Throughout our Incredible India & Nepal trip, travelers enjoy many opportunities to sample Indian and Nepali cuisine. Delightful, mild and warm curries and rice dishes are on the menus when we visit neighborhood restaurants in Delhi and Jaipur in India, and Kathmandu, Chitwan and Pokhara in Nepal. For even greater insight and immersion into local cuisine, local families invite us into their homes in Agra and Pokhara. More rustic experiences welcome us in a Nepali village and during a picnic in Chitwan National Park. And should you fall in love with Nepal’s ubiquitous (and delicious!) momos, you can learn how to make the dumplings during a cooking lesson.
In the meantime, here’s our primer on Indian and Nepali cuisine.
India Beyond the Curry
India’s dining table is as diverse as America’s. Popular dishes throughout the country are influenced by varying soils and climates. But most anywhere, the country’s gastronomy is shaped by the nation’s Dharmic beliefs, which are founded in humankind’s harmonious relationship with nature. Vegetarianism, therefore, is widespread.
External forces have also contributed to the Indian diet. Without the Portuguese occupation, for instance, the potato would never have found its way to an Indian table. In Delhi, Mughlai cuisine dominates with its aromatic whole or ground spices, kebabs, meatballs, and elaborate buffets of dishes served as a main course.
Long misunderstood, Curry is not a spice per se. In the Tamil language, widely spoken throughout India, kari means “stew.” The traditional preparation calls for meats and/or vegetables to be mixed with a concoction of dried (and perhaps roasted) herbs and spices that have been ground together to form a powder. Over generations, that powder – however erroneously – has become known as “curry.”
The classic Butter Chicken is a staple of Indian cuisine with roots in the Punjab region. Here, local farming heavily shapes what goes on the dinner plate and many meals are prepared in a tandoor clay oven. In this recipe, chicken is marinated in a spiced yogurt, cooked in the oven, and served in a tomato, garlic and cardamom sauce.
Nihari is a slow-cooked beef or lamb stew often served with bone marrow. Kebabs are also popular, particularly at street stalls, and might be eaten as a meal or a snack. In one popular version, beef or lamb is ground with chickpeas, egg and spices before being cooked. Haleem, or khichra, is a thick stew comprised of beef, lentils and spices. Traditional dishes such as these might be served with pulao, or rice pilaf, or biryani, a spicier version of pulao prepared with meat or vegetables. For dessert, there’s kulfi, the Indian version of ice cream that might be flavored with mango, saffron or pistachio.
The Nepali Table
Just as Nepal is comprised of diverse geography and landscapes, it is also home to a large variety of soils and climates. You’ll find Nepali cuisine to be equally varied. Still, dishes here are variations on several Asian themes, with influence from Tibet, India and Thailand.
As in India, rice (or bhat, which could also signify cornmeal or barley) is a staple. However, with land that is difficult to terrace and farm for rice, other grains are more likely to play a central role in the Nepali household. At a typical meal, bhat (or roti, a thin unleavened bread) is piled on a round serving platter and surrounded by small servings of tarkari (curried vegetables), chutney, fish or meat. Dal, a type of soup, may also be served in small bowls should the diner care to pour it over rice. These three ingredients are commonly served together as a standard dish – eaten twice a day – called (cleverly) dal-bhat-tarkari. Truth be told, the variety of sides and condiments is infinite.
Momos are perhaps the most familiar Nepali dish to any western palate that has been exposed to other Asian cuisine. The simple dumpling has Tibetan origins, but what sets it apart here are the Nepali fillings. These are typically lamb or yak meat or minced meat with shallots, garlic, ginger and cilantro. In modern Nepal, fillings could be more elaborate.
In the Himalayan region, buckwheat and barley are staples and could be used to prepare noodles or to make dough for the popular pastry snack, syabhaley. Khuwa, a type of cheese made from dried whole milk, might be used to create sweet snacks flavored with honey syrup or fruit pulp. Closer to Pokhara, Thakali, originating from the Thak Khola region of Nepal, cuisine consists of thinly sliced yak or sheep meat served either as its own dish or as part of a stew. Vegetables, fruits and eggs imported from lower Nepal are also part of the central Nepal diet, from radish and beetroot to spinach and even apples. Dhindo, a snack with peasant roots, is made by consistently mixing corn flour or other grains in boiling water and ghee (clarified butter), resulting in a dry type of bread.