In the quiet suburb of Devonshire, London there’s a murmur of excitement as local diners and food critics get a taste of authentic traditional Nepalese cuisine. No, it’s not the bland ‘dal-bhaat’, but an elaborate 16-course meal. The menu includes homely treats like ‘kodo ko kheer’ (millet porridge) and ‘sandheko bhogate‘ (pomelo salsa) which are only found in household kitchens. Offering this fine dining experience is Santosh Shah, a celebrity chef, and MasterChef UK: The Professionals 2020 finalist.
On a mission to popularise Nepalese cuisine in the world food market, Shah’s Nepalese food pop-up at Cinnamon Kitchen City is making waves in the food circuit. Tickets to the limited edition event sold out almost immediately and the MasterChef finalist seemed amazed at the positive response from local diners. Gushing over the success of his pop-up, he shared, “It’s great to see how people are eager to explore traditional Nepalese cuisine”.
For long, visitors to Nepal have been under the impression that traditional Nepalese food is just the simple ‘daal-bhaat‘ or rice, lentil, and curry. While ‘dal-bhaat‘ forms the staple of a Nepalese diet, it is not Nepal’s ‘traditional cuisine’. Commercial kitchens and restaurants peddling ‘daal-bhaat’ as ‘traditional Nepalese dish’ are partly to blame.
With 126 ethnic groups, each having its own food culture, Nepal has a rich and diverse culinary heritage. Its regional cuisines, which have remained largely confined to household kitchens are now getting much-needed exposure, thanks to the efforts of native chefs like Santosh Shah.
Taking a break from his busy schedule, Santosh Shah was gracious enough to share his views about the rich heritage of Nepalese Cuisine with Inside Himalayas. He also spoke at length about how the western palate is finally discovering the unique flavours and textures of traditional Nepalese food. Read on to find out about the MasterChef’s views about traditional Nepalese cuisine.
Inside Himalayas (IH): How is Nepalese cuisine different from other South-Asian cuisines?
Santosh Shah(SS): Nepal is a diverse country, geographically as well as culturally. We have the high Himalayan mountains, middle hills, and Terai plains. Though our food is heavily influenced by Tibetan, Indian and Chinese flavours, it is unique in its own way. What sets our food apart is the liberal use of wild Himalayan herbs in our cooking. The herbs lend a different flavor thus making our food unique.
When you go to Nepal, at every say 100 kilometers you will come across a new custom, tradition, and food culture. We Nepalese have unique dishes that are one of a kind, which one will never find anywhere in the world, for example, ‘kachila ‘, (a dish made from tender raw meat) and ‘titte’ (minced chicken flavoured with burnt feathers).
IH: Can Nepalese cuisine be as popular as Indian, Chinese, or Thai cuisines?
SS: Yes definitely. We could never market our traditional food in the world food market, that’s why there’s so little knowledge about authentic Nepalese food out there. With no proper exposure, the gastronomic world has no idea what our food is about.
Recently during my stay in Nepal, I discovered so many amazing recipes while researching for my book. The meat dishes of the Newars from the Kathmandu Valley, the unique dishes of the Tharus and the Kirati communities, etc. The variety of flavours, textures, and methods of preparation is just mind-boggling.
The use of natural elements while preparing food was an interesting discovery. For instance, in the Terai region where there is abundant sunlight, the sun plays a pivotal role in the preparation of traditional food items. It was an insightful journey and I have shared some interesting findings in my book ‘Ayla: A Feast of Nepali Dishes from Terai, Hills and Himalayas’.
Our healthy broths and pickles prepared using wild and organic greens like ferns, nettles, hemp, native fruits, and vegetables, etc. are a perfect fit for the vegan market. Vegan food is all the rage and trending now. But we Nepalese have been preparing and consuming plant-based food items for ages. Nepalese food has the potential to make it big in the vegan food market.
The new generation of Nepalese chefs are creative and innovative. From the way they are reinventing traditional Nepalese food, I am sure Nepalese cuisine will soon get featured on the menu of top restaurants.
I am at present running a Nepalese pop-up at Cinnamon Kitchen in London, where diners can enjoy a 16-course menu of traditional Nepalese dishes with a modern twist. At the launch, we offered 300 tickets which got sold out. This shows how western diners are curious and eager to taste Nepalese cuisine.
IH: What can be done to popularise Nepalese regional cuisines?
SS: I believe we should start by educating ourselves. Forget about outsiders, I am sure even the average Nepalese doesn’t know how rich our food heritage is. Growing up in Siraha I, for one, had no idea that a dish made from raw meat (kachila) existed in Nepal. Although I have been active in the food industry, it is only now, at the ripe age of 36 years I am discovering so many interesting traditional Nepalese dishes. Like ghonggi of the Tharus and titte or wachippa prepared by the Rais.
A broth made from ghonggi or water snails, which has high nutritional value is a Tharu delicacy. Titte is a unique dish of the Rai community which is prepared by roasting a whole chicken with its feathers intact. The burnt feathers are used as a flavouring agent while cooking the minced chicken. Likewise, the Thakkalis have an amazing array of traditional pickles prepared using ingredients unique to their region. The Maithili community uses sunlight to prepare most of their dishes. The Newari cuisine, with over 200 dishes is as unique and colourful as its culture.
I wish there would be a platform at a national level to showcase authentic regional dishes from all over Nepal. As a chef I am doing my part to promote Nepalese food overseas. I have events similar to the Nepalese pop-up lined up in Europe. Very soon foodies from Ireland, Scotland and Germany will get to savour our traditional food.
Nepalese cuisine is a hidden culinary gem and I think it’s high time the Nepalese as well the whole world discover this rich and varied cuisine of ours.
As told to Usha Rai on October 19, 2021
Images Courtesy: Santosh Shah