South Asia Minor is my clumsy classification of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. 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. Bhutan famously pioneered the concept of Gross National Happiness, which even its constitutional documents swear to uphold. I think 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 so explicitly focused on happiness.
“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.
Momos and vegetable pakoras with golbheda ko achar
Momos are one of those notorious meat-filled carb casings I’m always talking about, but I find them especially delicious. There’s something about the strong spices that means the fillings don’t get diluted, even after being swaddled in bland wrappings. I made three flavours of momos: mushroom, mixed vegetable, and minced chicken, and also made the wrappers from scratch out of flour and water. The stuffing is spiced with flavours like garlic, onion, ginger, coriander, turmeric, chilli and cumin. I especially liked the dumplings with strong cumin flavour. Luckily I had a talented, dumpling-savvy friend over to help me, because the dumpling-closing turned out to be harder than I anticipated. Suffice to say, most of those in the photo are closed by her, and that’s why they look so perfect and pretty. I definitely improved over the course of my lesson, but will need to practise more… Pakoras are much more my style: perfect in their ugly imperfection. I made mine with a mix of different vegetables (potato, carrot, green beans, cauliflower, cabbage etc.) mixed up with besan (chickpea flour), some water to bind, and some spices. They are then usually deep fried, although I just shallow-fried them and they turned out pretty well. I served both with golbheda ko achar, which is a mild tomato chutney.
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.
Chatamari is often colloquially termed “the nepalese pizza”. The base is a fried rice-flour pancake, and I topped mine with fresh tomato chutney, potato, cheese, spices and coriander. Chatamari is originally from the Newar people of Kathmandu valley, and can have toppings like peas, minced pork and/or turkey, tomato, green capsicum, cheese, eggs etc. The pancake was very thin and a little crispy, which I liked, being a big fan of thin-crust pizza. I think it would be more correct to call it a Nepalese crepe than a pizza, but regardless, it’s a very quick and delicious snack!