particularly difficult, and many people in the harshest of these regions survive predominantly on a diet of meat and dairy from livestock, most famously Tibetan yaks. This is less of a problem in the city of Kathmandu, in Nepal, where he founding myth details the story of a man named Manjushree travelling to the region to honour a sacred light beaming from a lake. With his mighty sword, he cut through the surrounding hills to drain the valley and create the fertile oasis of Kathmandu. Indeed, geological examination reveals most of this story to be entirely correct; Kathmandu was once a great lake that drained, leaving a wealth of fertile soil. The religion of this region is very mixed, with Bhuddism being famously linked to the Tibetan region, Nepal is predominantly Hindi, Bhutan and Myanmar are more mixed but mostly buddhist and Bangladesh is primarily muslim. This mixture has also shaped the various cuisines, although to my (perhaps ignorant) surprise, the buddhist regions seem to depend more on meat than the practitioners of Hinduism, who are more likely to be vegetarian, although I’m unsure about the extent to which this is related to the religious teachings or the geographical limitations to diet. Bhutan famously pioneered the concept of Gross National Happiness, which even its constitutional documents swear to uphold. I have always maintained that one of the most important factors for living a happy life is cooking, sharing and eating food (no surprise there), so I was excited to cook the cuisines of a part of the world where happiness is a fundamental component of the national identity.
Momos and chataamari
Momos are one of those notorious protein-filled carb casings I’m always talking about that seem to have transcended barriers of culture, time and space to become a core component of the human psyche’s preference for food. Although momos are thought to have originated in Tibet, they are popular across the entire Indian subcontinent, especially in the Himalayan region and considered the national dish of Nepal, likely propagated at least in part by the massive efflux of Tibetan refugees into the surrounding regions. They can be differentiated from their neighbouring relatives of Chinese dumplings, Mongolian buuz and Japanese gyoza by the liberal use of Indian spices, like ground coriander and cumin, to flavour the filling. Vegetables are difficult to grow in the harsh conditions of Tibet, and so the fillings of momos are most traditionally meat, predominantly yak. However, following the spread of momos, many vegetarian versions became available to cater to the vegetarian diet of Hindus. I made my momos with a mushroom, onion and cabbage filling, spiced with garlic, ginger, ground coriander, cumin and soy sauce, wrapped this in a dough made from water and flour, then simply steamed them (although they could also be pan fried or deep fried). I definitely approached the dumpling-closing with more confidence than was appropriate. After miserably failing in my initial “I can work this out” attempt, I then took to youtube tutorials and gradually worked up my technique towards mediocre status. I found that there are dozens of beautiful ways to close dumplings, and I harbour a secret desire to master them all, but for now I settled on a loose translation of the “braided, with one end rounded” method, which I liked because they look like little leaves (although I get the impression this way of closing is meant to be for momos served in a soup? oops). Chataamari is often colloquially termed “the Nepalese pizza”, controversially claimed to have a history older than pizza itself. The base is a thin and crispy fried pancake, simply prepared by combining rice-flour (gluten-averse friendly), water, lentils and salt into a thin batter, reminiscent of dosas of southern India. This crepe can then be topped with any number of adornments added to raw batter on top of the crepe while its cooking, most traditionally some combination of ground meat, vegetables, cheese or eggs. Chataamari is originally from the Newar people of Kathmandu valley in Nepal, and the rice base of the dish represents an almost deity-like status of the grain that pervades the culture, to the point that the common expression upon first greeting someone is to say “have you had your rice?”. Newari meals can be divided into ja (meals usually eaten in reflective silence and involving boiled rice, consumed in the morning and evening), baji (meals eaten in the middle of the day socially, usually consisting of portable dishes that are convenient for hurried workers) and bhoye (ceremonial foods). Chataamari are predominantly a baji food, although are also craved as a bhoye during festivals and other celebrations.
Ilish is a fish related to the herring (also called hisla) that is one of Bangladesh’s main staple foods, and certainly its national fish. Being a large, oily and firm fish, it is ideal for staying intact in curries and competing with strong spices. Ilish production is a large part of Bangladesh’s economy, as it thrives in the local Bay of Bengal. However, the fish caught out in the open water is considered to be less tasty than those caught in the inland rivers and estuaries, where ilish also visit to spawn and feed on the fertile riverbeds. I couldn’t source any ilish where I live, so used mackerel, which, if the internet is to be believed, is an (almost) acceptable substitute. However, if I were operating under Bengali customs, then I really ought to have sent a man of the house to the market to purchase a daily supply of fresh fish to feed the household. Fresh fish brought straight to my kitchen every day? Sounds like a genius ritual to me! Although there are many dozens of famous Bangladeshi recipes using this beloved fish, I opted for one of the most revered (and, conveniently, one of the easiest): ilish sorshe. The base of the curry is prominently flavoured with mustard products (sorshe means mustard) and is formed by first frying mustard oil, flavoured with cumin seeds, a paste of mustard seeds, chilli powder and green chillies. The fish (usually cut crosswise into steaks) is added with water to this base of flavours and gently steamed, along with some optional vegetables (I chose some potato) to form an aromatic and watery sauce that is ideally sopped up with lots of fluffy white rice. While cooking this dish I was strongly reminded of an article that I read years ago about Bengali widows, who, after their husband dies, are customarily obliged to don a white sari and eliminate many food groups from their diets, including onion, garlic, red lentils, meat and fish, as well as restricting the number of meals they eat per day, therefore restricting them from meals such as sorshe ilish. This practice (now happily rare) was driven by an ancient Hindu belief that the widows were somehow responsible for their husbands’ deaths and must therefore live the rest of their years in dietary penance. A phrase the author (a great-granddaughter of one such widow) used to describe her newly restricted cooking has always stuck with me: “this food was bellied with comfort and tempered with pain”. These widows created a parallel branch of simple vegetarian cuisine in Bengali food culture for their surviving children and grandchildren that has quietly emerged as an incredible and diverse suite of dishes that sits at the core of the country’s identity. Indeed, there is a dark-humoured joke in Bangladesh that you cannot try these wonderful vegetarian meals unless your wife becomes a widow. Here, as in all places, food is an enduring expression of love and self that persists through restrictions put in place by geography, economy, culture and religion.
“Dal” means lentil soup, and “bhat” means boiled rice, so “dal bhat” is essentially a meal of rice and lentil soup. It has come to be often served with other accompaniments, however, such as vegetable tarkari (a vegetable curry), papadums, and achar (pickled vegetables). I included these in my dal bhat, as well as potato salad and sautéed greens, with two types of dal: pumpkin and tomato. If you are ever looking for a food that’s delicious, healthy, and extremely economical, I would point you in the direction of dal and rice. You can feed a lot of people for practically no money at all, and they will probably even like it! I cooked this for my Mum and Dad, who both separately backpacked through this part of the world in their wild youths. They proclaimed the food authentic, but commented that they didn’t remember there being quite so much of it… Noted.
Thukpa is a chicken noodle soup, which is another item that seems to turn up throughout different cultures with suspicious regularity. The noodles are usually rice noodles, and the chicken is shredded breast. The soup is spiced with a mix of finely blended garlic, onion, ginger, turmeric, Szechwan pepper, chilli and tomatoes, which cumulatively gives it a clear rich yellow colour that is very hearty and pleasing. It’s traditionally served with slices of vegetable and coriander, as well as a lime wedge. The lime juice is a fantastic addition – the acidity cuts through all of the rich flavours and makes the soup taste really fresh and fragrant.